Old Friend from Far Away: A Conversation with Natalie Goldberg about Memoir and All Things Zen
Her words have us rapt, as a quiet hum moves like a wave across the room in theAngladas Building – a one-time dance hall turned community center in Taos, New Mexico. It’s a warm Saturday in April and we’re gathered for a Natalie Goldberg workshop on memoir, the subject of her new book Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir (Simon and Schuster, 2008).
I scan the mostly middle-aged men and women around me-some on chairs and others cross-legged on an old stage, set by wood and lit candles-and can’t help but wonder if they’re feeling what I am: both diminished and impressed by the breadth and depth of Mary’s skill. She’s learned her lessons well as both a writer and protege of Goldberg’s, who stands behind her beaming like a proud mother.
It’s clear from her students’ testaments that Goldberg is a star in her own right. After growing up on Long Island, she went on to receive critical and commercial success by authoring 10 books. The first of which is the iconic Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, which has sold more than one million copies, been reprinted at least 33 times, and translated into 14 languages since it was first published in 1986.
Goldberg has also spent the past 35 years helping countless numbers of “Marys” do their own work by teaching them the method that catapulted her own career. “Writing practice” is borrowed in part from her 30-plus years as a Buddhist and based on the premise that anybody who wants to write, can.
Here how it works: When you write (preferably by hand) for short bursts of time (about 10 minutes) on any subject (think: what you remember about being 12, why you like ice cream, or what ghosts haunt you), you not only get better at it, but find the process more satisfying.
As a student of writing practice myself, I can also say that, done as intended, it will take you to places inside yourself you might never get a ticket to otherwise.
Case in point: My own scribble-something about accidentally slamming a finger in my doll carriage when I was seven and my father lifting me up and running for help. He was sweaty and, I could tell, frustrated. I wanted to help him, but all I could do was lie helpless in the safest of all places-his arms. I don’t know why he thought someplace else would be better…
I have no idea where my father thought he was going – …with my thumb hemorrhaging blood and my eyes hemorrhaging tears…– or why that memory now. I haven’t thought about the incident for years.
But that’s Goldberg’s point. When you practice writing like you practice meditation – regularly, ritualistically, and without stopping to censor- you’re able to recall deeply buried memories that are ripe for documenting. And that, she says, is the very foundation of memoir.
It’s a subject on which she’s more than qualified to speak, since she’s not only read her fair share of “mem-wa” (the cultural pronunciation she uses faithfully), but written them as well: The Great Failure, The Long Quiet Highway, and Living Color.
She’s also spent three decades listening to hundreds if not thousands of students recount snippets of their own life stories, many of whom come back time and again for the pleasure.
I speak from personal experience, since this is my second Natalie Goldberg workshop in six years. I took the first in 2002 on the general practice of writing. Back then, Goldberg seemed harder, more distant and less present for her students, as if teaching were more of a burden than a choice.
Today, however, I find her greatly softened. She stands in the front of the class lighter, more joyful about leading, and more available. She laughs frequently, the sense of detachment I remember now replaced by confidence and compassion, as she doles out writing advice like a Jewish mother teaching her children how to dress appropriately for Temple.
She even looks different, her short hair and red lipstick complementing her petite frame, showcasing a sharp and seasoned set of features that are, most definitely, aging gracefully. Even her speech is easier, long and drawn like a lazy river with an almost-Southern cadence.
And although she is dressed in black (on the first day only), we learn quickly that it’s to mark her mother’s recent passing – and the fact that this is her first workshop since it happened. Her opening exercise has us commemorate the occasion by writing down the names of people we’d like to remember on torn paper and then placing it gently by a set of tea lights.
It’s an act of promise: That our time together will be not only thoughtfully designed and functional, but emotional and personal – words that could easily describe the teacher herself.
I try to catch up with Goldberg for our interview during the workshop, but trying to pin her down is like trying to have a conversation with Mick Jagger in the middle of a Rolling Stones concert. So we arrange a time to speak after the fact by telephone. And when I call her some 10 days later, I find her in the middle of a daydream.
WRR: I’m so sorry to interrupt, is now still a good time to talk?
Oh yes. I’m just lying here, feeling lazy. But yes, let’s talk.
WRR: Great. Before I get into my questions, I’d just like to comment on how different you seemed from the last workshop I took with you several years ago. I hope you’re not offended by my saying this, but you seem lighter.
You’re not the first person to say this, so I’m not offended. I don’t know why. My life hasn’t gotten any easier. In fact, this is the first workshop I’ve done since my mother died, so while my teaching may be lighter, my heart is heavy, although the deep process of grieving can be freeing on some level.
Another reason could be that I was definitely in much more of a Zen world back then so I was trying to get double the number of things across. The burden of what I had to teach was heavier. Really, I don’t know what else to say about [the change].
WRR: You just seem more engaged in teaching, like you’re having more fun with it.
Oh definitely. Well, I quit teaching and writing for a year after The Great Failure came out [in 2004]. Then, I came back to teaching and hated it, even though my students were great. Maybe that’s when you came.
WRR: What happened after you wrote The Great Failure that caused you to stop everything?
I lost the whole Zen community really because they were upset about some of the things I had written about our Zen teacher, (Dainin) Katagiri Roshi. They wanted to keep them hidden.
WRR: Doesn’t that sort of school-girl secretiveness, for lack of a better description, defy the whole spirit of Zen?
Well, yes, but I was naive back then. Zen had become very institutional and protective. And I guess if you really loved Katagiri, you may not be willing to look at the negative stuff about him. Or put it aside, since [his romantic indiscretions] happened so long ago.
I thought [writing about it] was an opportunity for all of us to look at what was really going on—and not just with him, but with us. Why did we idealize him so much?
WRR: I read the book and, for what it’s worth, thought you were very fair-handed in your approach.
I thought so too, so thank you. As a writer, it wasn’t about pointing fingers. I love him. And yet, the others didn’t know how naked and vulnerable I was in that book.
WRR: Do you think if they had, they might have had a different response?
Not necessarily, because for many people, it doesn’t matter. If you don’t want something out there, it doesn’t matter how you do it. People won’t like it.
WRR: Still, I’m sure it didn’t hurt any less.
No, I was heartbroken. They were my main foundation and theirs was a deep silence. It made me realize that I hadn’t gotten support from them in a long time, but I hadn’t noticed. I guess I hadn’t really wanted to notice. I held them deeply in my heart all those years but it wasn’t mutual.
WRR: Did that surprise you? I mean, how did you think they’d react?
I thought that even if they didn’t like what I wrote, they’d call and confront me. And I did hear some comments like “what does she care, she didn’t sleep with him” from other Zen teachers. But it was a more cowardly response in that, in the end, everyone just disappeared.
WRR: How did you deal with the conscious fact that you had lost them? That this community you once relied on was no longer there for you and might not have ever been?
I had to grow up with this book, whether I wanted to or not. I had to become my own person since I was no longer merged with a community – or speaking for it. I had to have my own original voice.
WRR: Now that a few years have passed since the backlash happened, do you still practice Zen?
Yes, but I’m not as gung ho about it. For a while, I drifted away. But I’ve practiced for so long that it’s in my body so I really can’t get away from it unless I take off my arms and legs. And really all the stuff I teach, like writing practice, is Zen.
WRR: What would you say the whole experience of The Great Failure taught you, if anything, about writing memoir and telling the truth?
You have to take responsibility for the fact that you’re doing it and you’re not going to please everybody. You also aren’t going to get very far if you don’t write everything you want. Because if you don’t, it’ll pollute everything else you write. Now you might decide not to publish it or even show it to anyone. And that’s your choice.
Still, I couldn’t have written Old Friend from Far Away if I didn’t write The Great Failureand go through all I did with it first.
WRR: So, if “writing everything you want” is telling the truth, isn’t it just your truth? Isn’t the truth different for everyone? And, if so, how do you deal with that as a memoirist?
Well, yes. Your truth and your telling is not necessarily everybody else’s truth. I remember my father used to read things of mine and tell me that isn’t the way it is. But it was that “way” for me. So you have to tell your story.
WRR: Which, unless you’re writing about this morning, I suspect really does rely on memory. And how do we know whether what we remember is real.
Well, memoir is really a study in memory. It’s naive to believe that everything that’s written in a memoir is fact. For example, I might have been eating rye bread instead of wheat bread, but so what? What you’re reaching for are deeper truths beneath the details – the ones that drive your life.
WRR: I’m really glad to hear that because I’ve just finished The Liar’s Clubby Mary Karr and I can’t believe that all that detail from her childhood is accurate. If it is, she’s either a savant or somehow knew at an early age to keep copious notes.
Mary Karr is a wonderful writer who I’m sure doesn’t remember things exactly all the time. But even if she doesn’t remember every detail, she’s still making her past vivid for us and bringing it to life.
WRR: While we’re on the subject of other writers, I have to ask you for your thoughts on the whole James Frey thing.
Boy, Oprah sure threw him under the bus. I have a whole chapter in my book on it called, “The Addict.” In it, I say that we were so freaked out in society about the truth, that Frey became a scapegoat at the very same time Bush was getting away with incredible lies. And nobody was doing anything. There was a tremendous impotence on our part, so we turned on this skinny kid who wrote a beautiful book.
WRR: Yes, well, he’s got a new book out now called Bright Shiny Morning. It’s a novel.
I didn’t know that. Good for him.
WRR: And, in fact, there’s a whole article in Vanity Fair about it and him. In it, Frey himself is quoted as saying, ” enduring myth of the American memoir as a precise form is bullshit and needed to go away. Although the experience was a nightmare, if I started the process of ending that myth, I’m perfectly fine with it. I’ve said all along that I never wanted my books published as memoirs.”
Sounds like he’s finally found his voice.
WRR: Yes, but what do you think about what he’s saying?
Well, it’s a little scary and, in fact, one of the reasons why I wrote Old Friend from Far Away. I wanted to reclaim memoir and realize that you can write it – that your life is good enough to write about. You don’t have to make things up.
WRR: So you don’t need to have a compelling story?
No. You just need to become intimate with your life—the real life you’ve lived – and see it in fresh ways.
WRR: Now that we’re telling people what they should put in a memoir, is there anything they shouldn’t put in a memoir?
That’s a great question. Let me think for a moment. (Long pause.)
Well, I might not put the precise details of my sex life. Really, there’s a difference between private and personal. When something’s too private, I don’t really want to read about it. You have to be discriminating. For example, I wouldn’t just tell the private sex life of somebody else just for it to be voyeurism. There has to be a point.
WRR: So give me an example of how you make the distinction.
It’s a tricky thing. I’m not sure I can give you a specific example. I just know that there’s this place where people go from the personal to the private. You can feel it when you read it. Like, did I really need to hear this?
It’s also tricky because at the same time I’m telling my students to write everything. So I guess this is something you grow in your own body as you practice writing, but also as you read. Maybe the private and personal is different for each person. Maybe you develop that over time with your own compass. Maybe everybody has to figure that out for themselves.
WRR: What have you figured out for yourself when it comes to the difference?
I guess I’d ask whether it serves the story or makes sense in the context of who I am. Maybe when people read The Great Failure they thought I’d gotten into the private. But for me, my thoughts were personal. They affected me deeply. It wasn’t just some story about Katagiri, it bled over into my life as a student of Zen.
WRR: Interesting. Given all of this, what do you think it takes to be a successful memoirist? Beyond writing what you want, telling your truth, and knowing for yourself what’s appropriate to share with readers.
Commercially, I don’t know. I don’t think that way. I think if you keep looking for that, you lose connection with your own work. It’s best not to rate success by the outside world. And, instead, ask yourself whether you’ve written something you really want to write. Otherwise, you’re putting the cart before the horse.
WRR: You’ve written several books on the craft of writing and what it’s like to actually be a writer. Why did you decide to tackle the specific issue of memoir now? What makes the timing right for the conversation?
I’ve always written memoir. Even Writing Down the Bones was memoir – it was the way I saw writing. I’m interested in having a relationship with your own mind and discovering what the mind is. I think memoir is relevant.
WRR: Somebody once told me that we read because we want to learn more about the author. In fact, I think it was you! It seems like memoir is a perfect vehicle for that, at least for readers.
Yes, that was me. And yes, it should be. If you’re not ready to express yourself freely in memoir, then go write novels.
WRR: I’d like to change the subject now and talk about your work as a teacher. How long have you been teaching?
Since 1974 and, despite that first year back after The Great Failure, I still really love it. That’s why I keep doing it. I’m very committed to giving this work to the world.
WRR: As someone who’s experienced your workshops firsthand, I have to say they’re pretty powerful. You really know how to open people up. Listening to their stories is an extremely emotional experience. I found myself crying a lot. And yet, you seem to be able to keep it together pretty well. How do you do it?
I just listen. Really. That’s it.
WRR: Do you realize how powerful your method is?
Yes. I first got a sense of that power when I used to do it in my living room with students. Although, I’m always surprised at how I’m just living my own little life and suddenly I’m teaching a workshop where people just rip open.
WRR: How does that make you feel?
Happy when I can take it in – when I’m not doing other things I have to do to make sure the workshop is going smoothly.
WRR: Did you ever imagine that you’d have this much influence or even notoriety?
I’ve always had a burning desire for some kind of fame, but I really didn’t know what it was. I think it came out of a lonely childhood and wanting to be seen and heard.
WRR: Why do you think people have so embraced your work and your approach?
Because people are hungry for a connection with themselves and writing and writing practice is a great way to do it. I’m teaching what should’ve been taught in high school – sit down and write for 10 minutes. It’s that simple.
WRR: So do you take your own advice and do writing practice every day?
It varies. When you’ve done it for 35 years, you don’t do it the same way anymore. In the beginning, I wrote everyday. I was dutiful, trying to build a practice. Now, my practice is bigger than that. I’m paying attention even when I’m not writing and receiving and absorbing the world. I read other writers and live my life. And when it’s time to write, I shut up and drop.
WRR: You introduced writing practice in 1986 through your first book,Writing Down The Bones. And both have gone on to become almost legendary in writing circles. Why do you think?
Back then, we had a lot of false ideas about what writing was – like you had to be inspired or special to write. My book and writing practice broke all that down and made writing available to a much bigger population. And, in that particular moment, America was ready to receive it. If I had written it in the 1950s, it probably would’ve fallen flat.
WRR: Did you have any idea about what you’d done and how the book would make you famous?
No. I was naive back then. I didn’t know about any of that. I just thought you wrote a good book and did well. I didn’t understand that other people wrote good books that didn’t take off. And, really, you can’t write anything thinking you’ll break through like that. You have to let go of all the stakes, and just write to do it well.
WRR: What have you found to be the best and worst parts of success?
The worst part is I became more isolated and private as a result. People who read my books think they know me, but they don’t.
Also, in 1986, when Bones came out, I was involved in a lot of women’s writing groups and they didn’t know how to support other women and their success. So they didn’t understand mine. And that was a problem.
WRR: That may be one explanation. But couldn’t another just be plain old jealousy.
Why be jealous? Why not just think if she can do it, I can too.
Jill Sherer Murray is a TEDx speaker and an award-winning journalist and communications leader who can trace every success in her career (and love life) to letting go. In her current role, she leads a team of creatives in developing education and marketing campaigns for a national consulting firm. She currently writes a column called Big Wild Love: Let Go For It℠ for the award-winning digital magazine www.wildriverreview.com.
A writer, marketer, blogger, and speaker, Jill spent much of her career unleashing fresh new communications strategies to brands like Gatorade, Ikea, and Hewitt Associates. She spent a year studying improvisation comedy at the famous Second City Training Center in Chicago. And another five years writing a popular blog called “Diary of a Writer in Mid-Life Crisis” for www.wildriverreview.com. Jill also let go of just about everything to put her weight in Shape Magazine—12 times—as part of a year-long assignment to document her weight loss journey for six million readers.
Jill holds a Master of Science degree in Communications from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from Temple University. She let go of city living to set down roots in the suburbs of Doylestown, PA, with her husband Dan, rescue dogs Winnie and Elvis, and way too many shoes. Her talk helps others realize what letting go really means—winning.