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Natalie Goldberg: Thunder and Lightning
Natalie Goldberg : Warning! to Writers

Warning! to Writers

By Natalie Goldberg

I HAVE NOT SEEN WRITING lead to happiness in my friends' lives. I'm sorry to say this, I, who just fifteen years ago published a book telling everyone to grab their notebooks and write their asses off. No high like it, I said. I meant it — and it was true. Now I'm past fifty, and I have given everything to writing, the way a Zen master watches her breath and burns through distraction. Was I a fool to do this? Did I choose the wrong path?

I once told my great teacher Katagiri Roshi, "If I put the effort into zazen that I put into writing, I'd be sitting where you are."

"Yes, yes," he beamed.

But I didn't. Whatever small insight I eked out, whatever breakdown of illusion I realized or moment I stepped outside ego's poisons, I dedicated wholeheartedly to illuminating the writing path.

Eight years after my first book came out — I'd written three others in that time — I was sitting a Zen practice period in California. For eight weeks we woke up at five AM, meditated for several hours each day, worked in the fields, studied, chanted, listened to lectures. Every week we had an individual meeting with the abbot, who was Norm Fischer, a friend of mine and also a serious poet. During the third week, when it was my turn to go in and speak with him, I said, "Norm, when I sit a lot, as I'm doing now, what comes up, way down at the bottom, is that my heart is still broken from bringing out Writing Down the Bones. I've done therapy, I've learned good professional boundaries—"

"But you handle your success, you've helped so many — "

I cut him off. "I want you to hear me. Below all that, when I'm in this zendo day after day all I feel is an aching. I was so innocent — I didn't know what it meant to put my heart in the marketplace."

A long silence. I knew this time he'd heard me.

"You know," he said, "what I've seen — and this comes from my own close observations — is art leads to suffering. I have a lot of poet friends. The ones who've made it seem miserable. And the ones who haven't — when I go to visit them they whip out a newly published anthology and point out a poem: 'See, this isn't as good as mine and he's getting published.' Luckily, you have a foot in another world, Zen, so you won't get swallowed up."

I wasn't so sure. I had been certain art would save me. I knew all my writing friends felt the same way. After all, what could be better? I thought back to the first poem I'd ever written, about an Ebinger's blackout cake. In the shine of the icing, I saw God. I'd never felt so complete as I did that afternoon writing on my bed in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I poured my soul out on the page and it shimmered back at me.

And now this? Art leads to suffering? But it was true. I'd seen it again and again. Why hadn't any of us realized it? Why hadn't we put on the brakes? All my friends had tasted the sweetness of writing. Aflame with longing to make our mark, we didn't know what lay ahead: dislocation, isolation.

Months later back in Taos I called my friend Eddie, who was diligently working on his second novel. "Yeah," he sighed. "I don't know any writer who's happy. But what else is there to do?"

"I know what you mean," I said. "If there's any clear steering in this life for me, it will be through writing. But knowing what we know, how can I encourage people any more? I wanted my work to help people, give them clarity, not make them sad and desolate."

We laughed and then I told him, "I was reduced to going to Space Jam with Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny last Sunday for some inspiration. I'm trying to start a new book."

"Well, you seem to be following the right leads," he chortled.

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