The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language by Natalie Goldberg (Atria Books, Simon & Schuster Inc., 2013)
“Pick up the pen and face yourself.”
During our family holiday in September — which actually turned into my month-long bronchitis holiday — I promised I wouldn’t do any writing work. Day one, Mr. Sexy found me lounging in bed with a pot of green tea, hiding from our children and re-reading Natalie Goldberg’s latest book The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language.
“Aren’t you supposed to be taking time off work?” he asked.
“Oh, this isn’t work,’’ I said. “This is brain candy for writers.”
And so it is. It’s also much more nourishing than just candy and doesn’t leave you with a sugar hangover. When I finished re-reading this delicious birthday present from my Sydney writing buddy, I went back to the beginning and started all over again. Now that’s just pure Natalie Goldberg for you.
Twenty-five years after Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, Goldberg shares the writing benefits of sitting, slow walking, meditation, and silence from her True Secret retreats. Goldberg, an experienced Zen practitioner, has combined writing practice with mindfulness to encourage us to understand how writing connects us to ourselves. This isn’t just a manual for writing but an offering of how to live a deeper, more meaningful life.
As such Goldberg doesn’t just talk about writing, she wonders at the enduring power of the written word to link and unite individuals. This book is a four-course feast and demonstrates, once again, Goldberg’s ability to render new and exciting the sometimes painful intricacies of the writing process. She is a master at leading us to the possibilities of the blank page. Throughout the book, we remain captivated by her ability to combine elements of memoir and Zen practice with thoughts on the human condition. We are not so much reading as sitting and sharing at Goldberg’s table of creativity and inspiration.
At a time when everyone seems to be talking at or around each other online and in person, Goldberg urges us to accept the radiant abundance of diversity through the power of listening.
“To allow someone else’s mind is to be newly open to our own mind. To abide a whole room of individual thoughts is to feel large, containing worlds, abundant and whole. No enemies. No one to fight. This ability to listen seems a strong foundation for democracy.”
Goldberg remains one of our great stewards of stillness and writing freedom, of allowing our wild thoughts to spread over the page unencumbered by judgement. She reminds us to step aside from the world of anxious productivity and urges us to take control of our time and sit for five minutes a day. This type of mind clearing, even if we daydream rather than meditate, is what resets our brains so we can be more creative.
“But what freedom when you sit down in the middle of your busy life, to unroot the urgency, the feeling that everything is an emergency.”
Like her other books on writing practice, Goldberg encourages us by sharing her own flaws, failures, and experiences. However, unlike some of her earlier works, The True Secret reads more as a gentle conversation about the writing practice than instruction. Goldberg constantly reminds us to acknowledge and accept the “ebb and flow” of the writer’s life, to borrow a term from Canadian author Susan Olding.
“Our lives are not linear. We get lost, then we get found. Patience is important, and a large tolerance for our mistakes. We don’t become anything overnight.”
At Goldberg’s table, the entrée is a gentle explanation of why the various Zen elements matter to our writing, while the main meal is practical advice on how to set up your own writing retreats. Because Goldberg knows that every writer is a gourmand who takes great pleasure in devouring books on word craft, she offers us both cheese and desert after our meal. We are given different ways to broaden our own writing practice, to tackle that squirming procrastination and new exercises to free up our imagination. In part four we learn from her teachers and mentors, from Hemingway to Wang Wei. Then just as we’re about to push our chairs back, sated with thought and inspiration, she brings out one last tasty morsel: that reading list we all hanker for.
In a mere 230 pages, Goldberg gives us permission to go against the dictates of society, to follow our writing hearts, to experiment and go forward with our pens and pencils.
“I encourage you to write. I tell everyone that it is good, important, whole. Yet, to take yourself seriously and have intention in the onslaught of daily life and society is not easy. The only true prescription I can give anyone: Do it. In the face of all inner — and outer — resistance and opposition, just write. Pick up the pen and face yourself.”
There is no getting away from the writing truth with Goldberg. She knows. She understands the battles and the victories. She has been there, will be there again, and she is here with us.
“What we avoid corrupts and deforms us — we are always twisting away from it. And it shows in our writing, in the way we sit and walk. If it is true that we are interconnected, then, in avoiding something, we avoid ourselves.”