Natalie Goldberg sits at the front of a classroom, her back straight, feet planted firmly on the floor. The room has been transformed into a Zendo, with black meditation mats lining the walls and an altar adorned with fresh flowers, white votive candles, and a photograph of Goldberg’s Zen teacher, Dainen Katagiri Roshi. When Natalie speaks, all attention turns toward her. Her students do not perch on edge of their seats. They remain still and listen deeply, trying to absorb not only what she is saying, but what’s underneath–an awake mind, a deep wisdom acquired through years of practice. They buy her books and flock to her workshops and retreats, in part because they want to write, but also because she has something they want, a way of being in the world that is close and connected.
For over thirty years, Natalie Goldberg has been exploring the relationship between Zen and writing, studying the mind and the way it moves in meditation and on the page. Thirteen books, thousands of workshops and retreats, hundreds of interviews on radio, and in newspapers and magazines. What could be left to say? What could I ask her that was new, fresh? In a way, it didn’t matter because with Natalie it’s always about practice, staying with “don’t know” mind, which can lead anywhere.
I had intended to interview Natalie this summer when I was in Santa Fe. But on my last afternoon, we got stuck at Lake Abiquiu when the key to my rental car went missing. By the time the tow truck came and went (without us), the park rangers pried opened the car with a crow bar (no keys there), and a hiker named Kiki finally found the missing keys in a pile of rocks near our picnic bench, it was almost dark and the opportunity had passed.
We spoke on the phone a few weeks ago, although Natalie wasn’t feeling well, depleted from treatments for a recent illness. I offered to postpone, but this was the moment we had and she met it. She used the opportunity to speak like writing practice, letting the mind loosen over the course of the conversation. By the time we were finished, I could hear the energy return to her voice. She had pulled something out from a deep place and she was alive.
Saundra: You’ve been teaching almost as long as you’ve been writing. Could you talk about how the two roles inform and feed one another?
Natalie: This is a really good question. When I teach, I learn more and more deeply what it is I’m teaching. In a way, if you want to learn something, the best way is to teach it because you have to be on your toes. At the time I started teaching, I wanted to learn to write, and I had this form, “Writing Practice, Go.” But I didn’t really know what I was doing. It took years to understand it, but I just kept doing it.
It wasn’t only in writing groups with adults. I learned so much when I taught in the public schools and paid attention to the kids and watched their minds, because they’re no different than we are. So the writing and the teaching are totally integrated. Also, I think teaching keeps me sharp and I think it keeps me connected to literature because I have to share literature. When I’m on my own, I just read a book and enjoy it. I pick up a few moves, but don’t really digest it the same way as when I teach it. And a writer needs to understand literature.
I went out on my own and taught myself how to write, and of course I had Zen in the background, but I didn’t know how that all fit together. It was the teaching that brought it all together.
Saundra: For twenty-five years you taught at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House. It was a base of operations for your teaching. What did Mabel’s offer that you might not have found elsewhere?
Natalie: What Mabel’s offered was a beautiful classroom with wood floors, a connection to nature, and for many, many years, Taos was my deep home. I lived there and didn’t have to travel far at a time I was traveling a lot. Taos was the place that I came home to. At Mabel’s I worked with Maria Fortin, who understood me and was a great support and let me do whatever I wanted. I wanted to teach sixty students, we did sixty. I wanted to do fifteen, we did fifteen. I wanted to do 150, she found a place for us to do 150. I had someone really backing me and I had a beautiful place, and it was very important to me that the students see and be in a beautiful environment.
Whenever I’m asked to teach, I ask, “Are there windows in the classroom?” I never had much interest when I was asked to teach in LA, New York, San Francisco. I don’t like cities that much. I wanted nature and I wanted my students to be in nature. Even if they didn’t like nature, it eventually poured into them.
It was a wonderful arrangement and I didn’t think it would ever end it. It gave my work stability, and I didn’t have to set up a center. When you set up a center, you lose your own center. I’m dedicated to writing, too, and I knew it would sweep me away. I’m not a good organizer and didn’t want to do all of that. I wanted to stay close to the nitty-gritty, not raise money. I have a scholarship program, but I only get money from people who want to donate. I never hustle anybody, and it is mostly people who have studied with me who donate. I kept it simple and organic.
Saundra: What prompted you to move from the big workshops where you had sixty-five people and the students met in writing groups for two hours a day and everyone talked, to holding silent retreats?
Natalie: I always was aiming towards Zen, but I had to wait. The society wasn’t ready, and it took a while for me to link it all up. Slowly I figured it out. I held a regular workshop and invited a few people to continue at the end for a three-day silent retreat. I kept building from there. I wasn’t planning to drop the other. My aim was to get into the silent, deep place, but once I started doing that, I wasn’t interested in anything else. Because I’m not interested in teaching how to write a novel. There are so many other places to learn that.
What I’m offering is writing as a spiritual practice. And not just spiritual, it’s rooted. You don’t have to be a Zen practitioner or a Buddhist, but you need to know that what I’m teaching is rooted. It’s not Natalie making up some creative thing. I think that it will continue long after my life, which is why I documented it. I wanted it written down so that people would continue
Saundra: When you say documented, you’re talking about The True Secret of Writing?
Natalie: Yes, True Secret, but all my books documented writing practice. But in True Secret I even shared the schedule for the retreats. Of course I’ve changed the schedule, but I’m always changing things. But it’s the beginning structure for you to take off on.
Saundra: I’ve heard you say that you don’t really teach writing. What is it you’re trying to transmit? What do you want your students to learn?
Natalie: I want people to wake up to their human lives. This is it. And I want them to shut up, to stop talking so much and do something. Act, step into your life physically. Be alive. We don’t have forever. If you want to write, figure it out. Do it.
Saundra: What prompted you to move into the yearlong intensive, where students returned four times during a year to study with you?
Natalie: Society was changing and I felt people were longing for more intensive retreats where they could work for a longer period of time and go deeper. I felt it. If you’re sensitive to the students and to the society, they give you the signals. And I wanted a change. I was tired of seeing new students all of the time. I wanted to take some and go further with them.
I decided to do four weeks over a year’s time. But I didn’t know what I was doing the first time and made it a talking retreat, which I hated. I think it was all women, and they kept bonding. I think they were scared about doing it, and they kept creating a family with each other. That’s nice, but finally you’re on your own. As a writer, you have to plow your own path. And so for the next one I thought, “Oh boy, we’re doing it in silence and I’m never doing a talking intensive again.”
Saundra: I’ve heard you say many times you didn’t invent writing practice, that it wasn’t your little idea, but you discovered it and it was backed by thousands of years of Zen practice. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the years when you were discovering it and exploring it, and what drove you to keep following it.
Natalie: I didn’t invent it, but I did put things together and made a package of it. Ten minutes, then reading aloud, with no comments. I was living in Ann Arbor, trying to learn to be a writer and working on a grant with this woman, Lou Robinson, about women and writing. We met a lot and talked about the project and I kept doing this writing, trying to figure out what writing was. And I remember – let me see if I can go back – there was a point when I was writing where I saw that the mind separated from me. In other words, it was first thoughts. It wasn’t me. It was just wild mind doing its thing on paper. It was a split second that I saw that and my next thought was, “I’m going to dedicate my life to this.”
I knew there was something there, but it was very ordinary. It was just a quiet, “this is it and I’m following it.” I didn’t know I was looking for something except how to write, the way everybody else comes to me, to write the great American novel and be noticed and recognized. But this was something else, and I never swerved from it. I kept following it. I know so much more about writing practice now, but I still don’t think I get it, because you never get it. Do you get the universe?
Writing practice taps into something large, which is us, connected and interconnected with everything. I’m always in awe of it and glad that I spent my life doing this. I’ve been very sick over the last five months, and I’ve done a lot of writing practice, which I didn’t always do, because I would get lazy and only do it in class with the students. I was busy writing books. But boy, it is powerful stuff. When I was doing it these last months I thought, “No wonder the students go crazy around writing practice.” It is very powerful.
If you keep doing writing practice, it will help your life. Even this morning I thought, “I’m not going to do it because I’m bored with it. I’m going to go on a hike.” Well, by the end of the hike I was so fucked up and miserable, I thought, “You should have done writing practice. You could find out what was going on.” So I rely on it to tell me who I am and what’s going on, because it comes from a bigger place than my old crotchety self.
When you do writing practice you’re asking for a larger voice to come in. Your voice. It brings you below discursive thinking into the real way you see, think, and feel, into what’s going, not what you want to go on, or how society tells it to be, or your mother, or your teacher, but the true way inside you. And that’s partially why I didn’t create an institute. It felt opposite to what I was teaching. I didn’t want to solidify it, because everyone needs to find their own way. I realize that I’ve stopped teaching as much and a lot of my students are floating. But I have to say they have good practice, and they need to find their way now.
Saundra: It’s hard when you rely on a teacher for a long time. It’s like having training wheels.
Natalie: Yes, exactly, you have on training wheels. And I didn’t consciously mean to push everybody over the edge. And I am still available. I care about the students, anyone who is really practicing.
You know I’ve been disappointed, I ‘ve woken up a lot and realized when I’m in the classroom teaching with all of you, you are all perfect. You are all my darling Buddhas. I see your deepest most beautiful nature. And that’s the problem. We don’t see it ourselves. Sometimes when I’m outside the classroom, I’m sort of shocked. I think, I saw your Buddha nature, why are you carrying on like this? You’re not following what we taught. It’s been disappointing, but I know everyone has their own trajectory.
Saundra: Sometimes students go away and you don’t know what they’ve absorbed. It may take longer. You never know what they’ve digested or what they’re ready for.
Natalie: Yes, that is totally true. But also, as I get older, I want a few people that will work with me, that will stay in there. You get very hopeful as a teacher and you see people that have so much potential, but then they leave. And yeah, they might do something and be affected by it, but sometimes you want to join up with them, keep walking the path together. Does that make sense?
Saundra: Yes, it makes total sense. It’s hard.
Natalie: It’s very hard. I’ve lived an unusual life and I realize that a lot of the people who come to study with me are ensconced in American society and in their families. I tossed all of that away. I didn’t have that drive.
Saundra: That’s actually one of my questions. A lot of people—my readers, my students, myself–we’re juggling multiple roles. We went ahead and got married and have children or we’re caring for our parents. A lot of us are artists or writers and maybe have a business, too, because we’re trying to support our families. Finding time for writing or painting or making music is challenging. We’re a busy generation. I was wondering if you had any words of wisdom for this generation. What would you like to say to us?
Natalie: Well, I think I’d let go of some things, frankly. No, you’re not going to let go of your kids or anything. But I find myself asking lately, “Nat, do you really have to do this? Do you have to go to the bank today? Well, no, I could go tomorrow, I guess. Well then let it go.” I think what I’m trying to get at — and let me see if I can — we are driven and we have incredible compulsion and we have to un-root that driven-ness and that compulsion. But in order to do that, you’ve got to step back and look at your life. With the Internet and everything, nobody gets to do anything.
I don’t even know why people travel. They might as well just look up everything they want where they want to go. There’s no surprise. Everybody knows everything before they get there. It’s absurd. I think you need to look deeply at your life and ask, “Do I need this? Do I need to be doing this? Where is it coming from?”
And of course meditation helps, something that undermines it, because you’re not going to undermine it by yourself. Our behavior is too compulsive, especially with the Internet. You need something to break through. Meditation does that because you don’t need anything. You just sit there with your breath, and you’re already whole and complete. Writing practice does it, too.
You want to say to yourself, “I want to live out of a more genuine, real, connected place,” and keep looking. And it takes time. Ask yourself, “Is this really something you want to do or is it another thing that makes you crazy?”
When the 17th century poet, Basho, became famous, it was wonderful at first. He had many students who would come and visit him, and he was so busy. But he realized in the middle of it, he was deeply lonely, a tremendous aching loneliness. And he decided to go walking and he went on one of these walking journeys, and in doing that he visited people, he saw people, but he had a bigger space to live in, and it really met his loneliness and the pain was gone.
So maybe you need to ask, “What is my deepest pain and how can I take care of it? What is your deepest longing?” Keep asking yourself, “What am I driving? Where does this drive come from?” I had a tremendous drive because I had tremendous pain from my family, tremendous loneliness, disconnection. I wanted my mother to wake up and see me, so I thought I’d wake up all of America. But even if I woke them up, they wouldn’t see me, and I had to unravel that.
But also, as Natalie Goldberg, who I am, I had a desire to help people. So there were two things going on, but none of it was compulsive once I started unhooking from my mother. That took years and years and hard work. I didn’t even know what was going on.
Saundra: It can be hard to know what’s underneath all of that drive.
Natalie: Yeah, but when you write a memoir you need to understand what is driving it underneath. That’s what makes a good memoir. Because just details, putting in a lot of details doesn’t do it. What was that muscle underneath that was driving you?
Sometimes I find myself running out to do errands. I’ll be in the middle of them, and think, “Why don’t you go to a little park and sit on a bench for a half hour? Just drop it. Nat. The world isn’t going to end because you didn’t pick up your cleaning. It will still be there tomorrow.”
Saundra: That’s something you taught us in class, just sitting, or as you wrote in an Old friend From Far Away,“Doing the Neola.” That really helped me when my daughter was young and I would go to the playground and I’d find myself on the park bench and while my daughter was on the slide, I’d think, “Oh, I can just sit here.”
It’s big, I think. Sitting on a bench and doing nothing is not part of our culture.
Natalie: No. What I’m asking is really not coincident with our culture. Unfortunately, over the last forty years, the culture has run away with itself and run away from me. And of course things change and progress, but I see so much suffering. There’s always suffering, but it’s not indigenous to our culture to create space. We’re a capitalist culture. We have to shop and keep creating our economy.
Saundra: It’s exhausting, just being out there in it, strip mall after strip mall and all the traffic. It’s an exhausting culture. Maybe not in New Mexico.
Natalie: No, even here I can get crazy with it. Of course I don’t have the traffic and crowds, but you can whip it up wherever you are. But we don’t want to be just dumb. You think you have to go back to the land or something, but right in the middle where you are, right in the middle of your rich life, you can drop down deeper.
Saundra: Okay. Can I ask you a few more questions?
Natalie: Yeah, sure.
Saundra: How are you feeling?
Natalie: Of course what I’m doing is writing practice with you, and I’m starting to feel much better.
Saundra: I can feel it and hear it in your voice. You have more energy than when we began.
Natalie: It’s amazing. Let me just say it’s helping me physically. Do you see that? I think writing practice works physically, because when you connect with the bigger world, your body relaxes. You’re supported. A lot of those muscles that have been trying to hold you up don’t have to work so hard. Does that make sense?
Saundra: It makes perfect sense. If your body is tired and tight, then your mind is tight and it’s hard to get out of it. But when you loosen your mind, your body follows.
Natalie: That’s why also a good therapist or good friend, when you talk deeply, brings you out of yourself. We need all of that. But when the world is crazy you, you have your own little magic machine, writing practice, meditation. But also remember you’re not writing just for yourself. That’s when it gets selfish. If you’re trying to just save yourself then it becomes another commodity. When you really can let go, something really big can happen.
Saundra: Are conscious of that when you write, Natalie? Writing for something bigger than for yourself?
Natalie: No, but I’m conscious of letting anything come through me and not holding on. Then it’s a much bigger world, and I’m not trying to control what I’m writing. That immediately contacts something larger. You’re opening the world, because you are the world. Not narcissistically, like you’re the center of the universe, but each one of us is completely awake. You just need to touch that part of you and remember it and nurture it, not for yourself because that awake part doesn’t care about you. It doesn’t care about you more than somebody else or doesn’t have that kind of judgment. It’s just big. Big is not going to get small. Does this make sense?
Saundra: It makes sense to me because when you let go in writing practice—and that is not always so easy—when you drop down, you do feel like you’re tapping into something bigger than yourself and you feel that connection to the whole universe.
Natalie: In September, I’m going have everyone write two sides of two pages and call it Morning Medical. Before you start trying to be good or impressive, you’ve got to learn that bottom writing of just anything–illogical, stupid, all over the place.
Saundra: I actually can’t do anything else until I spill like that that. I think that takes down the drive a little bit, too.
Natalie: But it’s nice to have drive. It’s good to be ambitious, but have a bigger ambition.
Saundra: You’ve told me more than once that Wild Mind is your favorite book or one of the favorite books that you’ve written? What makes it stand out for you?
Natalie: I got to tell some great stories. I used the same structure as Bones, but made it more personal. Bones broke open a structure, these short chapters, which I got to develop and stretch. I wrote about telling my father that I was sleeping with women, for example. Also, because I also paint and think a lot visually, I feel like I painted it better there than in Writing Down the Bones.
Now I don’t know if anyone else feels that way. In terms of sales, Wild Mind does okay, but Bones is the one people buy. Maybe people don’t want to know so much personal stuff about me. Maybe they like it more general. But for me, personally, I feel like I painted more precise pictures. Also, what I remember about each book is the process I went through to write it. I wrote Wild Mind in six months, and it was happiness and delight. I did a lot of it at the Garden Restaurant in the plaza in Taos. They had terrible food so nobody came in there and it was empty and I got to just hang out in a booth for hours. It was a delightful time, writing that book.
Saundra: Will you talk about the fallout from The Great Failure and how you moved beyond that?
Natalie: The fallout from The Great Failure was that I wrote things about my Zen teacher that nobody wanted out, that he’d been having relations with some of the students. People were very attached to him and I basically lost my community, my Zen community. If they’d called me and told me they were mad, that would have been great, but the way Zen works, everyone disappeared. Silence. It was extremely painful because these were the people I grew up with in Zen, who I practiced with day after day. I was suddenly being silenced because I did something that was wrong, stepped too far. I cannot tell you how much I was punched in the face. I think I said that I almost died that year. I didn’t write for six months. I just felt really crazy.
During that time, I was asked to do a writing residency at Yosemite for a week and afterwards teach. I was alone there and they acted like I was a writer, so I thought I had to write something. I realized I had never written about Carson McCullers, who was such a deep influence on me. I read The Ballad of the Sad Café in ninth grade and never got over it and I think I’m a writer because of that.
But it was a very hard time. I was really lost. I took a year off teaching. I might have even taken two years off. I went to a Tom Spanbauer workshop with my friends Eddie and Rob and that was completely hard, although I’m now understanding that something very powerful happened to me at the end. But at the time, I couldn’t face it.
And then during my first workshop with sixty students again, I was standing in front of the class at Mabel Dodge, and as I was talking, I heard another voice in me saying, “Why don’t you write a book about memoir? That’s all you’ve really been doing anyway.” And then I heard another voice say, “Nah, that’s stupid.” Then, “No, why not do it?” And then again, “No, it’s stupid.” I called my agent after the week and said, “What do you think about this?” She is not very excitable, but she got very enthusiastic. And so I thought, “Ok Nat, you know what we’re going to do? We’re going to go to a café. You’ve got two hours. Write, and if nothing comes out, you’ll drop it. Who knows?”
I sat down and it just blew out of me. I wrote the proposal in two hours. I wasn’t even aiming to write a proposal, I had so much in me about memoir and it was very important for me, because it was like, “Aha, I’m still here.” While I was in the middle of being destroyed, there was some part of me looking for a way out, patiently watching, waiting. And it was an original way out: “Well fuck you, I’m going to write about memoir now, leave me alone. You’re not keeping me down.”
Saundra: And you kept on going.
Natalie: Yes, I kept on going. And really, at this point, I understood that no one could give you your authority. Going through that I had to become my own authority. One of the reasons people were so angry had to do with their Dharma transmission from Katagiri. They were riding his tail, his authority, so they didn’t want it to come out. But Katagiri was human, and that they might have to step back and rely on their own authority was frightening
Saundra: It’s powerful, to find your own authority, especially for women when we’re always looking for approval, validation.
Natalie: Being nice. That really has to stop. Women are allowed to be powerful. You’re not going to find your voice being nice. You’re not going to find who you are. This is your lifetime.
Saundra: I don’t know that a lot of people would think of you in the context of feminism, but it seems that feminism has informed your life and the decisions you’ve made.
Natalie: Feminism is what made me start writing. When I was brought up, we never read a woman writer. I think that’s why Carson McCullers was so important. I thought it was the story, which I loved, about Miss Amelia and Marvin Macy. But when I wrote that essay, I realized that she was the only woman we had ever read and she probably had a different sensitivity, and I connected with it.
I was very much a feminist. When I entered Zen and the spiritual world, they shunned that, so I put it aside because I wanted those goods and I didn’t want anything to get in my way. But I am very strongly a feminist. I don’t need to give myself that label, but I really care about that. And in a way I went to male writers to steal from them, to figure out what they did, because they were empowered, and then I could do it.
Also, I care about language. I go bananas when someone says “lady” to me. I’m a woman. You don’t say ” garbage gentleman.” You say garbage man because a man has dignity in whatever he does. But when we say cleaning, we say “cleaning lady” to be a little polite. No, she’s a cleaning woman. She is a woman, which does not mean breasts and a cunt. It means a whole human being. And whatever women do, they have their own integrity.
Saundra: Do you want to talk about what you’re working on now?
Natalie: I just finished a book, which I’m very excited about, titled The Great Spring: Leaping into This Zig-Zag Life. They’re Zen stories and also personal stories—how I learned to play tennis, how I played catch with my father, how I went hiking with a poet friend. While I was sick in these last five months, I had a lot of space and time to really sink in and love what I was writing and love the work and take a lot of time caring for it and figuring it out. So I’m quite excited about it.
Saundra: Thank you so much.
Natalie: This was really great. I felt like I was teaching as we spoke, knowing you were there. And my body feels so much better.
Natalie Goldberg’s recent books include The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life and Language and a newly redesigned and revised edition of Living Color: Painting, Writing, and the Bones of Seeing. For information about her books and workshops, visit her website, www.nataliegoldberg.com