Heart to Hands, Natalie Goldberg at Bookworks in Albuquerque, photo © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved. (QuoinMonkey started the Writers’ Hands series; this photo is in that fashion yet not of the series. Deep bow to QM for the inspiration.)
It’s been almost a month since I went to Bookworks on Rio Grande Boulevard in Albuquerque’s Rio Grande valley to hear Natalie Goldberg read from her new book, Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir.
Bookworks is a small bookstore, one of the few independents left in the city. Every nook is packed with something — books, journals, cards, stationery. It’s the kind of bookstore that makes you feel like you’ve walked into the living room of an eccentric old bibliophile.
It was amazing they fit in as many chairs as they did — four rows, about ten chairs in a row. Which means, 40 of us were sitting — the ones lucky enough or smart enough to get there early. I snagged the last chair, tucked against a bookshelf. I didn’t see it until I’d been standing for ten minutes. I was relieved to sit.
Every other open space in the bookstore was then filled with mostly women, mostly my age or older, standing. They were like water flooding the store. They lined the aisles, one person standing behind another standing behind another. It was vaguely reminiscent of the midnight sale of book seven in the Harry Potter series, except on a smaller scale.
A woman I knew, a recent transplant from Denver, sat two chairs over from me. We leaned in to chat about how excited we were to see Natalie. The woman motioned with her chin around the room. “I can’t believe we didn’t have to stand in the line to get in. If this were in Denver, they’d have to sell tickets, and there’d be a line just to buy the tickets.” She was right. Albuquerque is still a town masquerading as a city.
Natalie arrived late. She was calm; she’s always calm. She tried sitting in the wingback chair they had set up for her in the front of the store, but when she did, she could only see the people in the first row. Instead she pushed aside a display of small bunnies — Easter paraphernalia — and climbed atop a platform normally used for merchandise.
“Ah, that’s better,” she smiled as she looked around the room.
It’s hard this many weeks later to summarize what Natalie said. From my notes, I offer these few gems:
- Of the recent memoir debacle, where a young memoirist was busted for falsely portraying herself as a half Native American, half-white foster child involved with gangs in South-Central LA, Natalie said that this fabrication and others like it are an indication of how much energy there is around memoir.
- She said people who want to write memoir sometimes think they need to span their entire lives. Writing memoir isn’t about writing your life — birth to however old you are now. It can be writing about a portion of your life: My life with men. My life with chocolate.
- Old Friend from Far Away is, according to Natalie, the closest experience you’ll have to being in the classroom with her. Having read several chapters in the book and having spent many weeks in her workshops, I can vouch — it’s as if I’m there all over again.
- She said the book is structured the way it is for a reason: so readers won’t freeze on any one chapter in the book. No hanging a section like you would a poem on your refrigerator. She wants us to read the whole book; “It was made with the whole mind.”
Natalie read three or so chapters from the book. In one titled “One Thing” (p.247) I recognized immediately a fellow student of Natalie’s who participated in the same year-long intensive that QuoinMonkey and I attended. “Just Sitting — Or Doing the Neola” (p. 82) was inspired by another student. I smile now thinking how much the essence of her students is captured in this book.
Sky and tree
Big and small
Green and red
The taste of chocolate
Bread and pinto beans
This land and other lands
Past and future
Human, dog and zebra
Everything you know–
And the things you don’t
Hunger, zest, repetition
This is for all my students
( ~ the dedication in Old Friend from Far Away)
Of the chapters she read, my favorite was “Fulfilled” (p. 275). Many of us were in tears. The chapter is for us, every one of us who’s ever wanted to write. It’s long for an excerpt, and much as I’ve tried to shorten it, here it is almost in its entirety:
The author Willa Cather believed that if you had a wish for something from a young age–for example, being an opera singer–and you continually made effort at it, you would live a fulfilled life. It didn’t matter if you were on stage at the Metropolitan; maybe you sang in a local theater; perhaps you took lessons and belted it out in the shower and at family gatherings. That was good enough. The important thing was to stay connected with your dream and that effort would result in a basic happiness.
Cather said that those who gave up carried something painful, cut off inside, and that their lives had a sense of incompleteness.
Don’t let the light go out. Get to work, even if the going is slow and you have six mouths to feed and two jobs.
A few years ago I was invited to meet with the creative writing students in a graduate program at a big midwestern university. When I asked what their plans were, eight out of the ten, turning up their empty palms, said, well, the most we can hope for is a job at a community college. We know it’s hard out there in the book world.
I was quiet and looked down. In their heart of hearts I wanted them to be thinking: Tolstoy, Garcia Lorca, Jane Austen, Proust, Alice Walker, Naguib Mahfouz, Virginia Woolf, Chinua Achebe. They seemed beaten-down, too practical, too rational at such young ages. All of them should have been hungry to step up to the plate and smack the ball home. What happened?
Great writers do not write so that their readers will feel defeated. They wait for us to blow on the embers and keep the heat going. It is our responsibility. When we understand this, we grow up. We become a woman. We become a man.
No institution can give you this authority; though you may learn many wonderful things there. Like a little bird, you must open your small beak and feed yourself one drop of rosewater at a time, then a kernel of corn, a single sesame seed, even a tiny pebble. Keep nourishing yourself on great writers. You will grow from the inside out and stand up on the page.
No protest, no whining. Right now take a nibble of bread. Make a bit of effort. It does not have to be enormous. Just go in the right direction and the trees, insects, clouds, bricks of buildings will make a minute turning with you and salute you.
After Natalie signed my book and I snapped shots of her signing it and the person’s behind me, I said goodbye, tucked my camera into my pocket, and turned to leave. Natalie called out to me: “Send everyone my love on the blog.”