Dressed in tennis shoes, a baggy knit top and silver loop earrings, Natalie Goldberg reeks of the beat generation and quotes Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan as her idols. She wandered the streets of Charleston a few days before her scheduled appearance at The Sophia Institute and looked more like a grandmother than a writer’s icon. Renowned for her best selling book, Writing Down the Bones, Natalie combined 30 years of teaching with Zen Buddhist philosophy to create an intimate environment for the ninety participants.
The hip New Mexico based author of the million plus bestseller, joked about the “southern writing gene” in her largely southern audience. After many years in Europe, I’d only discovered Natalie’s work this summer and felt fortunate to be invited by the Institute’s founder, Carolyn Rivers. Natalie put us to work immediately. She presents writing, prompts like “tell me about where you live,” or “ I don’t remember…” Many of the prompts focus on recalling details from the past like my mother’s hands or my love story, followed by fifteen to twenty minute writing sessions. Anyone who stops finds themselves chided by Natalie who resembles a Tibetan master teaching mindful practices.
“This is a study in the mind,” Natalie says and insists that the hand keep moving. She describes the mind as being like a pearl in a silver bowl. The pearl should continue to glide round and round unhindered, she says. The aim is to continue the writing process nonstop, without censorship or mental editing. Keep moving forward.
Natalie declares that “writing is 90% listening.” At the end of the writing sessions we split up into groups and read our work without comment or judgment. Nothing of course is meant to be any good, but Natalie suggests some jewels may be found within it to develop later. She advises newcomers to continue to write in this free flowing way for two years before even beginning to think about structure. She describes this as a required passage for new writers to find their voice.
My favorite advice includes slow down and “be dumb.” Writers can’t take anything for granted, she says. Not that the sun will shine or that the pavement on the street always looks the same or that the leaves are always an identical color. To be dumb as she defines it means to awaken the senses to the world and look around as if for the first time. We practice slow walking in rhythm with the breath in the inner courtyard splashed with rain and let life come at us. And then we write some more.
I ask Natalie about the surge in interest in writing and particularly in memoir – the focus of one of her books and of this retreat. “There’s an explosion in writing because people want to know their own minds,” she said. Her workshop uses writing to help do just that.