Natalie Goldberg

Natalie Goldberg

Freeing the Writer Within

Alleviating That Thin Constant Writer's Anxiety

Posted 6/1/11 | Updated 7/1/20

Thunder and Lightning

Excerpted from Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer's Craft by Natalie Goldberg, ©2011. Published by arrangement with Open Road Media.

When we're concrete about our writing time, it alleviates that thin constant feeling of anxiety that writers have.

But how in our busy lives do we get any writing done in the first place? Often, at the moment a student begins to say, "But I have a full-time, demanding job, a family" — I cut her off: "What's the word?"

She makes a little perplexed face. I spell it out: "S-T-R-U-C-T-U-R-E — we've been talking about it all week. Structure your time."

Open those date books that Americans are so fond of and schedule in writing time, and be realistic. If you have a busy week, don't beat yourself up for not being able to write every day. As a matter of fact, don't ever say you'll write every day because when you don't — and I promise you, there will be days you won't — you'll hate yourself. Beware of sweeping commitments: they usually have the opposite effect. Rather than writing every day, you'll write no days.

Instead, be pragmatic: look at your calendar. If next week you can fit in only a half hour for writing on Tuesday from ten to ten-thirty in the morning, good. Mark it down. Do you have another window of time? For how long? Be specific, jot it down: four to five-thirty Friday. Let's push it further — where will you write? At the Blue Moon Café? OK, you've made a date, and like any other — with the dentist, the accountant, the hairdresser — you have to keep it. You're committed, it's in your appointment book.

Do you see how important it is to be precise? Leave no space for indecision, set everything in advance. All you have to do is show up, open your notebook and push the pen.

I hear people say they're going to write. I ask, when? They give me vague statements. Indefinite plans get dubious results. When we're concrete about our writing time, it alleviates that thin constant feeling of anxiety that writers have — we're barbecuing hot dogs, riding a bike, sailing out in the bay, shopping for shoes, even helping a sick friend, but somewhere nervously out at the periphery of our perception we know we belong somewhere else — at our desk! Scheduling lets our free time be our free time and not a constant case of playing hooky.

Three years ago I participated in a fall practice period at Green Gulch Zen Center in northern California. For almost three months we woke each morning at four-thirty AM, sat in the cold zendo from five to seven, did clean-up, had a formal breakfast, and then had a work period from eight-thirty to noon, followed by chanting, and lunch at twelve-thirty. After lunch I had three hours to write before late afternoon sitting, chanting, dinner and lecture. Lights were out at nine o'clock. Talk about structure! I was almost always tired.

Then came the week I was assigned to the farm. It had been pouring for days. I stood in the mud in rubber boots and green slicker all morning, slugging it out with the lettuce. We needed fifty scarlet heads to sell at the farmer's market the next day, plus thirty pounds of potatoes, forty bunches of kale and twenty of chard. I was frightened by so much rain. A constant driving downpour like this in New Mexico would have dissolved my adobe house.

That afternoon with a satchel of notebooks over my shoulder I headed for the cabin I wrote in. I was crossing the small bridge over a flooding creek, repeating to myself the reasons I should turn back: I've already written four days in a row, I'm exhausted, I might get sick and be in bed for the rest of practice period, I have nothing to write, the bridge might get carried off and I won't be able to get back in time, a nap would be so delicious. I had some convincing arguments. Really, what would missing one time amount to? In the middle of the bridge I almost turned back, when suddenly I heard a small voice: but, Natalie, you said you'd write today.

That simple statement washed everything else away. I trudged on down the dirt road lined with dripping eucalyptus trees, up the steep railroad-tie stairs to Martha De Barros's cabin, my writing refuge. I realized in that moment the only thing that gave me confidence — and confidence is a great thing — is that I showed up for writing when I said I would and I'd done it continuously for many years. Several published books, contracts, advances, promotion tours, royalties — none of that bolstered me when I was face-to-face with my resistance. Only the continual act of showing up for writing built my belief in myself.

Now I'm not a person with an iron will. Take chocolate. I have vowed not to eat any more of it at least four times a week for probably twelve years. I don't even think I hear the vow anymore as I storm into the candy store. Every time I say I will never eat chocolate again, I'm really saying, run along darling, go buy a fat dark bar. Why should I trust myself in this area? I've never done what I say.

Let's say, fifteen minutes before your allotted writing time, your five-year-old daughter falls off her bike and has to be rushed to the emergency room for stitches. Grab a notebook as you run out the door, or shift that hour to another slot in the week. You missed it and you have to make it up.

"But it seems selfish to take that time for writing when I have two children who need so much attention," a student argued last January.

A woman from Toronto with six kids jumped in before I had time to say anything: "You're writing for your kids. So they know their mother has another life."

And how do you build that other life? That's right: structure. It's a great discovery both inside and outside the book.

©2011 Natalie Goldberg. All rights reserved.

Natalie GoldbergNatalie Goldberg is the author of many books, including classic bestseller Writing Down the Bones, which has changed the way writing is taught in the United States. more