So many times, we look for new ways to expand our writing or jumpstart it. Natalie Goldberg has helped thousands of writers with her teachings, and continues to do so, in her current book, Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to attend one of Ms. Goldberg’s mini-workshops and I walked away with a new perspective on writing. Not only did she inspire me to personally make time to write, but also to meet new challenges in my own writing career.
Natalie Goldberg is the author of eleven books, including Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, and most recently, Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir. Natalie has taught national workshops and retreats for the last twenty years. She lives in northern New Mexico.
Today, I am honored to interview her for our WOW! readers.
1.Natalie, thank you so much for taking the time to sit down with us and share about your great new book. What was the inspiration for Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir?
I’ve been interested in memoir ever since I read Patricia Hampl’s Romantic Education in the early ’80s. She wrote it when she was in her thirties. Most memoir had been written at the end of one’s life and here she was looking back at a young age. I’m also interested in memoir because it is the study of memory, of how we remember—it is not chronological—so essentially it is the study of the human mind and how it works. I have been a zen practitioner for thirty years so studying the mind is my forte.
2.That is truly fascinating. How did you come up with the title?
It’s from the Analects of Confucius: to have an old friend visit from far away—what a delight! Isn’t that what memory is? An old friend from far away.
3.Can you share with our readers some of the topics you cover about memoir writing in Old Friend?
I try to do a shotgun effect to work over your mind, because in order to write, you have to see things anew. I move from Jello, to your mother’s hands, to a time you were instantly enamored, to what you will have to give up when you die.
In Old Friend, I wanted to give you the actual experience of what it is like to be in the classroom with me. It’s a bossy book like I am. And it is relentless and demanding and funny. Like I am. And there is a new urgency in it. After all, we are not going to live forever. Let’s kick some ass. Go!
Telling stories is essential to my writing life. The other memoir I wrote is Living Color: A Writer Paints her World. No one listened to me as a kid and I had a great need to share my life and what I saw, felt and understood. Maybe these memoirs are my revenge though I didn’t mean them to be mean, just as a practice to trust myself and say what I needed to about my life before it was over.
6.Yes, trusting yourself is important. And we often hear about how long it takes for a writer to get their first book published. How long did it take you to get your first book published?
I wrote poetry for thirteen years and got few poems published. Then I wrote Bones and it took six months to find a publisher. The big houses in New York wrote nasty letters making fun of it.
“Put a date in your datebook even if in one week you can only write for an hour, put it down and show up for it.”
7.I can empathize with you, but your success is such an inspiration. So many of us struggle on a daily basis with finding ways to organize our writing, whether finding time, a place, the right materials, etc. How are you organized?
I’ve been writing for 35 years, so my organization changes over time and I meet each book on its own terms and give it what it needs, but basically over the years, I have developed a confidence that I will show up. Put a date in your datebook even if in one week you can only write for an hour, put it down and show up for it.
8.That’s a good tip. Show up for your writing just like an appointment. Do you have a set time each day that you sit down to write? How about a favorite place to write?
No set time to write. Earlier in my career, I did have all that. I used to love to write in cafés with fat chairs and terrible food (so the place remained empty and I didn’t eat too much), but good cafés have disappeared where I live, so I go to St. John’s library near my house and I also now have a studio. But basically, I’ll write any place I feel like, but I have to write.
9.Many writers have different levels of comfort in the way they write; one may choose to use pen and paper while another may use a computer. Which method do you use?
Only fast writing pen and notebook.
10.There are so many great techniques in Old Friend from Far Away, which is your favorite?
Shut up and write. Kidding aside (though I’m not kidding), I love the old topic: “I remember….” Keep your hand going and every time you get stuck, write I remember again and keep going.
11.I read your book and found some very interesting techniques that I can’t wait to try. You have many sections where you ask the reader to write for ten minutes. How can writers benefit from using this technique?
It is all based on writing practice that I developed over the last thirty years and it is not some creative thing I thought up, but based on two thousand years of watching the mind. There is a deep root. How do we drop down from discursive thinking and touch our wild mind? I only use writing practice. I know nothing else.
“You have to dance with your story. Send it over the moon and back to a grocery store in Iowa. Life is not one direct straight line.”
12.So many times there are authors who have inspired each of us to want to become writers. What authors have inspired you and in what way?
Willa Cather, Leslie Marmon Silko, Larry McMurtry, Vivian Gornick, Carson McCullers, James Baldwin, Wallace Stegner, Allen Ginsberg, Jean Rhys—the list could go on. They inspired me because I’m crazy-nuts about their writing.
I fall in love. That’s what writers do. It’s so important. Writers are our teachers. We read their work and learn from them, study their mind.
13.With each writer comes a different style, a peek at something different. What do you hope to inspire in your readers?
Their own life force, and for them to see how great books are and reading.
14.In your book, I read a chapter titled “Sideways Step.” Can you share with our readers a little bit about this particular section?
You can’t go directly toward a subject—for instance, if I want to write a novel, if I went directly, I’d say she fell in love; she married him; they fell out of love and got a divorce. You have to dance with your story. Send it over the moon and back to a grocery store in Iowa. Life is not one direct straight line. You have to tell what you want to tell with a swirl. A sideways dance.
15.I agree, life is full of twists and turns and we have to make sure that as writers we add those twists and turns to our stories as well.In Old Friend from Far Away, you give tests to your readers. What do they involve? Can you give us an example of your favorite?
It involves short, three-minute, direct questions. Go. Three minutes on: A time you used crayons.
16.You have written on so many different levels, as a teacher, a novelist, and a poet, but out of all of the books that you’ve published, was any one book particularly rewarding?
That’s a great question. Let me think. I don’t know why it is, but I always come back to Wild Mind. There is a pleasure there as though I finally said something I wanted to say in that book. And in this new one Old Friend—I think it is my real voice and I own it.
17.I attended and really enjoyed your mini workshop, “The Essential Writers Notebook.” What are some of the topics you cover in your memoir workshop?
What don’t I cover? I have no prescriptions when I teach. I cannot promise what I will cover but we will have fun and hopefully die into our work (dive too).
18.It is always best to have fun in what you do, it is refreshing to hear that you have fun with your teachings. Are you currently working on any new books? If so, can you give us a sneak peek?
I’m working on a lot of personal essays. A bunch of them appear from time to time in the magazine, Shambhala Sun. They feel like paintings to me. In a small canvas, how much detail can I put in.
19.You put so much color into your work. This includes in your new book as well. What advice would you give to other women writers?
Trust yourselves. Your life and your experiences matter—and they are valuable to write about.
20.What are some different things about yourself you can share that our readers may not know?
I have loved chocolate faithfully ever since I was young. My hobbies are hiking, eating, cooking, yoga, meditation, and travel. I teach an African book club in Santa Fe. I think daydreaming is important. I don’t like to shop for clothes. I just started to wear lipstick. Oh, and my darling painting. I love to buy art and support painters.
Natalie, Thanks again for having fun with us and introducing your new book, Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir. I know it will be a great resource for our WOW! readers!
Check out Natalie’s website at www.nataliegoldberg.com for a listing of workshops. You can sign up for her weekend memoir workshop on April 26th & 27th in Taos, New Mexico. Call 1-800-847-2235 for info and sign up.
Carrie Hulce has been writing and submitting stories and articles for over 15 years. She is currently a published Freelance writer. She studied literature at Long Ridge Writer’s Group and also the Institute of Children’s Literature. Her dream is to be a published children’s writer some day. She is the mother of 3 wonderful boys, a small business owner in Kerrville, Texas.
Carrie is also one of the many proud Interns for WOW! Women on Writing.