Writing Secrets from Natalie Goldberg

Last month I talked about writing instructor Natalie Goldberg (most famous for her classic book Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within). Something I’d heard her say on an audiotape about writing has stuck in my mind for many years.

This week I’ve been thinking Goldberg again because of a recent book of hers: The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language. The book recreates the popular writing retreats that she conducts several times a year: a week of silence, reflection, writing, and sharing. It’s a provocative book that’s different from anything else you’ll read about writing.

Today I want to talk about one chapter – “What Is Practice?” – that stunned me. Your library probably has a copy of Goldberg’s book, and it’s worth a trip there to borrow it and read this one chapter.

“Practice”- in Goldberg’s book – means a) choosing an activity that you think will benefit you and b) making a commitment to doing it regularly. Sounds like old-fashioned discipline, doesn’t it? But wait (as they say on late-night TV) – there’s more!

If you’re a regular visitor to my blog, you know that I like to watch people think. I’m especially intrigued when someone takes an idea deeper or farther than I would ever go myself. Here’s a paragraph from that “Practice” chapter that rocked me:

…this continual practice expresses your true determination, signals to your unconscious, to your deep resistance, that you mean business. (And then your resistance roars louder and you roar back.) Over time, this practice kicks in that strong motor, that deep impersonal life force within you. It reinforces and supports your yes to life for no reason – not because you were good or bad or worthy or kind or successful, but because, like a blade of grass or thunder or a cloud, you are alive.

Here’s what jumped out at me (and what I haven’t been able to stop thinking about): “this continual practice…signals to your unconscious, to your deep resistance, that you mean business.”

Everybody knows what discipline is all about. We think of it as a tedious but necessary element in the quest for success. Goldberg’s take on discipline – what she calls “practice” –  is totally different. What counts for her is sending a powerful message to the hidden parts of ourselves.

I’m right there with her – and I think it’s a concept that’s bigger than just committing to a regular practice.

I think Goldberg is saying that we are much more complex and interesting than we realize. Powerful forces swirl through our lives, knocking us about like a tossing ship – and often we know nothing about them. We are full of mysteries that talk to us through dreams, hunches, and passions. We feel those vibrations but don’t completely understand them.

Here’s what I find so exciting: Goldberg’s reminder that it’s a two-way conversation. We, in turn, can talk to our mysteries through our actions. One of the most powerful ways to send a message to our unconscious is by making a commitment and following through. (I know I’m wandering away from writing! Trust me – we’ll find our way back.)

How many people do you know who don’t seem connected in any way to their inner mysteries ? I would bet there are many. They may have a loving relationship with another person and be terrific parents, solid citizens, and hard workers. Bravo!

But do they have something more in their lives that drives them in another direction, away from everyday living? Do they invest time or money (or both) in something that’s important only to them?

For many people, the answer is no.

“Practice,” for Goldberg, means carving out a space in your life – 25 or 30 minutes, four or five days a week – for something that matters only to you. She promises dramatic changes in your life, and I think she’s right.

It’s not just that your biceps will be stronger or your piano playing will improve. The shape of your entire life is going to change, and here’s why: you’re sending a strong message to the hidden parts of yourself, and they will respond by supporting you in ways that will endlessly surprise and delight you.

There’s one more thing, and then we’ll go straight back to writing. Practice (at least for Goldberg) has surprisingly little to do with improvement or success. It’s a process of getting to know yourself. You become intimately familiar with your favorite excuses and escapes. You learn how to pull yourself out of a funk. You hear – really hear – the ways you both sabotage and encourage yourself.

And now we’re ready to talk about writing. What makes writers different and special? We are aware. We make unlikely connections, dig deeper, ask questions, blow through falsehoods and manipulation. Something small that another person might not even notice becomes the foundation for a story or essay. 

So how do we build that awareness? Endless ways – I’m sure I don’t know half of them. I like what Goldberg says about practice, and it seems to me that my dance lessons and practice at home fit into that category. But there are many other ways to get there.

What I’m really encouraging you to do today is to think about how to start a conversation with your unconscious. That’s a flat, lifeless word (it starts with “un,” after all!) that does nothing for me. So…think about the people who live inside of you. To get you started, I’m going to mention a few of mine:

  • a 15-year-old who loved a novel about medieval Norway
  • a lovesick college sophomore who couldn’t stop thinking about Richard Burton
  • a middle-aged graduate student who was flabbergasted when she first read Shaw’s Quintesssence of Ibsenism
  • a woman on Social Security who – despite creaking joints and undependable knees – does plies and tendus in a ballet class twice a week
  • a woman fiercely swaying her hips to a sultry rumba
  • an eight-year-old who loved cats, turtles, and dollhouses

Who lives on inside you?

   Natalie Goldberg


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