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Posts Tagged ‘Writing Down The Bones’

I have guided my two daughters—starting at about age nine—through Writing Practice. In both cases, my girls had graduated from chapter books to Harry Potter. Each was at the time steeped in weekly exercises for spelling, capitalization, punctuation. Each was heading into the season of independent school admissions, which would include a writing test. And each daughter wanted to spend time with me.

So I pulled them into something that was precious in my life. We whipped out our notebooks and fast-writing pens, grabbed a topic from thin air, set the timer, and wrote. And when the timer went off, we read our writing out loud.
 
I learned a lot about the mechanics of writing in elementary and secondary school. Mrs. Salisbury got me hooked on spelling bees. Mrs. Fiske, who wore her ginger-colored hair in a tight flip, walked us through the ins and outs of the paragraph. Mrs. Rhodes cried in class—overcome by the beauty of imagination—while reading The Hobbit out loud to us. But somehow I managed to get through twelve years without knowing how to simply compose.

And so it only seemed right that what took me until my late 30s/early 40s to figure out, thanks to the help of Natalie Goldberg and Writing Down the Bones, should become an early and natural skill for my girls. Like riding a bike or swimming.
 
 
 
How it works
 
 

  1. Start with three of the basic rules of Writing Practice–Keep your hand moving; Don’t cross out; Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar. These three are tangible. Any kid can understand them. In fact, they will be music to a child’s ear. I don’t cover the other three rules of Writing Practice, which are: Lose control; Don’t think; Go for the jugular. These ones are, in my opinion, meant for us adults, who try to be in control at all times, analyze our way through most everything, and are inhibited. Kids don’t need to be told to lose control. (By the way, I also have never had to say, “You’re free to write the worst shit in America,” as Natalie does. Children don’t seem to worry about lousy writing at this age, even though they already tend to denigrate their art ability. My theory is that they never write in school; thus, they have no basis of comparison. Not so with art.)
  2.  

  3. Pick a topic that is easy to understand. It should be tangible, something like “Pickles” or “Socks.” The other day, I figured my youngest and I could use a recent topic from this blog, so I threw it out for consideration: I write because… “What does that mean?” my daughter asked. After trying a few times to explain how each of us might choose to write for different reasons, I went with something simpler. Apparently, she’s not in a place of needing to understand why she writes; she writes for the sake of writing.
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  5. Start with five minutes and work your way up. This was a precaution I took thinking that my daughters might get bored after five minutes, plus it was a gentle start to a new concept. However, we quickly worked our way to ten-minute stints.
  6. When it comes time to read out loud, remind your child that we’re going to each listen to one another with full attention, otherwise you might find her scanning her page. Also, the first time we read, I took the lead. Again, that was probably an unnecessary precaution, as neither daughter hesitated to jump in when after subsequent topics I asked if they wanted to read first.
  7. Do Writing Practice with one kid at a time, at least to start. This is one-on-one time. Having someone else there—even a sibling—might change the dynamic. There will be no trying to impress, no worrying about someone being better. Moms are safe. Plus, it’s an easy way to bond.
  8. When your kid questions the part about Spelling—and, believe me, she will—tell her that she’ll continue to learn how to spell in school and by reading books, but that this practice is mainly for learning how to write, write, write. Spelling is important, but spelling will come in its own time.
  9. Be aware that your own writing might go in almost any direction if you, too, are following the rules of Writing Practice. I try not to temper my writing, and consequently I have written my politics and at times my petty minutiae. You can always pass on reading, but doing so might send the message that not reading is an easy out.
  10. Get your kid her own notebook and fast-writing pen, and encourage her to write on her own in this same way whenever she feels like it. Kids this age know what it means to practice, perhaps for sports or music, so instill the idea while it makes sense. And when she comes ’round and suggests, “Mom, can we do Writing Practice now?” be ready to pull out your notebook and see Beginner’s Mind in action.




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Here are the Writing Practices (spelling errors corrected) that my youngest daughter and I did two weekends ago. Our topic was “Fall,” and we wrote for ten minutes.



Hers

Fall is when the leaves all fall to the ground. I like to jump into big piles of leaves. When the leaves start falling they change colors and they also crunch under your feet. Why is fall called fall? Maybe because leaves are falling. Another word for fall is autumn so I’m not sure why it’s called fall or autumn. The names have nothing in common. I also like sitting and watching the leaves fall off the trees. Sometimes all the leaves are a pain when you need to clean them up out of the pond and off the porch. Sonia likes fall I think because she has an excuse to stay inside. Otis and Rafie like to be inside too so they are happy when fall and winter come around. We have a lot of leaves to rake up so I’m happy because I want to jump in a big pile.




Mine

The trees outside the window make sure I know it is fall. They reach out over the window, and the sun shines behind them, shining through them, like light in a stained glass window. The colors are luminous, yellow shades and fading green shades. Even the dead tan leaves are beautiful, dangling in sparkling sunlight before letting go.

This morning I dress in a teal turtleneck sweater that I’ve had for ages, it seems. It’s too short from too many dryings, and it doesn’t keep my belly warm. Still, I head out to the corral with purpose, first holding my arms tight to try to keep the cold from hitting my core. But then I open up, drop my arms and swing them by my sides, in a sort of angry woman march. Except I’m not angry. I’m exuberant. It is cool but not cold. It’s early and the fall air feels new and fresh and good for me.

Dooley is waiting for me at the back gate. It’s a long walk down the service road, and the path is covered with leaves that have fallen from the trees that stretch like canopy over the path. Dooley is hungry for apples and grass and liberation. He will give a neigh and kick and run in a controlled run of his when I let him out.

I think all creatures must love fall. It is the best of times. The sun rises early now that we’ve set back the clocks, and even though it sets early, too, that feels right. Like it’s only natural that we would settle into our cozy homes, stews bubbling on the stove or a chicken roasting in the oven, and wait until it’s time to go to sleep.

Fall is also a time to prepare for the cold of winter. It’s a time to become more productive, less distracted by the never-ending light of summer. Yesterday I worked on my paintings for hours. I am finally becoming satisfied with Bush. He looks more real, red face and all, than he’d looked before. His eyes are scary, as you’d expect the eyes of someone like him to be. And his face has those plains to it that they have, a sharp face, pointy nose, pointy ears, straight lines for a mouth. He is an ugly man, as is Cheney and now Rove. Why is it that our lives get placed in the hands of such ugly men?

 

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Postscript: It is natural that parents want to guide our children, and usually in a more heavy-handed way than we might guide our friends or adult family members. When doing Writing Practice with your child, refrain from critiquing what she writes. Writing Practice is raw; it is not a final product. There is no good, no bad. It is what it is.

If you’d like to give your child feedback, use recall to do so. After she reads, recall a phrase or section of her writing, letting her know that those parts stood out to you. Try to do so without assigning value, such as, “I loved the part about …” If you can show your child how to provide input without labeling the input, you’ll also be role modeling how to listen deeply. It’s a wonderful skill to have.

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Make Positive Effort For The Good, Sand Graffiti on Lake Michigan, Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, May 2008, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Make Positive Effort For The Good, Sand Graffiti on Lake Michigan, Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, May 2008, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.



I bumped into a coworker in the file room this morning. She said she finally looked at her 401K; she lost $7000. The Presidential candidates debated in a town hall forum tonight. Millions of people tuned in. Win, lose, or tie, how do we keep our center?

I’m not always that good at it. I need a little help. Practice can be anything you come back to that grounds you, moves you back to center. red Ravine was built on the premise that writing is a spiritual practice. Writing Practice can be a sane thread through the constant unraveling.

I pulled Bones and Wild Mind off the shelf after work this afternoon. The dog-eared corners lead me where I need to go — the deep-seated roots of three things Natalie learned from Katagiri Roshi. She passed them on to all of us. I thought her words might be helpful during these uncertain, anxious, and fearful times.

Three friends and I went on a weekend writing and meditation retreat last May. On one of our silent afternoon breaks, I sat by Lake Michigan writing haiku in a red notebook, and slow walked barefoot along the sand, carrying a big stick (no Presidential pun intended). Sand graffiti emerged from the fingertip of a white pine. I like to think the angels were cheering for us.

Continue, continue, continue.



Make Positive Effort For The Good


During all the thick days of my divorce eight years ago, only one thing helped. I remember Roshi saying, “Make positive effort for the good.” For me it meant, “Get up and get dressed. Just get up.” He meant to make human effort under all circumstances. If you make effort, beings seen and unseen will help. There are angels cheering for us when we lift up our pens, because they know we want to do it. In this torrential moment we have decided to change the energy of the world. We are going to write down what we think. Right or wrong doesn’t matter. We are standing up and saying who we are.

-Natalie Goldberg, from Wild Mind – Living The Writer’s Life, Chapter 37: Positive Effort, Bantam Books, 1990



Dont Be Tossed Away, Sand Graffiti on Lake Michigan, Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, May 2008, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Don’t Be Tossed Away, Sand Graffiti on Lake
Michigan, Sheboygan County, Wisconsin,
May 2008, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey.
All rights reserved.



Don’t Be Tossed Away


Don’t be tossed away by your monkey mind. You say you want to do something — “I really want to be a writer” — then that little voice comes along, “but I might not make enough money as a writer.” “Oh, okay, then I won’t write.” That’s being tossed away. These little voices are constantly going to be nagging us. If you make a decision to do something, you do it. Don’t be tossed away. But part of not being tossed away is understanding your mind, not believing it so much when it comes up with all these objections and then loads you with all these insecurities and reasons not to do something.

-Natalie Goldberg, from Writing Down The Bones — Freeing The Writer Within, Afterward, Shambala Publications, 1986



Continue Under All Circumstances, Sand Graffiti on Lake Michigan, Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, May 2008, photo © 2008 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Continue Under All Circumstances, Fading
Sand Graffiti on Lake Michigan, Sheboygan
County, Wisconsin, May 2008, photo © 2008 by
QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.



Continue Under All Circumstances


Our senses by themselves are dumb. They take in experience, but they need the richness of sifting for a while through our consciousness and through our whole bodies. I call this “composting.” Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat, and very fertile soil. Out of this fertile soil bloom our poems and stories. But this does not come all at once. It takes time. Continue to turn over and over the organic details of your life until some of them fall through the garbage of discursive thoughts to the solid ground of black soil.

…Katagiri Roshi said: “Your little will can’t do anything. It takes Great Determination. Great Determination doesn’t mean just you making great effort. It means the whole universe is behind you and with you — the birds, trees, sky, moon, and ten directions.” Suddenly, after much composting, you are in alignment with the stars or the moment or the dining-room chandelier above your head, and your body opens and speaks.

Understanding this process cultivates patience and produces less anxiety. We aren’t running everything, not even the writing we do. At the same time, we must keep practicing. It is not an excuse to not write and sit on the couch eating bonbons. We must continue to work the compost pile, enriching it and making it fertile so that something beautiful may bloom and so that our writing muscles are in good shape to ride the universe when it moves through us.

This understanding also helps us to accept someone else’s success and not to be too greedy. It is simply that person’s time. Ours will come in this lifetime or the next. No matter. Continue to practice.

-Natalie Goldberg, from Writing Down The Bones — Freeing The Writer Within, Composting, Shambala Publications, 1986



-posted on red Ravine, Tuesday, October 7th, 2008, with gratitude to Natalie

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Natalie Goldberg, image by Mary Fiedt, all rights reserved.     Old Friend from Far Away, image provided by Simon & Schuster, all rights reserved.
Old Friend from Far Away by Natalie Goldberg, images provided by Simon & Schuster, photo of Goldberg © 2008 by Mary Feidt. All rights reserved.




On Thursday, April 10, QuoinMonkey and ybonesy interviewed Natalie Goldberg, author of the recently released Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir. The interview was especially meaningful in that red Ravine originated from a friendship, and vision, developed while QM and ybonesy were in a year-long writing Intensive with Goldberg, in Taos, New Mexico.

Goldberg had just completed a book tour across several Western states when QM and ybonesy spoke with her from her Santa Fe home. They talked about the new book and about Goldberg’s life as a writer and painter, friendships that sustain her, the loneliness of writing, and the most important thing she’s learned from her students.



Interview with Natalie Goldberg, April 10, 2008, red Ravine


red Ravine: There’s a moving passage in Old Friend From Far Away on page 69, which I’m going to read: 

In 1977 on Morada Lane in a small adobe behind a coyote fence I taught the first writing practice group to eight Taos Women. For the last twenty years I have taught these same workshops at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House a few hundred yards farther up on Morada Lane. I joke: I have not gone a very far distance in my life.
     Students come and go. Eventually we all will die. I fear I will have forgotten to die. I’ll be standing in front of the class after everyone I know has long passed.
     “Class, get out your pens.”
     Please help me. If all of you write right now, maybe I can let go and die too. My job will be complete.

Talk about what that passage means, Natalie.

Natalie: Basically, I had this feeling one day that everybody was going to die and I was still going to have to keep teaching Writing Practice; that it was so important and so essential and people weren’t going to let me die. They were just going to keep coming and studying with me and that my books wouldn’t have given enough.

What I didn’t say actually in that chapter is that I hoped to make a book that would be like studying with me. I wanted to make this book — the structure and the rhythm — so that it was the closest to what it’s like to be in the classroom with me. So that someday I, too, can die. I think when we die, finally, we really completely let go. I don’t think I’d be able to completely let go unless I felt there was some record students could follow to learn this wonderful Practice.


red Ravine: Years ago, at the beginning of your adult life when you were in the midst of studying with Katagiri Roshi, you were on a path toward assuming that lineage. What caused you to move away from that path and go with writing instead?

Natalie: That’s a good question. We complain about our lives, but the truth is we usually get what we want. A lot of people say, “I wanted to write and I wanted to do this.” If they really wanted it and it really burned in them, they would do it and they would figure it out. And not everybody has that.

Some people are happy taking classes, milling around with writing, and the truth is they like their lives and they like their jobs. I found that I put in time with writing. When it came down to the wire, my ass was on the line for writing. Even though I showed up all the time for Zen, when you asked me, my drive was for writing.

So it actually happened very naturally. We worry so much, What should we do, what should we do? but life also unfolds. For you (addressing QuoinMonkey), for example, you keep talking about wanting to teach Writing Practice, but we don’t know. And you’ve had some offers, but, finally, you’ll see if it unfolds and if it feels right for you.

You know that’s true with everybody. What we want unfolds. So I think I saw that writing was where I really put my life, my whole life. And even though I deeply, deeply loved Zen, it wasn’t in the same way, deep in the musculature of my body. I didn’t put my life on the line in the same way.

Now that I’m older I realize that I didn’t have to pick. That the two actually came together. But when you’re young you think you have to pick. When you’re young you can drive yourself crazy and think you have to pick. But look, Zen and writing, I can’t separate them. I didn’t choose one over the other. I chose both.


red Ravine: You also chose to be a writer and an artist. How do you balance those passions, and do you ever feel that you are more one than the other?

Natalie: I’m a writer. I know that. And when I’m painting a lot, I’m so in love with it. I think, Oh, I should have been a painter. But I wouldn’t be willing to do (for painting) what I’m willing to do for writing. I’ll go anywhere, face anything for writing.

Painting is my darling pleasure. And because it’s a pleasure, I don’t push myself a lot with it. Like what I said about writing and Zen, if I really look at it (painting), it’s important to me and it feeds my life and I relax with it. I relax and don’t worry about when I do it, if I do it.

For instance, I was in Point Reyes, California for a month in May, and I painted a lot then. Since I came home, I haven’t painted in over 6 months. So part of me thinks, Oh, painting is done. Then about three weeks ago, I realized, No painting’s not done. You’re writing these essays, and these essays use the same energy that painting does.

In a way, an essay is like a square canvas where I try to fit in as much detail as I can. That’s what I do with painting. I realized that I hadn’t been painting because I was painting with my writing. As soon as I realized that, of course, I’ve just done three paintings (laughs). I just went back into the studio.

People want a clear delineation: I write for four hours a day, then I paint for two hours. Life isn’t like that. It unfolds.

For instance, I was burning to learn abstract painting, which I talked about in Living Color. So, 15 years ago, I started to do it; I’d go out on a picnic table in Taos, in Kit Carson Park, and I’d just do abstracts, or what I thought were abstracts. I didn’t think they were that good. Literally, last night, I pulled out those notebooks and they’re some of the best abstracts I’ve ever done. They’re wonderful.

Do you see what I mean? We have the idea that, No, they should be better now because I’ve been doing it for 15 years. But maybe when I was really burning for them was when they really came to me. There’s no linear thing. Basically, you have to have a soft heart and a willingness just to make that first step and step in. And you get wet.

Just like you (addressing ybonesy). You have an important straight job, and then you go to half time for a while so you can do more art. Then you go back to full time. Our life is a spiral. And you also realize, I like this work I do. And I like painting. It doesn’t have to be either/or.


red Ravine: One of the things we want to talk about is loneliness — because writing is lonely. There’s a chapter in Writing Down the Bones called “Engendering Compassion” where you talk about the Black Dog, Loneliness. You say, “When I don’t feel loneliness, I know I’m not in connection with the edge of my life. I look around for that Black Dog, Loneliness, and make sure it’s near me.” After 35 years of writing and teaching, has your relationship with the Black Dog changed? And when you feel lonely or empty, where do you go to refill the well?

Natalie: That’s a really good question. I want to say, “Oh yes, I have a much better relationship with it,” but right now, I’m dealing with (the fact that) my mother died three months ago. So the loneliness is so deep. Whatever engendered it when I was a child is just burning in me now.

Everything I think I know about loneliness has been swept under and I just feel this gnawing emptiness. And it’s painful. The only thing I know is to try to have a little bit of softness toward it and allow it to be, and at the same time not allow it to take over my entire life.

It’s a very tricky thing. But I do want to say that, yes, a writer’s life can be very lonely. That’s why it’s so important to have writing friends. Don’t expect the agent or the editor or the publishing world to be your friend and to be your support. You need writing friends who understand what you’re doing and support you and that you can share this hard and wonderful process with.


red Ravine: Natalie, speaking of friends, do you have a writing friend who has stuck with you through everything?

Natalie: Yeah, Rob Wilder and Eddie Lewis, I’ve been friends with for over 20 years. I’d say also, John Thorndike, though he lives in Ohio now. He used to live in New Mexico and he was a deep writing friend and still is.

But the people who live near are Rob and Eddie and Henry Shukman, too, but he’s English so often he’s in England for long periods. But Eddie and Rob have been consistently there, people I can always rely on. That’s been very important to me.

I know when I have something, I can share with them, I can talk about it. Knowing that I have them, I don’t even call that much. But I know that they’re there. Sometimes just knowing that person’s there is very important.


red Ravine: Can you talk a little bit about what happens to the friendship when you are working on a book?

Natalie: Yeah, sometimes there are periods when I’m working a lot, that Eddie is home a lot, he’s sort of like a housewife, so I’ll call him. Mostly we joke, or I’ll complain about writing. When I’m working on something I don’t talk a lot about it. I’ll just call and complain or ask how to spell something. Or, “Eddie what was that word? I need that word,” or we just joke. But I know he knows I’m writing. And he knows what that is.

And there’s Rob. I asked him and his wife (Lala Carroll) to help me when I read at Collected Works. I said, “Could you be my date?” Rob had a party for me afterwards. Eddie hung out with me and stayed with me at the bookstore. It’s almost mechanical sometimes — “Can you come to the reading with me?” or “Would you read what I wrote and tell me it’s wonderful?” (laughs)


red Ravine: At this moment who are your favorite painters and writers, and what books are you reading right now?

Natalie: I am reading a killer book. I’m almost done with it. I’m going to assign it to my students in the August retreat. It’s called Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden. I have 20 pages left, and it’s a magnificent book.

I’m reading that and right before that, Patricia Hampl, who wrote Romantic Education. She has a new memoir called The Florist’s Daughter that just knocked me out. It was a sensational book. No one writes memoir like Patricia Hampl.

I’m teaching at IAIA one night a week with Rob Wilder this Spring semester. (Institute of American Indian Arts is a federally-funded college for Native Americans, who attend from all over the country.) I have to say, my students in that class are some of my most favorite writers who I admire.

These kids have not been incorporated, in some ways, with all the politeness and all the neuroses of white American comfortable society. A lot of these kids come from very broken lives and they don’t have a lot of protection between them and wild mind. So when they write, it brings me back to the original way I learned how to understand Writing Practice. Because I really developed it with Chippewa kids and African American kids in Minneapolis and in Detroit.

They’re some of my favorite writers, these kids that I’m working with now. They’re not kids, they’re adults…They’re college kids, but their writing — they have no explanation. They just put things as they are. And they’re not aware that they’re not supposed to write about these things so they just lay it down on the page. I’m being incredibly inspired by them, remembering the origins of writing. That’s been very, very exciting for me.

In painting, well, I just love painting. Painting is my darling pleasure. When I went on the book tour, people would think I’d go to bookstores a lot. No, that’s my job! When I went into town, I’d go to the art museums and to galleries. That would relax me and give me a whole other outlet.

I love Wolf Kahn, Joan Mitchell. I love to look at local paintings. There’s a painter in Albuquerque who shows in Santa Fe, Tim Craighead. I’m just crazy about him. He shows at the Gerald Peters Gallery.

For the O’Keeffe Museum next week, I’m taking a group (on something) called Walks in the West, and I’m taking them to all the spots where Marsden Hartley painted. He spent a year in Taos. So we’re going to drive up and I’m going to take them for that slow walk to the cross. We’re going to have lunch at Mabel Dodge. It’ll be wonderful.

One more painter I just thought of I want to mention: David Park. I just wrote an essay about him. Helen Bigelow is a friend of mine and an old student who came to study with me at Mabel Dodge. Her father was David Park, and he was a contemporary of Richard Diebenkorn. He’s part of the California Figurative School. I saw an incredible painting of his hanging at the Whitney last year. He made it really big. He died when he was young, at 46.


red Ravine: In Old Friend From Far Away, and also from studying with you, we’ve heard you say that memoir isn’t necessarily about a person’s entire life; it can be about a portion of one’s life. You’ve written Long Quiet Highway about the portion of your life where you studied with Katagiri Roshi, and The Great Failure clarifying the truth you knew about that time in your life. What part of your life, Natalie, do you still want to write about?

Natalie: I’d kind of like to write about my mother. But it’s so complicated for me right now that I don’t see my way clear. Maybe at some point, I’d like to write about my mother.

Except for Banana Rose, I really haven’t written very much about my love life. And I’d kind of like to write about that, but I’m afraid that people who were my lovers will kill me (laughs). So I haven’t done that.

And I think I’d like to write something about what I know about Zen. Though I might have written that already in Old Friend From Far Away. Even though I didn’t mention Zen.


red Ravine: You’ve seen students drop everything in their lives and attempt to become writers. Why doesn’t it always work to get rid of the obstacles and just become a writer?

Natalie: Yeah, it doesn’t work, because suddenly you have all the time in the world and you freeze. It puts too much pressure on writing. Also, we’re social animals and writing is a lonely thing.

In a way, my mistake was to do writing full time. I missed having a job where I could just show up and have to work and have to forget about me and my writing and my life. I don’t think it’s a good idea.

In Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique — which came out, I think, in the 70’s — there was a study where housewives who had all day to clean the house by the end of the day didn’t get any of it cleaned. Those same women, when they got a full-time job, managed in the half hour before they went to work to get all their housework done.

It’s almost that you have more time to feel guilty that you’re not writing. I think that having a bit of a structure and knowing at 1 o’clock I have to go do my other job, it sort of kicks ass. You don’t have so much time to wander around. You have to write — sit down and actually do it.


red Ravine: Describe a typical day in your life. When you’re not promoting a book, what are you doing?

Natalie: I’m running a lot of errands, which I don’t seem to have done in Taos. But in Santa Fe I don’t know why I have so many errands to run (laughs).

I go to yoga classes 3 days a week, from 9:30 to 11. And the yoga class is right near my studio. So if I’m a good girl, I go to yoga and then immediately go to my studio. But then I have my computer at my studio, so I end up doing a lot of business first. And then settling down, either sometimes to write or paint.

But if you really look at my life — at this point, I’ve been writing for 35 years — every book takes a different need, requires different things. For instance, I wrote a lot of Old Friend going on hikes, and at the same time I had broken up an 11-year relationship. My heart was broken. I would go to my studio and I just didn’t want to stay there. I’d go on these long hikes, and I’d bring my backpack, and luckily I brought a little notebook, not planning to write. But as I walked the world would open up for me. I’d sit down on the side of the trail and write whole chapters.

I can’t give you any prescription of my life. If you ask me, my life is kind of chaotic. Like today, after we’re done, I’ll go to this wonderful café near IAIA, which is way south of town, like 25 minutes. But I’ll go there and I’ll do some work for a few hours and then I’m going to go to a lecture at IAIA. I use things in the outside world to structure my inner life of writing.

I’m not a bulldog like I used to be where I pushed everything aside for writing. Writing fits in now and weaves in with the rest of my life. The human life just goes forward. But this is after 35 years where I have enough confidence. Also, I’m tired of making writing the first thing. I don’t need to anymore because I have enough confidence.


red Ravine: How are your creative processes around writing and painting different?

Natalie: When I’m writing it takes all of me. I mean every single cell. When I’m really writing it takes every cell in my body, total concentration, and my whole life is in it. My whole life is on the line.

When I’m painting, I’m whistling, I’m playing music, I’m just happy. The predominant emotion is happiness. With writing there isn’t any predominant emotion. My whole life is distilled into that task. And I give my life over into the tip of that task. I want to say my whole life is distilled into god — if god is everything.


red Ravine: In many respects, because of what you teach and how you teach it, you’ve become a symbol of the notion that anyone can write. Is it true — can anyone write?

Natalie: Absolutely. Yes. They might not become Faulkner. A lot of people don’t want to become Faulkner. But anyone can pick up that pen and express their human life. And if they want to they can get better and better at it. Everyone can write. Everyone should have access to writing. It’s a very human activity. Human beings want to have a place where they can express themselves in language.


red Ravine: What is the most important thing you’ve learned from your students.

Natalie: That I love them. I know this sounds odd but when I’m actually teaching, I have to keep a lot of boundaries. You took an Intensive with me, and I had to hold you when you kind of all hated me or didn’t want to come back. I had to hold your resistance and be a still point. That’s hard.

I have a tremendous amount of equilibrium when I teach and not a lot of opinion. But when I went on this book tour where I wasn’t the teacher, and my students showed up, I cannot tell you the overwhelming love I felt for all of you. I just couldn’t believe it.

Because, really, why am I willing to hold that all for you? It’s because I love you. I didn’t ever quite know that before. I would say things like, “because it’s practice, because this, because of that”…but I realize now, it’s because the love –- ‘cause I love you — that I’m willing to do it for all of you.

ybonesy: Wow, that’s really moving. (pause)


red Ravine: Do you ever get tired of teaching?

Natalie: Right now, I’m quite in love with it. There was a period, remember after The Great Failure came out, I took a year off. When I came back I hated teaching. I had never hated teaching. My teaching was really good, I could see everyone loved it, I knew it was good, the students were great — and I hated it. And I didn’t know what to do.

Every time I taught for several months, it was like that. It was actually taking everybody that week, when I took you all to Ghost Ranch, that something happened and it broke. After that I kind of loved it again. Not only kind of loved it; I loved it more than ever. Ever since then I just enjoy every time I teach. I’m so excited to share Writing Practice with everyone. And to share this wonderful thing that I know. I’ll be teaching for the rest of my life.


red Ravine: Natalie, what do you consider your greatest accomplishment in life so far.

Natalie: I guess, developing and recognizing Writing Practice, staying with it, continually giving it to the world.


red Ravine: In your next life, what would you like to be?

Natalie: An opera singer (laughs). Did you ever read The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather about a poor young girl in a small town in Colorado who becomes a great opera singer? I want to be an opera singer.


red Ravine: If it were your last day on earth, how would you spend it?

Natalie: Oh. I think I would be really sad. Because I would be grieving not seeing it anymore. Not seeing the trees, I’m looking out my window..the piñon tree, not seeing the sky, not having hands and feet. I think I would really be very deeply sad. And very still. Full of gratitude and grief.


red Ravine: Natalie, why do you write?

Natalie: Ummmm…because I’m a dope? (everyone laughs). Because…Of everything I do in my life, it feels the most real, the most to the point, and the most honest.


red Ravine: What are you working on next?

Natalie: I’m working on these essays. Some of them I’ve published in Shambhala Sun. I’m hoping to put together a collection of essays. I’m also working on something else which is a secret. None of my writing has ever been a secret before. But this is so different than anything I’ve written, I haven’t told anybody. And I don’t know when — maybe in 8 months or so — I’ll be able to say something.


red Ravine: As a writer and an artist, how do you define success?

Natalie: On one level it’s that I feel good about it and I enjoy it. That’s the real success. But because I’m a human being in the world, I like that I’m able to make a living at it, that I have it as my job, that I have a career with it. I don’t know if that’s success though. It’s pleasurable and I’m proud of it. But I think the real success is that I continue. And that I continually take pleasure in it. And that it’s alive for me.


red Ravine: Natalie, it’s really been a privilege to spend this time with you. We want to thank you. We thought we’d end by having you read us a passage from Old Friend from Far Away.

Natalie: I might read one I know I like. Okay, you ready? It’s called “Vast”:

Vast

We write memoir not to remember, not to cling, but to honor and let go. Wave after wave splashes on the shore and is gone. Your mother once wore an embroidered Mexican peasant shirt, had gleaming teeth and a full head of black hair. She pushed the hammock you lay in, a million oak leaves above your head. You didn’t know yet your first word. You were slow to learn to talk and your first step was as enormous as an elephant’s. Her waist was below her blouse and you could hide in a voluminous maroon skirt. Sharp was the blue sky, the white porch steps.
     Here’s your mother now, frail at one hundred pounds, hearing aids plopped above her lobes, eyes a pale glaze seeing only form and shadow, in her own crooked way heading for another country.
     Let her be as she is. You can’t save her. You can only remember as she dissolves. With one arm you reach all the way back and with your other arm you steady the walker that she grasps before her.
     But don’t fool yourself. However old your mother is, you are always walking into vast rooms full of beginnings and endings, abundant with possibility. Try the empty cubicle of your page. What can you scratch in it before your turn comes to step up to the vast ocean all by yourself? Go. Ten minutes.




Old Friend from Far Away, image provided by Simon & Schuster, all rights reserved.

Natalie: It was wonderful to do an interview with the two of you. I love you both and take good care. And I feel honored and thank you for doing this for red Ravine.


QuoinMonkey: I feel so much gratitude for studying with you. I really appreciate you. Thank you so much.







red Ravine posts about Natalie Goldberg:



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Curtains At The Fitzgerald, during MPR's Talking Volumes with Keri Miller, and Guests Galway Kinnell and Josephine Dickinson, April 2007,photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.   

Curtains At The Fitzgerald, night of Galway Kinnell, Fitzgerald Theater, St. Paul, Minnesota, April 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


I pulled a Galway Kinnell book off the shelf last night while Liz was completing her take home final. We sat on the couch in dim midnight light, pecking at slippery keys. (One IBM. One Dell.) Breaking rhythm, I stopped to strum the pages of Strong Is Your Hold. The papery smell cut the air, and fused to April’s last memory:  Galway Kinnell, the color red, the Fitzgerald.

I had paged through Bones while doing research a few nights before. Galway jumped right off Natalie’s page. In the chapter, We Are Not the Poem, she writes about keeping your work fresh, and talks about seeing Galway in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when she barely knew who he was. He read his poetry; his poetry sang.

Fast forward 6 years later, to Santa Fe, New Mexico. He raced through every line. They were dead for him.

Natalie goes on to write about losing the danger in your words. About risk taking. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a poet. She is talking about writing:


It is important to remember we are not the poem. … The power is always in the act of writing. Come back to that again and again and again. Don’t get caught in the admiration for your poems. … Write good poems and let go of them. Publish them, read them, go on writing.

I remember Galway Kinnell when his wonderful Book Of Nightmares first came out. It was a Thursday afternoon in Ann Arbor. I’d never heard of him, much less could I pronounce his name. He sang those poems; they were new and exciting for him and a great accomplishment. Six years later I heard him read again at St. John’s in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He’d read that book so much in those six years that he was sick of it. He ran through the poems, put down the book, and said, “Where’s the party?” There was nothing dangerous for him in them anymore. The air was no longer electric.

It is very painful to become frozen with your poems….We constantly need new insights, visions. We don’t exist in any solid form. There is no permanent truth you can corner in a poem that will satisfy you forever. Don’t identify too strongly with your work. Stay fluid behind those black and white words. They are not you. They were a great moment going through you. A moment you were awake enough to write down and capture.

   -Natalie Goldberg, We Are Not The Poem, from Writing Down The Bones

Even the best writers sour, and spin their wheels. Don’t get attached to the work. Keep your writing fresh. Blogging is good for non-attachment. A fast-paced medium, it is here, it is gone. You don’t have time to get attached. You keep current. You keep practicing.

Back at the Fitz with my writing friend, velvet curtains to the front, circular stairs behind, I remember when Galway read. Strong Is Your Hold seemed new and fresh for him. Insomniac and Sex vibrated across the room. And in his poem for Jane Kenyon, How Could She Not, you could hear the pain in his voice. Passion and grief.


Hands Of Galway Kinnell, Chap. 5, Vol. 2, Fitzgerald Theater, St. Paul, Minnesota, April 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved

Hands of Galway Kinnell, Chap. 5, Vol. 2, on stage with Josephine Dickinson (l), and MPR’s Keri Miller (r), at the Fitzgerald Theater, St. Paul, Minnesota, April 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


The first time I heard Ode and Elegy was at a silent writing retreat in Taos, Fall 2006. Natalie read it out loud to us, each word blazing through the silence, “Wake up!” The second time was in the Log Cabin at Mabel Dodge in the December retreat. The careful attention to detail caught me clutching my throat. The poet sees in a certain way, hide-and seek between heart and mind.


Hide-and-Seek 1933

Once when we were playing
hide-and-seek and it was time
to go home, the rest gave up
on the game before it was done
and forgot I was still hiding.
I remained hidden as a matter
of honor until the moon rose.

  –from Strong Is Your Hold, Poems, by Galway Kinnell, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006

I have come to love poetry for its beauty and starkness. Few words. Everything pared down to the bones. Chewy. Bare. Raw. I try not to hold on too tightly. We are not the poem. Don’t judge. Let pit-stained words soak through the pores. Let go.

Or clutch if you want to. But if you have to hold that tight, bolt from every cell like the hawk. Leave no jay feather unturned. No tamarack untapped.



Writers Hands, Chap. V, Vol. 1, Galway Kinnell, at the Fitzgerald Theater, St. Paul, Minnesota, April 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.  

Writer’s Hands, Chap. 5, Vol. 1,
Galway Kinnell, at the Fitzgerald,
St. Paul, Minnesota, April, 2007,
photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey.
All rights reserved.




Ode and Elegy

A thud. Shrieks. Frantic
wingbeats like a round
of soft applause.
The hawk jumps on top
of the jay knocked to the grass,
presses his wings to the ground,
digs his claws into the jay’s
back, strikes the neck
over and over, scattering
blue feathers. Then,
as easily as a green wave
in heavy seas lifts a small boat
and throws it upside down,
still afloat but keel up, so
the hawk flips the jay,
then tears at his throat.

A blue wing wrests itself free, flaps
like a flag saying i will fight you!
The hawk stuffs the wing
back down into place and
clamps it there with one foot.
Now jay and hawk stare
at each other beak to beak,
as close as Jesus and Judas at their kiss.
The hawk strikes, the jay struggles
to strike back, but his neck breaks, his eyes
shrink into beads of taxidermists’ glass.
The cere above the hawk’s beak
flushes hard yellow from exertion.

As a grape harvester trampling out
the last juices of grape, so the hawk
treads the jay’s body up and down
and down and up. He places
a foot on the throat and a foot
on the belly, flaps his wings
repositions his feet, flaps again.

He pushes off, clutching transversely
the body of the jay, which is like a coffin
made in the shape and color of the dead.

Much as in la decollage a l’americaine
of the Lafayette Escadrille, when
the pilots would gain speed only yards
above the tarmac, then haul back
on the joystick, putting their planes
into nearly vertical ascent, just so
the sharp-shinned hawk, carrying
his blue load glinting in the sunlight
low to the ground, now suddenly
climbs steeply and soars over the tops
of the Norway spruce and the tamarack.

   –from Strong Is Your Hold, Poems, by Galway Kinnell, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006


-posted on red Ravine, Wednesday, December 12th, 2007

Listen to the whole Talking Volumes presentation at: MPR – Talking Volumes with Keri Miller: Two Poets Share the Stage – Galway Kinnell & Josephine Dickinson at the Fitzgerald Theater, St. Paul, Minnesota, April 12th, 2007

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Afternoon Meditation, Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, New Mexico, February 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Afternoon Meditation, Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, New Mexico, February 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


In writing practice this morning, ybonesy and I both wrote about sitting in solidarity with our writing friends at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos. Most Decembers, Natalie holds a writing retreat during the period Mabel's Gate - Taos Mountain, Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, New Mexico, February 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.around December 1st through December 8th. In Zen, this time is called Rohatsu Sesshin and marks the enlightenment of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama.

Rohatsu means in classical Japanese twelve-eight, because December eighth is celebrated in the Far East as the day of the Buddha’s enlightenment. Zoketsu Norman Fisher from Green Gulch Farm (in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki-roshi) explains Rohatsu Sesshin something like this:

Sesshin is about pulling our whole life together — right here into this one body and mind and right here on this little square of black cushion. All of our life, past, present and future, is right here and right now. Our whole life. All our many lives. All of everyone’s life. The life of the planet. The life of the stars. All that we are and all that everyone is and was and wanted to be but couldn’t be. All our successes and failures. All we wanted and didn’t want. All we overlooked and grieved over and lusted over and abandoned. None of that is elsewhere. It’s all right here right now on this cushion.

Of all the sesshins of the year this one is the most intense of all because it’s the one…that imitates the Buddha’s time of sitting under the enlightenment tree. So in a way our whole sesshin is a kind of ceremony of enactment of this event and we are all playing the Buddha under the Buddha’s tree, enacting an event that happened almost two thousand five hundred years ago. Two thousand five hundred is just one of the many ways of saying right now. Right now, actually, Right Now, as you are listening to words that I am speaking, Buddha is sitting under the Bodhi tree making strong effort for awakening. In each and every one of your bodies, in each and every pore of each and every one of your bodies, there are infinite Buddhas — each one, right now as I’m speaking, literally and actually making this kind of effort.

        

        Slow Walking, Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, New Mexico, February 2007,photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.            Winter Fire, Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, New Mexico, February 2007,photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Slow Walking (left), Winter Fire (right), Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, New Mexico, February 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


It’s a time of deep practice, a time where we enter the cave-like darkness of winter and look inwardly to the truth of the existence of our own Buddha Nature, and the awakened nature of all beings.


Mabel's Lights, Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, NM, Feb 2007,photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved

Mabel’s Lights II, second in series, Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, New Mexico, February 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


But sitting in Taos is not about Zen. People of all faiths and religions come to study with Natalie. It is about practice. Beginner’s Mind. About repetition and opening. It is about getting out of your own way, vowing to make greater effort, to go the extra mile, and through that effort, trying to requite a debt of gratitude to those, in life and in Spirit, who have helped us along the way.


Becoming The Mountain, Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, NM, February 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved

In Taos, we practice sitting, walking, and writing. We sit like the mountain. We anchor our breath to the bottom of our feet. We chant and sing. We are silent. We write.


The practice of our writing is backed by a 2500 year old tradition of watching the mind. It is powerful. At times, life changing. We are grateful to Natalie for creating writing practice, for the gift of her teachings, for passing them down to us.


Many of our writing friends are sitting in Taos:  sitting, walking, practicing, deepening, learning the true secret of writing. ybonesy and I wanted to hold a place for them. We sit with them in quiet reflection and community. And in doing so, we sit with the world.


Not to be attached to external forms, not to be unsettled within, not to think this and that, not to be cluttered with extraneous things, not to think about gain and loss and whether we are happy or sad. This can be called Zen.
   -Shodo Harada Roshi

If you lose the spirit of repetition, your practice will become quite difficult.
   -Shunryu Suzuki-roshi

Key To Mabel's, Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, New Mexico, July 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved. Key To Mabel's, Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, New Mexico, July 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved. Key To Mabel's, Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, New Mexico, July 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved. Key To Mabel's, Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, New Mexico, July 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Key To Mabel’s (in repetition), Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, New Mexico, July 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


Mountain is mountain and earth is earth
That’s all.
You shouldn’t say anything extra.
You should not put any fancy decoration.
Mountain is mountain, that’s all.
   -Shunryu Suzuki-roshi

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.
   -Shunryu Suzuki-roshi

-posted on red Ravine, Tuesday, December 4th, 2007

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A woman in navy gators, old-style webbed snowshoes, laced with sinew, bulky and awkward, tucked up under her armpit, slinging waggling ski poles, wrapped in a red knit ski cap with earflaps. I’m reminded that Natalie has a wool cap like that, a Sherpa cap that looks like someone knitted (no, crocheted?) it for her, especially for her. And now I’m remembering a photograph I took of her with dark shades and that Sherpa cap, gloves, or tan mittens. She’s staring right at me, right into the camera. We are walking the dirt road to the white cross behind Mabel Dodge, the one painted by O’Keeffe.

The sun is pale orange, sinking in a crisp winter sky. Wind whistles, clouds surf along a plume of chimney smoke, sky purples, alternating stripes of gray and red, tapered yellowish tails that blind me when I look into the sun to remember how to describe the light. Light is one of the hardest things to write about. Hard to detail. Like trying to capture the feeling of sucking air through a candy-cane striped straw. The kind in the Wendy’s Frosty I had Friday night. It was late, the storm was coming, Liz stayed two hours later at work. Overtime and a feeling of job well done.

Clingy, tawny oak leaves, sucked into winter’s vortex, hanging on by a single, dead stem. Bobbing ash branches over the Mystic River deck. That’s the name of the color of our deck: Behr Mystic River. And the house will be Pot of Cream next year and the trim will be Cloudberry. The color scheme, does it tell you anything about us? Or describe true color?

What’s in front of me, a long, lonely winter. Not the kind of lonely I am used to. Not the long-suffering alone kind of lonely. But the kind of lonely where I have to make decisions that impact me for a long time to come. There are decisions. And then there are consequences of decisions. Will ever the twain meet? I want to know.

Aluminum blue streaks, striated against brown banana orange. Night falls from the West. There is dusting of powder on the north side of the ash. The tree is 3 pronged and I see the sun through the slingshot V of branch 1 and branch 2. Thing 1 and Thing 2 with their shiny red and white hats. The snowshoe woman looked like Thing 3, though I couldn’t see her face. She walked briskly, head down against the wind. It picks up as the clouds disperse, making way for the frigid air of a clear night.

A midsummer night’s dream is only a distant memory. Orange day lilies and sweet bush clover and pansies and black-eyed susans. I took a lemon bristled broom and a fire handled, snow shovel and took care of the deep, mottled driveway, the newly painted deck, the lean and trim gutters that Gene completed on the eve of Saturday’s storm. He was dressed in Carhart brown and sucked on a Marlboro while he deftly tacked the gutter pipe to the old 50’s Masonite siding. “It’s in good shape,” he said. “Usually, this stuff cracks.”

He looked kind of James Deanish (there I go again) with that cigarette dangling from his winter lips, sideburn edges peeking under a red skull cap, body wrapped in the bulk of winter construction in Minnesota. He was the nicest man and I wanted to tell him how much I appreciated contracting with professionals who do what they say they will do and don’t quit until the job is done.

An elongated scar on the south branch of the closest naked oak. It’s about 50 feet from the window I’m staring out as I write. There were two cardinals (aren’t they bulked up finches?) on the three feeders on Friday, one male, one female. The female was an understated caramel, with her tiniest breast feathers ruffling in juts of wind. I wondered if she was cold.

Then the male flitted by in papal crimson and true black. The female had a little blip of red on her crest. I watched them dance back and forth on the oily, black-seeded feeder. The neighbor plugged in his outdoor Christmas tree, twinkling white, while his kids pulled out over thin air, dangling from a wooden seated rope swing hanging from the same scarred oak.

Plus 6 with the windchill. The night’s sunset is reflected in the shiny screen of Liz’s laptop. She oils her hands with a lavender salve I bought at the Albuquerque Growers Market last summer. I feel glad to be alive.


-posted on red Ravine, Sunday, December 2nd, 2007

-related to Topic Post, WRITING TOPIC – ATTENTION TO DETAIL

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After listening to Natalie Goldberg’s new interview on ThoughtCast, ybonesy and I wanted to pass the information along to our readers. But we first wanted to take a moment to reiterate our gratitude for the teachings that Natalie has passed down to us. Our vision for red Ravine was born out of our writing practice and years of study with her.

Natalie invented writing practice. And in the interview, she talks about how Writing Down The Bones: Freeing The Writer Within broke a paradigm about writing. It started a revolution in the way we practice writing. The world was listening. Since 1986 the book has sold over one million copies and been translated into fourteen languages.

I listened to the interview again last night as I was preparing to write this post. Jenny Attiyeh interviewed Natalie in her home in Santa Fe. Natalie seems both relaxed and energetic. And ybonesy and I were talking about how good it is to hear her voice when she talks about confidence, building a strong writing spine, and learning to trust your own mind.

But I think I learn even more when she discusses her relationship to failure, success, loneliness, continuing to love after betrayal, and her study of Zen.

Writing practice is not Zen. But it is rooted in Zen. And Zen is a 2000-year-old study of the mind. Writing practice is the study of your own mind. And when we read literature, we are studying the minds of other writers. These are the things Natalie has taught us.

red Ravine is not just about writing practice. But writing practice is part of the structure of red Ravine. And something we are proud to pass along. We are grateful. We are part of the writing lineage.

And that’s why I have taped to the computer screen in front of me three things Natalie learned from Katagiri Roshi and now passes along to her students:

  • Continue under all circumstances
  • Don’t be tossed away
  • Make positive effort for the good


Deep Bows all around.


Writer's Hands II, Natalie Goldberg signing copy of Top Of My Lungs, Taos, New Mexico, July 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey.All rights reserved.

Writer’s Hands II, Natalie Goldberg
signing a copy of Top Of My Lungs,
Taos, New Mexico, July 2007,
photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey.
All rights reserved.


-posted on red Ravine, Wednesday, October 3rd, 2007

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