Natalie Goldberg

Natalie Goldberg

Freeing the Writer Within

Engendering Compassion

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

Freeing the Writer Within

Excerpted from Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, ©1986. Published by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston.

Writing from our pain engenders compassion for our small and groping lives.

I am on a Greek island right now: the Aegean Sea, cheap rooms on the beach, nude swimming, little tavernas where you sit under dried bamboo sipping ouzo, taste octopus, watch the great sun set.

I am thirty-six and my friend who is with me is thirty-nine. It is the first time either of us has been to Europe. We take in everything, but only halfway because we are busy always, always talking. I tell her about my dance recital when I was six years old in a pink tutu; how my father, who sat in the front row, broke down weeping when he saw me.

She tells me how her husband in Catholic school in Nebraska came late for a play that he was the star of and how the nuns had all the school children on their knees praying that he would appear.

On Tuesday I decide I need to be alone. I want to walk around and write. Everyone has a great fear in life. Mine is loneliness. Naturally our great fear is usually the one most important to overcome to reach our life's dreams. I am a writer. Writers spend a lot of time alone writing. Also, being an artist in our society makes us lonely. Everyone else leaves in the morning for work and structured jobs. Artists live outside that built-in social system.

So I have chosen to spend the day alone because I always want to push my boundaries. It's noon, very hot. I am not going to the beach and everything is closed here at midday. I begin to wonder what I am doing with my life. Whenever I get disoriented or not sure of myself, it seems I bring my whole life into question. It becomes very painful. To cut through, I say to myself, "Natalie, you planned to write. Now write. I don't care if you feel nuts and lonely." So I begin. I write about the nearby church, the boat in the harbor, my table in the café. It isn't great fun. I am wondering when my friend will return. She doesn't come back with the five-o'clock boat.

I can't speak Greek. I am all by myself and notice my environment much more acutely. The four old men at the next table take the long string out of the back of every green bean they have piled on the table. The one facing the ocean argues with the man to his left. An old woman in black near the wharf bends to pull up her long stocking. I wander to a beach I didn't know before and begin reading Green Hills of Africa on a sand bar as the sun sets. I notice a taverna that sells fresh tuna. I am attempting to connect with my environment. I miss my friend very much, but through my panic I break through to a kinship with the sand, the sky, my life. I walk back along the beach.

When we walk around Paris, my friend is afraid of being lost and she is very panicky. I don't fear being lost. If I am lost, I am lost. That is all. I look on my map and find my way. I even like to wander the streets of Paris not particularly knowing where I am. In the same way I need to wander in the field of aloneness and learn to enjoy it, and when loneliness bites, take out a map and find my way out without panic, without jumping to the existential nothingness of the world, questioning everything — "Why should I be a writer?" — and pushing myself off the abyss.

So when we write and begin with an empty page and a heart unsure, a famine of thoughts, a fear of no feeling — just begin from there, from that electricity. This kind of writing is uncontrolled, is not sure where the outcome is, and it begins in ignorance and darkness. But facing those things, writing from that place, will eventually break us and open us to the world as it is. Out of this tornado of fear will come a genuine writing voice.

While I was in Paris I read Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller. In the second-to-last chapter Miller rages on about a school in Dijon, France, where he is stuck teaching English, about the dead statues and students who would become dentists and engineers, the cold bone winter and the whole town pumping out mustard. He is furious that he must be there. Then right at the end of the chapter, he sits, late at night, outside the college gates in perfect peace, surrendering himself for the moment to where he is, knowing nothing is good or bad, just alive.

To begin writing from our pain eventually engenders compassion for our small and groping lives. Out of this broken state there comes a tenderness for the cement below our feet, the dried grass cracking in a terrible wind. We can touch the things around us we once thought ugly and see their special detail, the peeling paint and gray of shadows as they are — simply what they are: not bad, just part of the life around us — and love this life because it is ours and in the moment there is nothing better.

©1986 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