I remember reading this breakthrough book soon after it was published in the late 1980’s. I don’t remember how I bought the book, and I don’t have the old copy on my shelf, so I may have loaned or given it away, Mostly, I remember how I felt after reading it. High! I had never read a writing book like this one. It contains nothing about publishing. Nothing about judging (in fact, discouragement about judging). I was a young mother teaching fulltime and choosing family and my students over writing. This book made me feel that I could be a writer–I felt a deep yearning. I knew that Natalie Goldberg would not allow me to say I would write later in life, but fortunately, she was not there to scold me when I chose not to begin a life of writing in her daily, disciplined way.
Now it is later–more than 20 years later. I am writing, albeit very slowly. This week I submitted two short memoirs and a poem to a local literary contest. And I am writing to you, here, right now, in this moment.
A fitting way to honor Natalie Goldberg’s classic text, having just read the new and expanded version, will be to do a timed writing to illustrate one of her most important ideas. First, however, I want to note a few other items of interest from the book. The interview at the back sheds much light on the journey Goldberg has been on and contains a lot of her philosophy in nugget form. For example, she explains why she loves memoir: “Memoir is the study of how memory works. It’s analogous to writing practice, to working with the mind.” Goldberg loves that memory works in flashes and slices, not in linear chronology. By extension, one could add, the structure of a memoir should help us see the writer’s mind. Memoir. Memory. Mind. We can call them the 3-M Company–the magic behind writing down the bones.
Now, to illustrate a timed writing. Here’s how it works. First, you pick a subject. If you are in a workshop, Natalie picks the subject. But I am going to pick this one myself, something Natalie recommends when you are ready. She prefers that students write by hand, just as fast as they can keep a pen moving over the paper, but that won’t work with a blog. So I will give myself ten minutes to write on one of the ideas I enjoy after reading this book and attending the workshop: what does it mean to go slow and be dumb?
I have rushed at life. Born first of five children, I exploded out of the womb and then tried my hardest to grow up before anyone could slow me down. I liked friends who were older because I thought they would induct me in the mysteries. I remember convincing Mother to buy me high-heeled shoes at the age of 12 so that I could know what it was to be an adult. I am amazed now that she did that. I can only assume that Mother was reliving her own childhood and adolescence and enjoyed pushing forward to new adventures also. I liked to finish as many books as possible and only read a few favorites slowly. So when Natalie says a writer must learn to be slow and dumb, I feel a little chastened by all that pellmell speed in my life. I think I am only slow when it really matters. I hope it will really matter more to me to be slow. They say it is amazing to watch Thich Nhat Hanh move in the world. I got a glimpse of that by walking behind Natalie in the workshop for ten minutes. I tried to think of each foot as an anchor and to think of all the bones that ground me in each step. I don’t know what it means to be dumb because I have spent my life aching to be smart. But even that is not true altogether, because I have not had the luxury of others plowing the field of higher education before me. I discovered on my own that people will tell you much more if you ask them how to do something (treat them like they are smart) rather than try to show them how smart you are. I have called this being a “babe in the woods” and noticed how helpful people are if you humble yourself. Buddhists call this beginner’s mind. I think I have changed jobs every 4-8 years all my life because that way I got to have beginner’s mind again.
I stopped because the time was up. If I were handwriting, I think I would have written a little more than that. I will refrain from judging–and invite you to do the same! If we were in class, and I read this piece aloud, Natalie would ask what you recall. If you said something like, “I was the first person in my family to go to college, too,” Natalie would wave dismissively. “Just the words. What were the words?” People might say things like high-heels. And I could only assume my mother was living her own life over again, etc. The writer learns quickly that the specific image is the one that lingers. I did not have too many sensory-rich images in this piece, so it will not likely stick in your memory or mine. However, I hope the illustration helped you see what happens in the workshop and imagine how valuable it can be to learn from direct experiences like these. What it cannot do is replicate what happens to your mind when you practice writing every day. Ironically, writing as fast as possible, trying to capture all the random thoughts as they come, is the key to becoming slow and dumb. Sounds like a koan?!
What kind of writer are you? Fast? Smart? Slow? Dumb?