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In Living Color

Natalie Goldberg on writing practice, her new book and the human mind



Keep your hand moving. Lose control. Be specific. Don't think.

These simple words of advice set the writing world on its ear in the late 1980s when they appeared as the rules of writing practice in the runaway bestseller Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. Combining her interest in self-expression through writing with Zen meditation practice, Goldberg came up with a system designed to free the writer in everyone. In 1990, she followed up with Wild Mind. Together, the two books have sold 1.3 million copies and have been translated into 10 languages.

Meanwhile, Goldberg, who lives half the time on the mesa above the Rio Grande river gorge in Taos, has written a memoir (Long Quiet Highway) and a novel (Banana Rose); has published a collection of drawings and paintings (Living Color) and a follow-up to Wild Mind (Thunder and Lightning); has taught writing and spirituality workshops; and has continued to pursue her first love, poetry.

This month, Goldberg's new collection of poems and paintings, Top of My Lungs, will be released by Overlook Press.

"I began as a poet," said Goldberg in a recent interview. "I was a poet for 13 years and developed my notions of writing practice as a poet. Really, if you're hot in your writing practice, what comes out is about a page that can make a really good poem."

Painting, too, has become central to Goldberg's quest for creativity and an enactment of the tenets she has taught thousands of other would-be artists.

"[Painting] was always my secret pleasure," she said. "I think it's an embodiment of what I say to do rather than me telling you how."

In Top of My Lungs, Goldberg writes about the years she spent living in Israel in the 1980s, about her love for the Southwest and New Mexico, about her divorce, and, in an introductory essay, about how poetry saved her life.

"I learned to trust my own mind," said Goldberg. "We don't know our minds. We're so concerned with being polite or nice. Poetry gave me a way to speak. It made me religious. I noticed things; I became awake to color and details in order to write a poem."

Goldberg has become the central figure in a movement that heralds writing as a potentially powerful spiritual practice -- a tool for self-discovery and a way to connect with the world. The idea of writing practice as a discipline, she says, is deeply rooted in Zen Buddhist philosophy, not just a New Age invention.

"This is not Natalie's little creative idea," she said. "Everything I do is rooted in 2,000 years of watching the mind, of Zen practice. It's a way to meet your mind.

"What equipment do we have as a writer? Pen, paper and the human mind. Where's the past? It's in the human mind."

Through her workshops and her books, Goldberg has discovered that the desire to write is common to all types of people and that writing practice is accessible to most everyone.

"I've taught the vice president of an insurance company in Florida, lawyers, doctors, young kids. In one workshop, I had a group of quarry workers from Missouri," she said.

"It's every kind of person. It seems like an enormous number of human beings have a secret desire to write, and somehow they don't get what they need in school."

What drew Goldberg to the practice of writing in the first place?

"The first thing I ever wrote that turned out to be a poem, well, I had never felt that way before," she said. "Time and space dropped away, and I thought, 'Yes, I want this.'"

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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