Natalie Goldberg is the author of a bestselling book of advice for writers: Writing Down the Bones. I’ve always felt a special connection with her because she grew up in Farmingdale, on Long Island, at about the same time I was growing up in nearby Bethpage.
I didn’t discover Writing Down the Bones until after I had started publishing. My first encounter with Goldberg came through Common Boundary magazine, a New Age periodical that enriched my life in countless ways during its short publishing life.
Goldberg’s articles focused on her Zen practice, and a comment in one of her articles particularly fascinated me: students of Zen take a vow that they will be the last ones to accept enlightenment. It’s very different from our Western spiritual traditions, with their emphasis on goals and growth. I’ve known spiritual seekers who had no scruples about knocking over anyone who got in the way as they scrambled up the Mountain of Enlightenment.
I think Goldberg’s long immersion in Zen eventually found its way into her approach to writing. This morning I started thinking about a taped workshop she did some years ago. Goldberg gave participants a writing prompt and then invited them to read what they had written. One man clearly had a great deal of writing experience and came up with an impressive response to the prompt.
Goldberg told him to give up any idea of being a writer.
I’m thinking of how I would have responded early in my ballroom adventures if an expert had told me to give up any idea of being a dancer – and done it publicly.
For the record, the man at the workshop did not seem at all perturbed by Goldberg’s advice. Clearly she wasn’t saying he was a bad writer, and she wasn’t advising him to quit.
Somehow he immediately grasped what she was trying to tell him, which probably amounted to something like this: Your writing has to be messy – even dirty – before you clean it up. He’d gotten to the finish line too quickly and missed some promising detours on the way. In other words: Zen. The way to get there is to stop trying to get there.
To put it another way: your goal to write well can get in the way of other reasons for writing: awakening something in your audience – exploring an idea – digging into a feeling.
Here’s an example of what I think Goldberg was talking about: over the years I’ve found that journaling is a powerful way to dive into problems and start working out a way to solve them. But to make journaling work for me, I have to write without capital letters and punctuation. My editing habits are so deeply embedded in my writing practices that they block the stream of feelings and thoughts.
Goldberg’s advice about writing in all her books generally boils down to one principle: Let yourself go, at least in the beginning. Of course you want to impress readers with what you have to say. But when you take that path, you may be cutting yourself off from the energy flow needed for good writing.
I’m going to take a detour for a moment into ballroom dancing. I’m realizing that I took Natalie Goldberg’s advice before I ever stepped into a studio for my first lesson, and it’s stood me in good stead.
Of course I’ve always wanted to be a good dancer (hell – I’m going to be honest: a great dancer!), and that desire has driven me to invest huge quantities of time and energy (and considerable sums of money) into lessons, gowns, shoes, and everything else that makes a ballroom dancer.
But what I’ve told myself again and again over the years is that what I really want to know is how it feels to be a dancer. What do dancers think about? How do they respond to a piece of music? Where does choreography come from? How do dancers solve problems? What do dancers do with their feet – hands – eyes? How does it feel to dance with a great partner? And so on.
Even on the baddest of bad days (and there have been many of them!), I can say that I’ve taken another step or two towards my goal of knowing what dancing is all about.
Back to writing. If you embark on a writing project and then decide that it’s never going to work (something that’s happened to me many times), you have two choices. You can berate yourself because you spent time and effort on a project that didn’t work for you. Or you can congratulate yourself for having achieved your goal of investing time and energy in writing.
Think about it for a moment: how many people have you known who talk wistfully about wanting to write – and never do a damn thing about it?
Like Natalie Goldberg, who set a goal to be the last person to accept enlightenment, I will probably be the last person to master the foxtrot. But the climb up the mountain has been a glorious one, and no – I don’t think I’ve knocked anyone to the ground on my journey to that unattainable peak.