When Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones was published in 1986, it tapped into a vein most would-be writers weren't aware existed. Practically singlehandedly, Goldberg began the "Just Write" movement. By the early '90s, one couldn’t find a table at a coffee shop because each had been commandeered by a Goldberg devotee, frantically scribbling down his or her own bones.
In the 20 years since Bones, Goldberg has followed her bliss, leading seminars as well as penning a novel, several memoirs and two more writing books. With Old Friend from Far Away she returns to what she does best: offering short, sweet, spicy and succinct shots in the arm for the reluctant writer; in this case, the writer of memoirs.
I caught up with Goldberg in her Phoenix hotel room via phone, where she was two cities away from heading home to Taos. Tired from her travels, her first question was how the weather was here. Assured that it was perfect (as always), she graciously and thoroughly answered my not-always-easy inquiries.
In your introduction to Old Friend from Far Away, you suggest that “memoir can save us.” Who is “us,” and how, specifically, do you believe memoir can save us?
I guess I think of Americans as people who are always busy, always moving, always going. Memoir is an opportunity to stop and digest our lives, to look back and reflect, to study memory and what we remember and learn from it. So I guess that “us” is all of us, all Americans. How much do I think it can save us? I think it can. Memoir is about intimacy with our life. It’s become important because we want to have a connection with our lives. We’re often disconnected.
How can this move us from the individual to the universal?
I think it’s really important for people to be connected to themselves, to be intimate with themselves, because it’s in that way [we make larger connections]. We live in the personal and we die in the personal, and if we get abstract and universal too quickly, that’s a problem. Because what happens when it becomes abstract is that is we drop bombs. When we realize we’re dropping bombs on individuals, it wakes us up.
Good writing comes from the personal. When you really are personal, you’re giving those details up, giving them to the world, you’re actually losing your personal because you’ve given it over to the world. When you do it well, it meets other people and connects with [them]. What happens is that we give it up—and that’s great, because we want to give it over before we die.
As in Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind, your intent is to get people writing via exercises that, at their simplest, are sensual keys—via sight, sound, smell, taste and feeling—that focus people’s minds on specific moments. Can you talk about the way this focus mirrors Zen practice?
It’s not really Zen. … A lot of them are more things you wouldn’t think of normally. [But] in that way, it is like Zen practice, messing with your mind, trying to break it open, coming from different angles. Really, the whole book is trying to give you a taste of what it’s like to study with me, to be in the classroom with me.
As writers we develop a very strong muscle. The problem is the muscle can’t be seen on the beach: It’s our brain, our human brain. In the exercises, I’m working people over. But I do it in the chapters of memoir—mine and other people’s—trying to model your mind so that you can experience what it’s like to experience—to enter—memoir, enter the study of memory and the way we think.
It seems the “old friend” of the title is one’s former self. Why do you believe returning to one’s past is so important?
It doesn’t really. The phrase “old friend” is from the Analects by Confucius. I think of that old friend as memory. But, yes, I do see that it could be one’s former self. I like that!
Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind tap into the '80s/'90s desire to know oneself as deeply and thoroughly as possible. What 21st-century need would you say Old Friend taps into?
There’s a desire for intimacy and to slow down in the middle of speed. But also, I want to say that Americans, innovators that we are, have taken memoir—which used to be used by people at the end of their lives as an opportunity to reflect—and made it alive not just at the end of their lives but at every stage of their lives—20-year-olds, 30-year-olds. It’s that great American energy: We’re impatient; we want to know things now; we don’t want to wait forever. It’s kind of wonderful, to take that memoir form with its old application and make it alive and new for us now. But how American, you know?