Natalie Goldberg and ‘True Grit’ of Writing Practice
“In one sentence, tell what you did this afternoon,” she instructed.
My head cocked to the left, capturing the right side view of her face. She was poised in a gray chair. Dark soft-sharp eyes scanned our upturned faces. It was a quiet Thursday evening in September. Silence dangled in thin dry air, as though waiting to be chopped down by words from the mouths of 25 writing students sitting in a circle in the Zendo on black cushions and folding chairs at Mabel Dodge Luhan House, in Taos, New Mexico.
“Walking in the Pueblo”… “Picking up stones along Rio Grande”… “Sipping a cup of tea”… “Body Massage”… “Napping,” each student recounted.
We reconvened after a free afternoon of a weeklong silent retreat, our third session in a yearlong ‘Intensive In and Out’ writing class with Zen writing teacher Natalie Goldberg.
“I waited for the mountain to talk.”
“What was that?” a trio chimed in.
My accent, the culprit, strangled my words.
“Waiting for the mountain to talk,” Natalie said.
It was not too weird after all to strike up a conversation with a mountain, I thought, relieved.
“How about talking to the bark of an ancient cottonwood tree in the courtyard?” a small voice inside interrupted.
“Please don’t push it. Be still,” I pleaded.
I remembered standing in front of a cottonwood, sipping coffee in a paper cup after lunch gazing at a thin branch that stretched north. Small leaves flickered like mute tambourines against acres of blue sky. My eyes scanned down and stopped at a huge crack in the midsection of the trunk. As I moved closer, brown-gray bark appeared like rugged scales, brittle, with edges flipped out. As though, after a century of sucking water from the dry creek, the cottonwood swelled into a giant, skin split, unable to hold its seams. My fingers ran through the surface of the trunk. I closed my eyes.
I see Mom’s brows shining with sweat. Straightening her torso, she succeeds at squeezing into sheer pantyhose. I stretch out my hand. The pads of my right digits crawl, tracing streaks of stretched marks over her round belly. They feel tight. My baby sister is growing big inside. A warm wave wells up, flooding into a pang of deep longing reaching out to a prayer that she comes out safe, soon.
I opened my eyes. The giant cottonwood stared back at me as if saying that trees and women share the same capacity to carry and nourish life. They can swell into any size and continue to stand tall in the midst of change of seasons.
“ I want to say something about the cottonwood tree,” the little girl inside whined.
“In one sentence, honey bun. Isn’t that what Natalie said? And your time was up.”
“But listen to Carol. She can say anything she wants.”
I envied the eloquence of the Japanese- American woman from Oregon sitting on a chair, third to my right, talking with animation about her afternoon.
“Your time was up, sweet pea. Put that hand down.” I tucked my right hand under my thigh.
“But look, Carol won’t stop talking. Her time should be up.” The whining continued.
“Arms, you can stop. Maybe Carol can’t. If that’s okay with your peers and Natalie, then it has to be okay with you, too.”
These were internal dialogues. I had to attend to them tenderly, limb-by-limb, setting them free or they would bounce back like a yoyo, spinning, and dragging me into the dark pit of rumination. In Natalie’s writing retreat class, I can’t afford to be in a constant state of rumination or I’ll miss the entire universe.
In this writing class, you are asked to contend with one thing: meeting the present moment. It sounds simple, but it’s not. You can slam it by listening to your peer’s reading in silence without judgment. It can be about an orange she had eaten for breakfast. You can allow yourself to be taken along for the snail ride, or you can intensify hope in the recesses of your heart that she strikes it down quick with a gulp of tea, and swallows the pulp bits with a period.
But you sense three minutes have passed, and she is not even halfway peeling off the orange rind. And here you are, itching for your turn to read. Your writing is caffeinated, pulsing with an urge to catwalk on the ramp, wanting audience. It is about pee. The piece you wrote in one of those timed writing practice in the Zendo. You reason that yours is more specific. It’s the difference between the sound of women’s versus men’s pee. Who can beat that? You had the epiphany in one of your three-mile runs in a local park. The sound of the flowing creek triggered the floodgate of your bladder to open. However, the nearest McDonald’s was a mile away. Desperate, you had to go behind a sparse evergreen shrub not minding passing cars. As you squatted, physics and law of gravity flashed in your head. Your mind wandered to the moon. In a blink, you became Isaac Newton’s apprentice. You imagined Dr. Isaac with rimless bifocals, his forehead against yours, insisting to test urine’s specific gravity in the absence of gravitational pull.
The story orbits in your head while your peer continues her citrus saga. And an earth-cracking laughter snaps you back. It’s your reading group. You’ve missed your peer’s writing punch because you were squatting between Earth and moon, forehead leaning on Dr. Issac’s brows, peeing.
Sitting with eyes closed in the Zendo, ass rooted on my cushion, hands on my thighs and palms facing the ceiling, I heard Natalie’s soft voice cutting through traffic of thoughts in my head. Oatmeal, prunes, granola, and blueberries aimed toward the direction to becoming my breakfast the next day.
“Don’t give up on the present moment… come back to the breath…” She guided in one of our morning sitting meditations.
I allowed fluffy scrambled eggs to pass by. I did not chase it. I sensed air passing through my nostrils, and a wisp of Colgate in my breath. I noticed the rise and fall of my shoulders in each inhalation and exhalation. A complete in breath and a complete out breath. Good. But Sonja’s recent reading waltzed uninvited in my head. She was in my reading group. Strange as it was, in silence, I got to know my peers’ personal and impersonal lives by listening to their writings.
Sonja, whose parents came from Finland, was born in New York City. Her mother hailed from the eastern region along the Russian border and her father from the western side. Sonja took off to Mexico, owned and ran a guesthouse by the beach. She brought her guests to the sea, fishing with Armando. New in Mexico, she needed a tutor to teach her to speak the language. Someone recommended a guy named Armando. Locals warned that Armando was not only good in the world of Mexican language, he was best in bed. Armando and Sonja ended up together and remained together 27 years later.
And here I was, with eyes closed in sitting meditation, breathing heavily on my cushion, getting rid of the sheets that tangled Armando and Sonja in bed.
“Come back…come back to the breath.” Natalie’s voice snapped my ass back to the cushion.
My breath…I could not find it. I needed my Ventolin inhaler.
When Natalie cracks her whip with a writing prompt and says, “Go ten minutes,” you keep your hand moving. One rule of writing practice: keep your hand moving. Mine does and mind goes blank. However, writing practice knows what to do. Like a barracuda with his wide mouth, he catches thoughts like passing sea creatures in a boundless ocean mind. Sea bass, seahorse, seaweeds, jellyfish or jellybean, it does not matter. Writing practice captures them without discrimination. Everything goes into the same container, across pages. In silence in the Zendo, 26 pens glide, aimless, dancing in cha-cha noises. Thoughts cascade, flowing into streams of narratives. Swift flipping of pages and crackling of papers signal a loss of control. Barracuda vomits, permitting us to write the worst crap in the United States of America.
This is what I discovered: if there is a place in Zen mind where ‘caring’ does not exist, it is in writing practice.
November session went by. We received an email from Natalie with a link to Alexander Chee’s essay in the October 2009 issue of The Morning News, “Anne Dillard and the Writing Life.” Chee wrote that in his first day of class, Dillard instructed her students to refrain from reading her work while studying with her. She did not want them to write like her. I paused, as though a piece of my heart got ripped. I felt the pain radiate down to my left arm. As if my arm were gripped by a vise, the blood stopped flowing. A restriction profoundly felt in my body. It hurt. Dillard’s reason was that she wanted her students to write like them. Did Natalie send this email to give us the same message? Did she verbalize this in our class? Maybe she did, and I missed it because I was perched at Jupiter’s ring counting stars with Galileo. If she did, I was glad I did not hear it.
Before I studied with Natalie, I had read her works and I devoured them. I did not know her then. I read others’ and I devoured them as well. I did not know them either. However, I go back to their works again and again. I knew what good writing was. Not because my mind said so. My body proclaimed it. What did good writing do to my body? It made me smell coffee out of a page when it spoke of a mountain, log cabin, and smoke rising from a chimney. It made my tongue roll, going over and over the paragraphs, sliding words like lemon drops in my mouth. Good writing made sorrow spread its wings to my throat, and I threw up sobs of sadness. It awakened a snake in my stomach, once dormant in hibernation, hissing as if ready to pounce, making me roll in bed in my attempt to soften its rage. Good writing hits home, my body.
As a new writing student, I had to start somewhere. I had the choice of where and with whom. I want my words to leap on pages, like Natalie’s, fresh as raindrops bouncing on parched asphalt pavements in a mid- August afternoon. I would like my erotic piece to trigger an urge to jump into the Rio Grande to cool off. Five human senses conniving like thieves in dialogues, contained in seven sentences. I knew what I wanted. Could I not join in old Tolstoy’s yearning?
“If I were told that I could write a novel whereby I might irrefutably establish what seemed to me the correct point of view on all social problems, I won’t even devote two hours on such novel; but if I were to be told that what I should write would be read in twenty-years time by those who are now children, and they would laugh and cry over it, and love life, I will devote my own life and all my energies to it.” -Tolstoy
We had assigned books to read for each block of sessions. Books that put me on high places of bliss and into deep hell. Resistance came in varied forms. I’d lay in bed reading an assigned book. I’d slide it under the pillow and watch Matt Damon on DVD. ‘He looks different in True Grit. Dirty,’ I’d say. I wanted to watch him again riding dusty on that horse, grim. ‘How about Bourne Identity?’ I’d contemplate. Jason Bourne, fresh and lean. I could smell him. I’d play it next. Italy, my Siamese cat found the assigned book and ate the pages. I heard the dull thud as it hit the hardwood floor under my bed. I did not care. If I don’t see it, it does not exist.
Resistance persisted in the form of a sassy argument. I wrote Natalie a letter saying that my body does not respond intensely to the writing. “Could I just shake hands with the author and say goodbye? Why can’t I elope and sleep with Ernest Hemingway, with The Old Man and the a, (another assigned book) instead?”
Beaming, I dropped the letter in a rusty mailbox across the street. Like a litigation lawyer, I replayed that solid argument in my head as I walked back to my front door. My body, the compass that pointed to “good writing” brought confidence. I was getting away from reading this book and future assigned books. Why not spend time with movies and readings that would make my body vibrate?
Natalie’s response arrived in the mail three days later, written on the back of one of the pages of the letter I sent, neatly ripped in half. It was a hand-made stationary cut out from a brown bag I recycled from our coop supermarket. I scribbled orange and purple chalk pastels on it, borrowed from our Art Therapists’ supply at work.
“…there are writers you’ll like more than others and ring true in your body, but first you don’t know that till you read.”
(How did she know that I have not read the damn book?)
“It stretches you where you wouldn’t want to go and hopefully in class discussion it can illuminate the work, so that you are not frozen in your opinion.”
(Frozen opinion? Like a bumper sticker that says: ‘a democrat sees the glass half-full but a republican thinks he owns the glass.’?)
“You still can pick up some moves from authors you are not akin to; i.e. ‘spring strawberries’ in Colette.”
(I prefer ‘June strawberries’ Natalie. Forget Colette.)
“And don’t worry, I often have resistance too when reading but usually, on the other side after discussion, I am nourished.”
(She has resistance too? Wouldn’t over three decades of Zen practice dissolve that? Hmmm. I like the word ‘nourished’.)
“I hope your battery is working now. 3 days ago, mine went stone-cold dead.”
I dived for the book under my bed and started reading.
Notice and study the author’s mind as you read, Natalie said. Bring awareness to the mind’s movements, how it wanders, rubs, floats, and drops. Notice its obsessions, repulsions, and themes. For me, the message was, ‘Pay attention to the mind’s landscape that you are most attracted to and repelled from. It is the mirror of your own. There is light and shadow, acknowledge that both exist in you. In this practice, you come to terms with your own mind, whole. Trust it. Build intimacy. As a writer, you bring this across pages, awake, alive and you won’t lose your readers. As you continue to pay attention, this practice, like ink, spills across your life’s spectrum and stains it—meaning you are closing the gap between life and your writing.’ Scary.
One snowy Friday night, Taos presented a full moon. My eyes wouldn’t peel away from the open sky. Staring at the moon, I did not want to go to sleep. But I had to, my neck ached. Three in the morning, I woke up. Moonlight spilled through my bedroom window. Sweet thoughts like green jelly beans came tumbling. I must catch them. Grabbing my notebook and pen, I scribbled under the moonlight (turning the lights on might wake up Ann, my roommate). Finished, I tucked my notebook and pen under my pillow and went back to sleep. In the morning, I found them splattered on the floor. Words and sentences curved, spilling beyond blue lines on pages, like derailed trains. Beaming, I read my writing. I kissed it a million times.
If you ask me
I’ll start with my lips skimming
over your closed lids
strolling down the tip of your nose
like feathers painting the canvas sky
If you beg me please
like buttercup moist in rain
My breath shall graze
soft folds of your neck
lips soaked in morning dew
letting out your dreamy sigh
Above acacia and cottonwood
my laughter spins
to kiss pale moon
You will hear and stop
salve to your soles
tired in their wanderings
Kiss her more, cranks the wind
touch her deep longings,
whispers my soul
Couldn’t this be the kiss
that once never exists?
Each moment is an invitation to pay attention. I believe this invitation extends far beyond waking hours. Bring awareness to a dream. A sheet of white icing over chocolate mousse, an afternoon drizzle like wet lips soft on your face, a brown- spotted cow sizing up a chicken. For someone fully awake, life sparkles even with closed lids. Life makes love to you even when you are sleeping. You can either respond like a limp trout lying on the grass whose gills have dried up without oxygen, or like an eagle spreading its wings, trusting the wind to take you beyond open sky.
When we do walking meditation, I aim not to go anywhere. Each step is a departure and an arrival. When we do sitting meditation, I sit on my cushion with back straight, bringing awareness to my breath the best I can. When Natalie says “pee, go ten minutes.” I am neither thinking on what to write about urine nor about peeing. I keep my hand moving, allowing writing to take its course- writing. This is a practice of letting go where my personal agenda and goals that often take precedence dissolve, and I shake hands with what is there in front of me at the moment. The practice. I took it home.
My turn to snuff off candles in the Zendo came at the end of Thursday evening’s session, a chore that I signed up for. Allen Ginsberg stared back at me in a black and white picture propped up in a square frame on the mound of the Zendo’s adobe fireplace, our altar. It stood among names of people who needed healing and who passed away that we’d like to remember throughout the retreat, written on half-folded pieces of paper scattered loosely.
Ginsberg, Natalie’s teacher, her colleague and friend. Sparse gray hair, glasses, geek eyes, beard, dead. I remembered Monday evening, our first session when she showed his picture to us as she gently placed it standing among lighted candles. Allen Ginsberg her lineage, she said. She was honoring him. And at that moment I knew, I became his.
I stared hard at Ginsberg. I closed my eyes. I took off his eyeglasses, saddled him on a brown horse, and threw in a dusty cowboy hat on his head.
True Grit? Yes!
I opened my eyes.