Tag Archives: Natalie Goldberg

A slew of new books about writing

“Most problems in writing are structural, even on the scale of the page. Something isn’t flowing properly. The logic or the dramatic logic is off.”—Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd

Kidder-Good Prose

As the owner of an entire bookcase crammed with writing manuals dating back to the 1940s, Dad’s as well as mine that begin in the 1970s, I’m leery of new acquisitions. Rearranging my books earlier this winter, I thought, “I should at least reread some of these before buying another.” But that’s not a formal vow. Hence I find myself tempted by a sensible-looking new one, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, to be published January 15, because I admire Tracy Kidder’s nonfiction narratives and I know his editor and now co-author, Richard Todd.

Theirs has been a long and fruitful collaboration, beginning in 1973 when Todd, as an editor at The Atlantic Monthly, began editing and encouraging Kidder, a brash newcomer trying to break into magazine journalism. Their new book reveals that the tables were turned in their relationship recently when Kidder edited a draft of Todd’s wry lament about America, The Thing Itself (reviewed). I’m eager to know more, to see the editor get his comeuppance, but I’ll have to read the book to find out what Kidder said because Amazon’s “Look Inside!” feature cut me off.

Having stumbled across Good Prose on Amazon, I found myself directed to four more forthcoming books on writing.

Essayist and essay scholar Philip Lopate will publish in February To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction. Patricia Hampl blurbs the book, saying it “includes brilliant and helpful considerations of the essay and memoir, placing them and their vexing questions in clear cultural context. This is the rule book.” Also in February, Lopate’s new collection of essays, Portrait Inside My Head, will be published.

Goldburg-True Secret

Natalie Goldberg, author of the enduringly popular Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within and Old Friend From Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir (reviewed) will publish in March The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life With Language. It’s unclear how this book will extend Goldberg’s vision of writing because Amazon’s “Look Inside!” isn’t yet functional for it, but the description—which reads in part, “Sit. Walk. Write. These are the barest bones of Natalie Goldberg’s revolutionary writing and life practice . . . ”—implies that this is a summation of her teaching methods.

Then there’s Blueprint Your Bestseller: Organize and Revise Any Manuscript with the Book Architecture Method, by Stuart Horwitz, to be published January 29. The description says Horwitz’s method is “a tested sequence of steps for organizing and revising any manuscript. By breaking a manuscript into manageable scenes, you can determine what is going on in your writing at the structural level—and uncover the underlying flaws and strengths of your narrative.”

Finally—and I’m sure there are more forthcoming writing books but I refused to look—there’s The Plot Whisperer Book of Writing Prompts: Easy Exercises to Get You Writing (January 13) by Martha Alderson, author of the blog Plot Whisperer for Writers and Readers, recognized by Writer’s Digest as one of “101 Best Websites for Writers.”

Briefly sagging in the face of this how-to cornucopia, I wondered why are there so many books on writing. The obvious answer is that they sell.

Which only begs the question: What is it about writing? On the one hand, I take comfort—as intended—in statements like “writing’s just bricklaying”; i.e. making meaning and pleasing structure from piles of inert material. And I know there’s merit in the metaphor’s veiled plug for discipline; something made, day by day, takes on its own life, makes its own plea for completion. I even ruefully appreciate the heartless corollary mocking those with “writer’s block”: There’s no such thing as plumber’s block.

Yet such analogies seem partly disingenuous and reflect only partly my own experience. Writing is different. (Isn’t it?) It’s an art as well as a craft. It’s concentrated thought. And it’s far spookier, and far less substantial, than bricklaying. Bricks are physical objects, and words are symbols, invisible until writers pull them from their brains as if snatching them from thin air, write them down, and accept or reject them. Love works better than discipline, for me. But lonely work it can be. Surely I’m not the only writer who has gone to the bookcase and pulled down a book, almost any book, to reassure myself that my sentences are not so very different from those that have found print.

Writing can feel so insubstantial. Which is why, if nothing else, books on writing offer scribblers something beyond advice: comfort. As my groaning bookcase might attest, however, be  selective.

The plot whisperer, Martha Alderson, at work at her white board.

The plot whisperer, Martha Alderson, at work at her white board.

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Art, craft, and the elusive self

“In Schooner Valley,” a pastel by David Owen

I knew Dave Owen in another life—my Hoosier period—and since then he’s become an admired landscape painter in southern Indiana. In his thoughtful new blog post “With the Artist Added,” at David Owen Art Notes, Dave reflects on the nature of art and artists as he prepares for a show. I was struck by how much his insights apply to writers and writing.

In the first place, he isn’t wild about the three pieces he’s taking to the competition, including the landscape reproduced above. And yet:  “. . . I have realized that my paintings become neither better nor worse when a judge gives them a thumbs down or a thumbs up. They have a life of their own and are whatever they are.”

To me, “In Schooner Valley” is lovely. But I can’t see what Dave sees—and certainly not what he’d hoped to see emerge from his brushstrokes. I too have finished pieces that I feel don’t quite work. Or at least fell short of what I’d imagined. Even successful and published stories, essays, and poems are handmade things and are lumpy or lopsided in spots. And what a mess we had to make to get halfway close to our intentions. Have you ever seen an artist’s studio, a potter’s bench, or a writer’s hard drive?

After fearsome effort, the creator sees flaws. “A poem is never finished, only abandoned,” said Paul Valery. I believe it. Artists labor until they’re frustrated with what they have made—the work’s no longer an ego extension, far from it—and their feelings can’t be hurt by a judge or an editor. They did the best they could, got what help they could, and at some point they moved on. Not because they gave up too easily, but because whatever that object still needs is beyond their powers.

At the gallery, Dave looks at various paintings and wonders where each artist’s style comes from. Hours later he happens to read John Burroughs, the nineteenth-century nature writer, reflecting on how bees turn the nectar of flowers into honey. “Just as honey begins with the nectar that the bee finds in the flower,” Dave muses, “so a painter’s style begins with whatever sweetness the artist finds in life.”

Thus we arrive at the irreducible in art: the creator. Craft is the necessary conduit for this elusive self. We can teach craft—how to apply paint, how to put words in logical order—but we cannot teach that which paints, that which writes. At least not directly. And it’s the only thing more important in making art than craft.

Yesterday, after reading Dave’s essay, I was thinking about this as I judged some poems and essays for a little contest on campus. Most of the work was very rough from a craft perspective, yet there was such life and energy in it. One girl’s vivid essay, brimming with feeling for her handicapped brother, read like one of Gertrude Stein’s better stream-of-consciousness prose experiments. I admired it—hang the grammar. I recalled how writing theorist Peter Elbow advises writers to write as fast and as thoughtlessly as possible in their first drafts.

Elbow’s aim is to foster discovery by freeing the unguarded self from the constraints of craft before, necessarily, imposing craft. Natalie Goldberg’s and others’ freewriting approaches cleave to this. But many other successful writers use what Elbow calls “the dangerous method”—trying to polish each sentence to perfection as they go.

Self and craft need each other like the bee needs the flower and the flower needs the bee. Yet they can seem hostile to each other. Writing drafted for utter correctness may fail to express truth and beauty; writing that’s not at some stage disciplined by craft may fail to express anything at all. Working out this paradox seems central to art. I believe it’s something all artists must do in their own sweet, idiosyncratic way.

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Review: ‘Old Friend from Far Away’

Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir by Natalie Goldberg. Free Press. 309 pages

Books on writing fall into two broad categories: how-to and inspirational. Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones is solidly in the latter tradition, and I suppose so is Old Friend From Far Away. Yet Old Friend is ultimately highly practical, for it captures the spirit of writing and the essence of memoir. I think I tend to be kind of . . . straight-ahead, directed, event-driven in my writing approach, and this book underscores how important it can be to slow down, explore memories, and discover subject, theme, and narrative thread. Her freewriting methods (basically bursts of timed writing to discover subject or to pile up pages once one’s subject is found) seem great at getting beneath the chattering “monkey mind” (which Goldberg says is also highly and destructively critical)  to tap what we really experienced and how we felt and feel.

In Old Friend—that person we were—Goldberg manages to blend the essence of good writing—tactile, visual, specific, quirky—with related Zen principles and a theme of human mortality. In this she conveys that writing is, or can be, a path, a spiritual path, a way of being in the world, a way to grow and to reach out. I can see why she’s so popular as a teacher, for she empowers. What she’s saying over and over is anyone can be a writer, an artist, which is true! Talent is common, actually. Just do it. This is an antidote to the feeling that one must have big Certified Success or why bother? How common but how narrow and narcissistic.

Writing can be part of being alive and a way to be more alive. Her way, that of the artist rather than someone who has a recipe for writing a bestseller, may seem somewhat artsy and touchy-feely to some (and as a guy who can be kinda macho I tend to resist) but Old Friend has a core of steel in it: spirituality, craft, and artistic determination. She’s obviously an artist herself, someone who tries to see and who tells the truth, and she tries to nurture and encourage and empower that part of others. Her approach to writing is intuitive rather than linear. As a linear guy, I needed Old Friend from Far Away a lot sooner than I got it. But perhaps it’s simply true that the teacher you need appears when you need her.

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On memoir vs. monkey mind

“Know that writing is born from the ache of contraries, polarities in search of peace, of unity. But not the unity of making mush. You want to live in the country. Your husband is an urban boy. You compromise and both live in the suburbs. What a squash of desire and energy.”

“But writing has this quality where all the effort and desire in the world doesn’t do shit. It’s hard to comprehend. All our lives we’ve been taught to try hard. That’s good, important to writing, too, but then in the middle of it, you have to be willing to jump off a hundred-foot pole with no net to catch you, no assurances. To let wind take you or the day or time or love. Writing’s essential nature asks you not to go forward, not to be productive, not to be logical. In the middle of all your conservative striving, it asks you to take a step backward into the dark unknown—actually back into your real self, which has never been explored and you are not sure how to get there.”

“You have to find your own set of coincidences. You make your own great—and crooked—path and at the same time be open for something to come to you. A meeting is involved—you and the large unknown. Let the mountains walk into your living room. Listen to the squawking yellow cabs. This is beginning to sound like a child’s fantasy. You do need a child’s mind. Something half innocent, and naïve, but also watchful, observant. Sophistication gets in the way, too complicated for finding your true home.”

“Everyone has this [critical inner] voice. Even if you had the ultimate in supportive parents and encouraging teachers, the human mind generates this old survival technique. Can you imagine if cave people had decided to wander off and contemplate their past? They wouldn’t have gotten meat on the table. But this inheritance is not obsolete. We still have fear of our inner world. Will we survive if we take time to think, to examine, to understand? Instead we prefer to go hurtling from one war to another, from one marriage to another, from one painful situation smack-dab into one more. We think that if we stay blind, ignorant, and keep going, we will make it through. And plop!—in the middle of all this you decide you want to write a memoir, to look back, to ponder. Of course, your deep survival mechanism, old monkey mind, is going to go bananas. . . . Eventually monkey mind’s concern with survival transforms. You finally hold the jewels. You rule now. Monkey mind becomes the guardian at your gate. She’s not a squawker anymore. She pays silent vigil, has joined your forces.”

“There are no great answers for who we are. Don’t wait for them. Pick up the pen right now and in ten furious minutes tell the story of your life. I’m not kidding. Ten minutes of continuous writing is much more expedient than ten years of musing and getting nowhere.”

From Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir by Natalie Goldberg.

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The sentimentality tightrope

from Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg:

“A responsibility of literature is to make people awake, present, alive. If the writer wanders, then the reader, too, will wander. The fly on the table might be part of the whole description of a restaurant. It might be appropriate to tell Goldberg-WritingBonzprecisely the sandwich that it just walked over, but there is a fine line between precision and self-indulgence.

“Stay on the side of precision; know your goal and stay present with it. If your mind and writing wander from it, bring them gently back. When we write, many avenues open up inside us. Don’t get too far afield. Stay with the details and with your direction. Don’t be self-absorbed, which eventually creates vague, muddy writing. We might really get to know the fly but forget where we are: the restaurant, the rain outside, the friend across the table. The fly is important, but it has its place. Don’t ignore the fly; don’t become obsessed with it. Irving Howe wrote in his introduction to Jewish American Stories that the best art almost becomes sentimental but doesn’t. Recognize the fly, even love it if you want, but don’t marry it.”

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