I just finished reading Natalie Goldberg’s latest book Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home (released in June 2018). Loved it. I love all her books so this isn’t really a serious review because I’m a fangirl, I love Goldberg’s work, and I use her advice for both my teaching and my own writing.
What attracts me to Goldberg’s work and writing is that she is real. Not that memoirists are not real, they are, but there is a quality of Goldberg’s work that delivers a sense of the right here, right now that is unique. She is a Jewish Zen practitioner and lifelong writer. Her book, Writing Down the Bones, is on every “Must have” list for a writer’s library. I’ve met her, I wrote a Master thesis on her work, I have asked her if she knew of Peter Elbow, author of Writing Without Teachers) and she said yes, even though she never mentions his work in any of her books.
In this her most recent book, she doesn’t write about writing, she writes about her cancer journey.
She had written about coming out, she has written about her parents, particularly her father, and she has written about her deep love for her Zen master as well as his betrayal later. Because of her Zen training, she is a master at noticing: this cup, this sidewalk, this cookie.
For two years she battled cancer ( she even commented on the language of cancer, all military, all battles, attacks, and blood). And instead of glossing over the experience, she, as is typical of her brand, dives in and records her experience as honestly as she could because she believes that in describing her experience, in naming the drugs she was given. If she records the specifics of the process she experienced, she could help someone else.
Here is what she did as a writer:
Stayed true to her brand. She discovered many books on cancer in the abstract, but few recording the gritty details of the process. So she set out to correct that.
Like all her books, she recorded the details. She applied all that Zen slow walking, drinking of water, sitting Zazen, writing for ten minutes – go – and applied it to this new experience. She took us on her journey and it was magnificent.
She kept writing because writers write. She was working on The Great Spring at the time of her treatments, she credits that distraction with helping her get through the very long, very frustrating, very scary, experience.
Which brings us to: no matter what you’re going through, writing helps. It helps a lot.
She kept her friends close, she was rarely alone, her friends hung out doing the 8 hours of chemo drip and supported her, and helped her escape the sterile halls of the hospital after she was finished. Her friends joined her in hot chocolate and ice cream. My friends would join me in beer and wine. Choose good friends, keep them close.
She wrote to stave off boredom. While all these chemicals (that did not work by the way) were dripping into her body, she wrote. She doesn’t even say it was wonderful, it was bad. In fact, if you attend her retreats, she is maddeningly insistent that no writing is good or bad, it just is. No judgment because if you are a writer, what else is there to do? I need a little judgment.
She wrote with her friends, something she also advocates and something, in the dark days of treatment, she did.
And my take away: writing can keep you young. On the page she is still wondering, she is still observing, and that curiosity and recording deliver an attitude that reads as young. The writer herself is in her mid-sixties, but unless she mentions it, and she does, you cannot tell her age from the writing itself.
Who doesn’t want to sound younger?
That’s what I thought.
In an emergency, our habits are our default. Goldberg defaulted to writing and zen, practices not something we finish. The writing was part of her salvation and as she contemplated death, her legacy.
Or as she wrote in Wild Mind – It is my hope that in sharing what I do, I have helped my readers along the writing path.