“Writing practice is kicking ass.” —Natalie Goldberg
By Cat Saunders
Author’s note: This interview was originally published by The Sun in December 1991. It was preceded by the following introductory note written the editor of The Sun.
Bookstores are filled with how-to guides on the craft of writing. Unfortunately, many of these books are about a exciting as a car repair manual. Natalie Goldberg, on the other hand, creates books about writing that are themselves works of art.
In Writing Down the Bones as well as in Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life, Natalie returns again and again to her central bit of advice: Just get on with it. She doesn’t concern herself with how to sell books, pitch to editors, or write a cover letter.
Instead, she tells how to sit at a desk and engage in the physical practice of writing. For Natalie, the mere act of setting words to a page is unlike anything else. It is this sacred act of writing that she cultivates with tenderness, radical grace, and care.
Natalie once worked as a teacher in Detroit, then co-founded a co-op restaurant in Ann Arbor, Michigan. For the past nineteen years, she has written poetry and prose and has taught in a variety of settings.
Now a resident of Taos, New Mexico, Natalie has long practiced Zen sitting meditation. She is currently at work on a novel, Banana Rose, and a memoir, Long Quiet Highway: A Path of Learning, about her meditation teacher, the late Dainin Katagiri Roshi of the Minnesota Zen Center in Minneapolis.
Cat Saunders, a therapist and writer, conducted this interview when Natalie was in Seattle for a book tour. They met in Natalie’s hotel room.
Cat writes that “Natalie sometimes gets impatient with people who want to know all about her personal life just because she writes books. She can be fiercely private. So I was happy, and rather amazed, when she invited me to sit on her bed with her. Such intimacy with a total stranger! It felt like we were two teenage girls, chatting away.”
Cat: Would you describe your concept of “wild mind”?
Natalie: Wild mind is the huge place where we really live. We are always listening to what I call “monkey mind,” which is constantly saying, “I can’t write, I don’t know how, I don’t want to.” But there’s this huge mind that’s available to all of us, where all things—animals, rocks, us—are interconnected and interpenetrated. This is what we have to connect with in order to write.
Cat: Have you been a writer since you were little?
Natalie: Oh, no. I started writing when I was twenty-four years old. I never thought of writing. Though I loved literature, all the writers I studied were seventeenth-century Englishmen. I never knew it was anything I could do.
I had a natural-foods restaurant called “Naked Lunch” in Ann Arbor, Michigan. One day I was cooking ratatouille, and I was cutting up eggplant and onions all day. At the end of the day, I went to the bookstore and I saw a thin volume of poetry by Erica Jong called Fruits and Vegetables.
The first poem I read was about cooking an onion. I didn’t know you could write a poem about something that ordinary. It was what I’d been doing all day. And with that, I was ready.
Cat: What is the hardest part about writing? And what’s the juiciest part?
Natalie: The hardest part concerns the loneliness and isolation. I have to keep remembering, though I write alone, I write for everyone. Also, the success has tended to isolate me more. True, I don’t have money problems now. But all my friends do. People project their ideas of success onto me, ideas that aren’t anything like my experience of success.
The demands on me are much greater. And I bet anyone who has succeeded has something similar to say. You realize success doesn’t fulfill all your dreams. You’re driven to do it because you think it’s going to save your life, and it doesn’t.
The positive thing about writing is that you connect with yourself in the deepest way, and that’s heaven. You get a chance to know who you are, to know what you think. You begin to have a relationship with your mind.
Cat: Can you discuss the relationship between journal writing and writing practice?
Natalie: I think writing practice is different than journal writing. I’ve done very little journal writing. I find it boring. It seems to involve a fascination with your own emotions; you get kind of lost in them. Whereas writing practice aims to burn through. Writing practice is a spiritual practice.
You try to burn through to the place where you don’t exist, to the fact of your own impermanence, which is the truth of what things are. The more you do it, the more it brings you back to some essential emptiness where you don’t really exist. Its aim is very different from that of journal writing. It’s not precious.
I always thought journal writing was very precious. Like Jungian analysis always seems precious to me. Or Bergman’s films. Writing practice is kicking ass.
Cat: A struggling screenwriter told me that he didn’t understand how to use your techniques in Wild Mind for doing the polishing and revision.
Natalie: I have a very important chapter in Writing Down the Bones about it. But it doesn’t register with people. When you go back and read your words, you always want to get back to that hot energy, even when you’re revising.
Let’s say in rereading, I see I need to talk more about Nell’s hat. OK, so I go for ten minutes on Nell’s hat. I try to get back to that original energy and then insert it. You always get back to that original energy, rather than that picayune mind that takes twelve hours to decide whether to use “the.”
Cat: When you do wild mind techniques to get back to the original energy in revision, is there never a need for the picayune mind, for that laborious process of rewriting?
Natalie: I do rework my writing. But because I’m aware of first thoughts, I always want to contact that powerful energy again. That’s where the best writing comes from. I just keep coming back to the original source. Sure, I go through and rework, but you learn a balance. You don’t agonize for hours over one paragraph.
Instead you take a deep breath and sink deeper into your consciousness, and that paragraph’s already there, whole, if you contact a deeper part of yourself. When you’re messing around with a paragraph for too long, it’s like you keep diving in and then jumping up again, rather than just diving in and staying there, and writing from that.
Cat: Is the concept of wild mind best used by people with a nature similar to yours? Or are your techniques appropriate for all kinds of writers?
Natalie: It’s appropriate for everyone. People write in all different ways. Even if you like to drink alcohol most of the time, it’s still a good idea to drink water. Writing practice is like that. Writing practice is like water. It’s available to everyone.
Cat: When talking about the novel you’re working on, Banana Rose, you said, “As you go along, you make up reasons to do what you want.” As a therapist, I wonder about that. How do you help people to find what they want?
Natalie: My Zen teacher used to say, “It’s very difficult to know what you want.” When you really know what you want, you can go for it. But the problem is that even when we know what we want, we have monkey mind, which is always telling us, “No, this isn’t good. No, I don’t want it.”
We fall in love. The love is real. And then we constantly negate it. We have doubts. That’s our human torture. What you have to ask is, what do you burn for? What is some secret place that you’ve always wanted? Then go for it, and don’t let anything keep you away.
A lot of people want to write. But they don’t actually do it. Finally, if you want to do it, do it. That’s the only thing. Hundreds of things will come up to resist it. Tremendous doubt. Keep coming back to the original flame.
People know what they want, but they’re afraid of it. They won’t go for it—because to go for it means to die, to keep coming back to that original heat, going through all our resistances, our pains, our doubts. That’s why we’re so blown out by those who really do what they want.
Cat: They take those resistances as a signal, not as a block.
Natalie: Don’t let anything toss you away. Once you make the decision, make that commitment.
Cat: How did you make the jump from nonfiction to fiction?
Natalie: I’m a writer, so I keep finding things to write about. Sometimes the writing takes the form of a novel, and sometimes it takes the form of nonfiction or a memoir. I just keep writing. I don’t define myself: I’m only a poet, or I’m only this… I’m a writer. I just swim in that world.
Cat: Is there any difference between fiction and nonfiction in the way you use your techniques?
Natalie: No. I just go for an hour. Say in this chapter, Nell has to start in Boulder and end up in Nebraska. Go! It becomes an act of discovery. I don’t know what adventures she’ll have on her way. I just know that she has to start one place and end up someplace else.
Cat: Is the novel done?
Natalie: I finished it a year and a half ago. Then I left it. Nine months later, I brought it to three friends for their comments. I just redid it a month ago. I cut two hundred pages.
Cat: You said, “If you let go in your writing, you naturally go for the jugular over and over, until you clean out unfinished business.” But you also talk about how writing isn’t the same as therapy.
Natalie: Therapy is therapy, and writing is writing. When you write, it’s a physical act. You sit at the table, and you move your hand across the page. It’s you and the paper and the pen. In therapy, you’re sitting opposite another human being, and engaging in a different kind of activity. You are talking to another human being. And because of that, it creates a whole new universe.
Cat: How is the sense of self experienced differently in writing than in therapy?
Natalie: Certainly in writing, when you’re really “on,” the sense of self disappears and dissolves, which is the truth of the way things are. In Buddhism, one of the three marks of existence is egolessness. And when you’re really “on” in writing, you get to experience that. But you don’t even experience it, because there’s no one there to experience it. You’re just not there.
In therapy, you’re concerned with healing the person who’s there, healing the wounded part of oneself. Whereas in writing, you step right into the whole part of oneself. And the whole part of oneself involves nothing more than the recognition that “I” don’t really exist.
Cat: Does writing work as a tool for reparenting yourself?
Natalie: I don’t know if it’s reparenting as much as it is getting in touch with Natalie beyond my parents—who I really am and how I really think, see, and feel, unaffected by someone outside of myself.
Cat: Which is what we would have wanted from our parents. I work a lot with survivors of sexual abuse, and I am one myself.
Natalie: I’m one, too.
Cat: I thought so.
Natalie: You did? From my writing?
Cat: Yes. And I wondered, if you did a workshop with survivors, would there would be any special ways that you would encourage them to go for the jugular?
Natalie: I don’t think it would differ that much from a regular workshop. I know that when I took a sexual abuse workshop, they had us do a lot of writing. While everybody else was doing all this wonderful stuff, all I wrote was, “Fuck you! Fuck you!” So no, I don’t think it would be any different.
Cat: Would you be willing to talk a little about your therapy? Not so much the content, but about the more important things that you’ve learned through that process?
Natalie: I learned that there’s another human being there. It recently dawned on me that there was a person there who cared about me, and who was there for me. That seems the most important, ordinary thing. That there’s someone I can talk to about anything.
In my family, we couldn’t talk about anything. I had no one to talk to. Being a writer, being who I am, I wanted to talk. I just wanted to talk. And in therapy, I don’t get yelled at.
Cat: You talked about coming out as a lesbian in Wild Mind. How do you know when you’re ready to go public with something?
Natalie: If it comes through me, I’ll go public with it. But I want the rest of me to digest it, so that the writing part of me isn’t so far ahead. I will always follow the writing part of me. I know her, I trust her. I trust her as the deepest person in me. But the rest of me has to catch up with her. She’s fearless. But I digest it first.
I realize that when I say I slept with women, some people won’t like that. This way, my response isn’t, “Oh, golly, no one likes it? How did that happen?” I make sure that all of me stands behind it. I won’t put it out publicly until all of me stands behind it. I work to catch up to the writing part, I don’t repress it.
Cat: What form of meditation do you follow?
Natalie: I just sit and watch my breathing. And when my mind wanders, I come back to the breathing.
Cat: How has that affected your writing?
Natalie: Writing and meditation are completely aligned for me. All my writing is about studying the mind. My writing is a practice, as is meditation. It’s a way to explore thoughts and how they move. The writer’s landscape is the mind. So it’s the same thing.
Cat: What’s your own writing practice like? What’s a day in the life of Natalie Goldberg?
Natalie: Well, for the last five or six weeks, it’s been about three hours of writing a day. That’s all. I’m done after that. I can’t produce more. I walk down to the Galisteo Newsstand and I work there, with my notebook. I do it four, five, six times a week.
Cat: I used to think that I would die if I couldn’t write. Do you ever think that?
Natalie: No. Maybe I would die, but—oddly enough, because I’m really doing it—it’s not that important to me. It’s part of my life. It’s like, I don’t think I’d really die if I didn’t have a wool sweater. The truth is, I might, you know, if it’s cold out. But it’s part of my life, so I don’t think that way. It’s just there. It’s available to me.
I used to say to my therapist, “I would have killed for writing.” That was my experience. I felt like nobody would help me, and I had to do it. She kept assuring me that I didn’t have to kill for it. I had to die for it. You know, that small part of me had to be willing to die.
Cat: You wouldn’t die without it, you have to die into it.
This interview was originally published by The Sun (December 1991) and updated in May 2017. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. Feel free to print out a copy for your personal use, but to reprint this interview online or in the print media, please contact the publisher directly at www.thesunmagazine.org or write to The Sun at 107 North Roberson, Chapel Hill, NC 27516.
For more information about Natalie Goldberg and her work, please visit www.nataliegoldberg.com.
Cat Saunders, Ph.D., is a counselor in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of Dr. Cat’s Helping Handbook: A Compassionate Guide for Being Human (available through Amazon). Contact Cat by emailing her or by calling 206-329-0125 (24-hour voicemail).