The True Secret of Writing
By Natalie Goldberg | Updated 8/25/15
I use the word practice all the time. Students nod, but after some time it became clear that different definitions were at work.
On the first day of a yearlong intensive, where we meet for one week of silent retreat each season, I asked students to choose a feasible practice that they could do for the whole year. At the end of the week they read their choices aloud: to stop eating fries and lose twenty-five pounds; run five miles a day and strengthen their quads; do an hour of sitting, then an hour of writing, then finish their novel. The lists went on like this. Full of achievement, forwardlooking, industrious.
I felt like a lightweight when my turn came: to sit for twenty minutes five days a week.
Right then I could have had a discussion about practice, but I decided to see what would happen.
We met again three months later, in spring. The first night right after dinner, I asked, “So how did it go?”
Some smirks, head shaking. “Not so good? Well, you know, you can change it for next time,” I said. “Let’s go over what practice is.”
Why didn’t I save them from unrealistic ideals or workouts in the first place? Because I knew they wouldn’t listen to me — oh, they’d listen, after all they were my darling students — but they wouldn’t hear me. Struggling with something, failing has a great effect — a gap opens, you realize you don’t know everything — a little emptiness forms where you can receive something. Particularly in our Western ambitious, productive, drill, workout society it is hard to hear what’s at our backs; we only pay attention to what’s in front, advancing, a goal. Not succeeding brings us to the ground, to look outside our shell, to even use the small word we are afraid to use: help.
So in that meeting in early April, the spring wind howling outside, and the tiniest bit of pale green edging cottonwood branches, we established a different slant to practice other than “practice makes perfect”: It’s something you choose to do on a regular basis with no vision of an outcome; the aim is not improvement, not getting somewhere. You do it because you do it. You show up whether you want to or not. Of course, at the beginning it’s something that you have chosen, that you wanted, but a week, a month in, you often meet resistance. Even if you love it, inertia, obstacles arise: I can make better use of my time, I’m tired, I’m hungry, this is stupid, I need to listen to the evening news. Here’s where you have an opportunity to meet your own mind, to examine what it does, its ploys and shenanigans. That’s ultimately what practice is: arriving at the front — and back door — of yourself. You set up to do something consistently over a long period of time — and simply watch what happens with no idea of good or bad, gain or loss. No applause — and no criticism. •
Excerpted with permission from The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language by Natalie Goldberg (Atria Books, 2013).