By Natalie Goldberg | Updated June 16, 2018
Excerpted with permission from Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life by Natalie Goldberg, © 2011. Published by arrangement with Open Road Media.
People ask me, "What is style? Don't I have to have a unique style?"
You already have it. We are each unique individuals with unique lives. Nobody else on earth has the same life as you, with all the same details. Even if you are a twin, one of you was born a few minutes before the other, and if you took a walk together at the age of eight and came to a tree standing in the path, one of you might have gone to the right and one to the left. Going to the left of the tree, you saw a skunk. Going to the right, your twin saw a taco stand. Style is as simple and direct as that. It requires digesting your experience, whatever that experience is, so you may write about it. It doesn't mean blanking out the skunk or being mad that you didn't see the taco stand instead. It means you see the skunk, stay with the skunk, write it down; next moment write down the next thought, next sight, smell, taste or touch.
Style requires digesting who we are. It comes from the inside. It does not mean I write like Flannery O'Connor or Willa Cather, but that I have fully digested their work, and on top of this or with this I have also fully digested my life: Jewish, American, Buddhist woman in the twentieth century with a grandmother who owned a poultry market, a father who owned a bar, a mother who worked in the cosmetics department of Macy's all the things that make me. Then what I write will be imbued with me, will have my style.
If style is a digestion of so much, it comes from the whole body, not just the head. Every cell in us exudes who we are. We know this just by looking around at people in a cafe. The woman in the corner smeared her dark red lipstick above her lip line. She's tapping her long fingernails on the tabletop and staring out the window. The man at the next table is nibbling the crust off his toast first, is wearing black patent-leather shoes, and has slung his briefcase on the chair opposite him.
Style in writing is not something glib oh, yeah, she has style. It means becoming more and more present, settling deeper and deeper inside the layers of ourselves and then speaking, knowing what we write echoes all of us; all of who we are is backing our writing. That is very solid ground to stand on. Hemingway said if a writer knows something, even if he doesn't write it, it is present in his work.
This is quite beautiful. We are each a concert reverberating with our whole lives and reflecting and amplifying the world around us. This must be what is meant by the Buddhist saying that we are all interpenetrated and interconnected. But let's not get too cosmic stay with the pastrami sandwich in front of your face, the smell of the mustard, the potato chip bags you see on a rack out of the corner of your eye.
Issa is one of the four great Japanese haiku writers of all time. In the introduction to Inch by Inch (Tooth of Time Books, 1985), Nanao Sakaki, who translated Issa's haiku, said, "Not gifted with genius but honestly holding his experience deep in his heart, he kept his simplicity and humanity."
That is how Issa wrote his haiku; that is how he got his style. Nothing fancy. He digested who he was: a human being with human experiences. Often in class, I read those words twice. I'll write it down again for you here. Remember it. It helps.
"Not gifted with genius but honestly holding his experience deep in his heart, he kept his simplicity and humanity."
Finally, don't worry about style. Be who you are, breathe fully, be alive, and don't forget to write.
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