Natalie Goldberg

Natalie Goldberg

Freeing the Writer Within

Warning! to Writers

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.

I know no one wants to hear me say how hard writing is — quit while you can.

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.

I told him how I loved Sir Altitude and that I thought maybe the greatest athlete in the world could make me believe in writing again. "You know, when I first saw him play I thought that Jordan had everything to do with Zen — one-pointed, alert, present, alive. Years later when I was on a book tour in Chicago I went to the hotel bar after my reading. Everyone was crowded around the TV. Master Air had just returned to basketball. It was his second game and he broke his scoring record. The next day they had a poll: should Michael Jordan be declared King of the World? Reading the newspaper in the elevator, I blurted out, 'Absolutely!' "

"Well, did Space Jam inspire you?" Eddie came back to the point.

"Not really," I said.

That night after talking to Eddie I couldn't sleep. At three AM I got out of bed and went into the living room to sit zazen. I said to myself, OK, Nat, every cell in your body gets it now — sooner or later you're going to die. You've made a lot of foolish mistakes, maybe writing was a dumb dream, but so what. Being a doctor, a rock star, a mother would have led to the same thing.

Then I paused and asked myself, Nat, are you depressed? I sat with moonlight streaming through my big windows and filling the mesa with a silver light. I saw a jackrabbit dash through the sage.

No, I thought, I'm not depressed. I hesitated: I'm the most peaceful I've ever been. It was true. I felt a vast acceptance of everything.

A small voice then asked, Well, now do you think you can write this book?

The title Thunder and Lightning had come to me two years earlier as I stood in awe at the foot of Arenal, an active volcano in Costa Rica. It was a perfectly clear day; then across the sky flew dark clouds, flashes of light, tremendous sound as though rock cliffs had exploded, followed by a downpour that abruptly turned the jungle slate-gray. I stood under my black umbrella near the protection of a cinder-block wall and watched. Wind howled through trees, and the rain, twice changing directions, first pelted the sides and then the front of my legs. Suddenly everything became soft, quiet, dripping, drenched, thick and muggy — and cracks of blue appeared in the sky overhead.

I thought, some divine structure has just whipped through here. That which manifests from nothing, changes everything and then is gone.

Wasn't that how I had created book after book in the past ten years? Where did they come from, how did I figure out how to build them? They presented themselves, I was absorbed; they were finished and I was left empty-handed.

My eye caught another fast movement outside the living room windows. Was it a coyote? — no, my neighbor's white dog was prowling near the big piñon. Last week he'd dug up my compost heap. I took a deep breath. I remembered a Sunday a month earlier when my friend Frances had driven up from Santa Fe to see me. Sundays in Taos can be the worst days, especially in late fall with no tourists on the streets. The place looks deserted, a ghost town with nothing moving. I can settle into a deep desolation on those days. When I met Frances behind the Café Tazza I could tell she felt as bad as I did.

"Let's climb Divisadero, straight up. No stopping." I thought breathing heavily up a steep incline would help.

After an hour and a half, heaving at the top, I turned to her. "Any better?"

She shook her head.

"Me neither." As we climbed down, I suggested we go to my house and sit zazen. The blues were thick in the car as we drove across the mesa.

I rang the bell to start the meditation. We sat till the incense burned down, a full hour.

As I unfolded my legs, I looked at her. I already knew the answer, but I asked, "How do you feel now?"


"Me, too." Neither hiking nor meditating had shifted the energy of our Sunday doldrums. I finally gave in and suggested the one thing I didn't want to suggest — I'd been struggling with writing all that past week. "OK, let's try writing practice."

We wrote for half an hour, read to each other, wrote another half hour, read aloud.

By the end we were both beaming. Writing practice had done it again — digested our sorrow, dissolved and integrated our inner rigidity, and let us move on. I don't even remember what we wrote about. It didn't matter. The effort of forming words, physically connecting hand with mind and heart, and then having the freedom to read aloud transformed us.

Yes, writing practice is good. It can help people, but I'm not so sure about taking it further.

I ask myself, OK, Nat, what's been good about writing books these last ten years?

I begin to enumerate — I'm not naive about publishing, I make a living — and suddenly stop. Wait a minute! Now I really remember something. In writing practice I am still following a trail of desire, indulging my own wandering mind. But when I write a book I surrender not to the liberal travels of my restless thoughts but to the design of the work itself. I harness the energy of wild mind to serve the ancient demands of structure — demands that are larger than myself and deeper in the matrix of the human mind. Writing a book is my one chance to experience freedom, to cut loose by succumbing to the discipline of form. It is an opportunity to touch something holy — like that storm in Costa Rica — independent of my human ego.

To rid myself of myself and my own wild cry for attention, I realize, is no less demanding than what it would have been like for me to sit in a cold zendo day after day.

I never escaped being a monk! The morning gruel, the frost on the bell, bare feet on frigid floors, all have been mine. Except that my meditation position has been a bent body hovering over a notebook with only my right hand moving across a blank page for hours at a time.

I know no one wants to hear me say how hard writing is — quit while you can. In the Japanese monasteries they warn you not to come in. In fact, you have to prove your sincerity and mettle by sitting outside the gates day after day before you can be admitted.

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi once sent an energetic but uppity San Francisco Zen Center student to a monastery outside Kyoto. They had him sit for five days outside the wall, and then he was called in for an interview. The teacher handed him a paper and pencil: "Write your name."

He did what he was told and handed it back. The teacher looked at the paper. "Please continue to sit."

After five more days, he was called in again. "Write your name."

He wrote his name and once more was sent outside.

The eleventh day, the twelfth day — the same. On the thirteenth day, the Zen teacher again asked the young American to write his name.

He picked up the pencil, put it to paper, paused, looked up, looked back down, looked up at the teacher. "I can't. I don't know how."

"Good. You're ready to enter."

So here I am — I hope not too late. Do not say you were not warned: to continue this crazy thing called writing might lead to steep precipices, dangerous canyons, craggy cliffs. I make no promises.

A student in a workshop walked up to me swinging his briefcase. "Hi, I'm an engineer. I make forty-six thousand dollars a year. How long do you think it will take me to earn that much with writing?"

"Keep your job," I told him. Now I think if that student comes by again, I'll screech in bloodcurdling syllables, "No advances! No assurances! No credentials! No merit!"

Know that you will eventually have to leave everything behind; the writing will demand it of you. Bareboned, you are on the path with no markers, only the skulls of those who never made it back. But I have made the journey, and I have made it back — over and over again. I will act as your guide.

Now that you have been warned, let me also say this: if you want to know what you're made of, if you want to stand on death's dark face and leave behind the weary yellow coat of yourself, then just now — I hear it — the heavy wooden doors of the cloister of no return are creaking open. Please enter.

©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