Natalie Goldberg ‘Thunder and Lightning’ Interview: Cracking Open the Writer's Craft

Posted 6/1/11 | Updated 3/22/21

Thunder and Lightning

Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer's Craft

Natalie GoldbergPreviously, I had the pleasure of interviewing Natalie Goldberg on the long-awaited digital release of her classic, Writing Down the Bones.

Goldberg has returned to Creativity Portal to dish the dirt about her book Thunder and Lightning.

This inspiring author and spiritual seeker has been a major influence on my life and work, and it is indeed a treat to connect with her again on such a happy occasion.

Q: What spawned the idea for Thunder and Lightning, your sequel to Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind? What did you hope to achieve with this book?

A: My job is to build strong writing spines so students learn to trust themselves and their minds. This, I believe, is the most potent writer's tool. Once you have this, you can choose to write essays, novels, short stories, newspaper columns, travel stories, memoirs — whatever you wish. All my teaching is geared toward this.

I am often asked a very specific question related to writing: "What am I supposed to do after I fill a notebook, after I practice writing?" I wrote Thunder and Lightning to answer this specific question. In the book I share how I developed Writing Down the Bones, which I think helps people understand structure, an important and little talked of element to writing. I hope it helps writers turn their flashes of inspiration into polished final pieces.

Q: What's the story behind the title, Thunder and Lightning?

A: I was standing at the edge of a storm in Central America, one of those great storms — I live in New Mexico, where it's dry, so you really pay attention to rain — and I thought of thunder and lightning as metaphor to opening the writer's mind. After that, I wrote. Once I get a title I know I can proceed and write a book.

Q: How does Thunder and Lightning build upon your earlier works?

A: Thunder and Lightning is the next step after writing practice. I ask my students to do at least two years of writing practice before they launch into a form, build a strong spine first. You must know who you are and what your true obsessions are — what do you burn for?

If people ask you what you are publishing when they hear you are writing, tell them your teacher told you no form for two years. The public is naive, especially beginning writers who think they have to produce a finished piece right away to verify that it is okay to write. I'm giving you permission to simply meet yourself, one of the main reasons we want to write in the first place.

Q: In this book, you reveal what some of your fans already know — your novel, Banana Rose, is a thinly veiled account of your own life. Why did you choose to classify it as fiction, instead of marketing it as a memoir?

A: After I finished Writing Down the Bones, I told my agent I was going to write a memoir. He said, "You are too young to write a memoir. Write a book." (Don't forget it was the mid-eighties, before memoirs came out written at all ages.) So, being naive, that's what I did. But the more I let go of the exact facts of my hippie life, the closer I actually got to revealing my inner life.

Q: Let's talk about fear. How do you use writing to face your fears, or express them? What are your hopes and fears, related to your work?

A: Hmm, that's a good question. My hope is to help people wake up. My own fear is that I've spent my life dedicated to bringing writing practice to the world and didn't live enough — didn't hike in Nepal, didn't ride a motorcycle. But, even as I write this, I know I did what I sincerely love.

Q: What is the primary commitment a writer must make to her work, and to her audience?

A: To write the best, most true and honest and intimate and close that you possibly can. For you and for the reader.

Q: How do you infuse your writing with a deep and tangible sense of place?

A: I love place, all places. I have a curiosity about them. My friend Miriam says I have a jones for place. I even fall in love with someone because of the place they live. So for me it is natural to imbue my work with place. Open your heart to what is around you.

Q: What is the importance of a mentor in a young writer's life? What are some creative ways you've allowed literature to inspire and guide your work?

A: Oh, it's so important to have a mentor. But sometimes they aren't physically available. Really, the authors you love are your mentors. Study their mind when you read their work. It's all there. What do they say? What do they leave out? What is the structure of the book? Writers are our teachers. Study them. I have loved Carson McCullers all my life. I write nothing like her but I feel the heat of the south in her very first paragraph. And it makes me want to do it. It encourages me. Never be jealous of someone's good writing. Study it. They have opened the path for you.

Q: How do stories change you, feed your soul, save you, set you free?

A: I just finished Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. I knew him when he finished The Tennis Partner quite awhile ago. We corresponded quite a bit, and then he came to my class in Taos, but I was astounded to read his novel. I kept thinking, "Abraham I didn't know you had this in you." I completely fell into the novel, to the point that I miss those characters terribly right now. I dive into a good book. It gives me everything.

Q: What other tips and encouragement do you have for budding writers?

A: First I want to say what good questions these were. I really enjoyed answering them. My tip is this: practice, practice, practice. Not only while you are writing, but all the time. Fall in love with your world, no matter how hard it is, this is your life. Meet it, honor it, and write your ass off.

©2011 Molly Anderson-Childers. 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