Natalie Goldberg ‘Bones’ Interview: ‘I don't believe in writer's block’

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

Freeing the Writer Within

In this exclusive interview, Natalie Goldberg discusses the 20th anniversary of Writing Down the Bones, her other books, creativity, zen, and writer's block.

Natalie GoldbergNatalie Goldberg's seminal work, Writing Down the Bones, was the first book that made me feel like a writer. I've been gleaning inspiration from her work since I was first introduced to Writing Down the Bones in high school. Her unquenchable curiosity, thirst for juicy details, and unsparing honesty kept me coming back for more with Wild Mind. Goldberg is, in fact, the first writer who truly seemed real to me — she wasn't just a face in a dusty old book, but an actual flesh-and-blood woman battling it out on the page. I could picture having coffee with her in a cafe and writing for hours.

It is Natalie's bravery — her ability to strip herself bare — which inspires me most. Her deeply revealing memoirs, The Great Failure, Long Quiet Highway, and Living Color, are a mirror into the soul of this complex writer, spiritual seeker, and artist. I enjoyed her novel, Banana Rose, because the characters pop off the page. It's so real you can smell the rain on the sagebrush. Her amazing eye for detail is informed by her devotion to the visual arts — aside from writing, Goldberg is an accomplished painter in her own right — and her spiritual journey.

As I move through my own journey as a writer, I find myself called to read (and re-read) Long Quiet Highway, which is a memoir of her creative and spiritual journey. I find much to inspire me in this book. For the first time, I began to consider the act of writing as a spiritual practice, similar to meditation or prayer. In my own work, the spiritual and creative intertwine in a holy ecstasy of words. I pray with the pen and the page so fervently, and worship at the altar of the Muses. It was gratifying to learn about her spiritual journey, and Goldberg's struggles with her identity and history were poignant and meaningful to me.

It is with great pleasure that I welcome Natalie Goldberg to Creativity Portal today. We're celebrating the release of the Twentieth Anniversary e-book edition of Writing Down the Bones.

Q: What can we expect from the 20th Anniversary expanded edition of Writing Down the Bones? How does it differ from the original seminal work?

A: I added a new introduction, and there is a great interview in the back that Tami Simon (Sounds True) did with me a few years ago. But also beyond this seminal work, I've written many more books that expand and enrich what's within, such as Thunder and Lightning: About the Writer's Craft and Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir.

Q: I loved your novel, Banana Rose. Any plans to write more fiction soon, or another memoir?

A: I'm glad you loved it — I love it, too. I'm not naturally a fiction writer. I'm more into studying the movement of the mind, whereas fiction is interested in the movement of the story and must stay true to that narration. That said, writing this novel was the hardest thing I think I'd ever done. I had to learn the form and direction of fiction. For the future, I do have another story in mind about Yolanda, a twin, but that will have to come after other books. I think I will face Yolanda when I am old. Regarding memoirs, I have written a few in the past, such as the following: The Great Failure (2004), which is about the two most important men in my life; Long Quiet Highway (1992), which is about my spiritual and creative journey; and Living Color (1997), which is about my painting.

Q: Your book, Long Quiet Highway, discussed your spiritual and creative work. How does your spiritual practice inform and inspire your writing and art? How do you use writing as part of your practice as a Zen Buddhist?

A: Writing and Zen for me is completely interconnected and interpenetrated. There is no difference between the two. Writing practice is another practice like sitting or slow walking. It's another way to study the mind.

Q: What is the biggest obstacle in your creative path at present? How are you dealing with it?

A: Oddly my biggest obstacle right now is getting the time to write. I make a living as a writer — I just signed a new contract for a new book — and yet I have to fight for the time. Daily life is so seductive and pulls at you. I'm not married, I don't have children and yet I have to almost steal the time like a thief. For instance, when the first snow came to Northern Mexico, all I wanted to do was go snowshoeing. When friends called, I gave in. It was a wonderful time, but another day I did not write. (This is why early practice is so important, it helps build determination. I know eventually I will crack the whip and become so engaged that nothing will come before it.)

Q: Writer's block can be terrifying. In your opinion, what causes this dreaded disease of the creative soul — and what's the cure?

A: I don't believe in writer's block. The cure: pick up the pen and get moving. Go, 10 minutes, tell me everything you know about mashed potatoes.

Q: What sparks a poem or a painting? What inspires you, and makes your soul sing?

A: What sparks me is paying attention. One morning, I could be eating a piece of toast and not really be there, while the next, me and the toast are one. When I'm "right there" all kinds of associations wake up. Being right there opens worlds.

Night Palms by Natalie GoldbergQ: Which came first, the writer or the painter? How has your work as an artist shaped your writing — and vice versa? How does writing influence your art?

A: In 1974, it was like spontaneous combustion: I began to write, meditate and paint. Writing is essentially a visual art. You want the reader to see what you are saying. That's why you stay away from abstract description. Painting attunes my visual faculty and also in the silence of paint I work out unconsciously some of the things I want to say in writing. Painting makes me aware of detail. It is my darling pleasure. Without painting, writing becomes like eating cereal without milk. Too dry.

Q: What was it like working with Mary Feidt on Tangled Up in Bob? How has this musician affected your life and art?

A: It was heaven to do Tangled Up in Bob, the film about Bob Dylan's childhood. Mary Feidt is so creative and up for anything. She's also a deep listener: she was able to pull out of me what I never understood before.

Regarding Bob Dylan, all my life I've loved him and have wanted to understand how his childhood in Hibbing, Minnesota impacted his songwriting. He lived there until he was 18, and at 21 he was writing some of his best songs. There had to have been an effect. Overall, working on this project was one of the best things I've ever done. Suddenly I didn't have the lone life of a writer but had colleagues to work with through a project. I think the film is terrific.

Q: Your writing and art evoke the landscapes of your New Mexico home beautifully. Can you discuss the role of place in your work? How does the landscape where you create affect the work itself?

A: Wherever we are is the meat of writing. Landscape should never be an excuse not to write. For instance, one doesn't get to say, "Natalie lives in the mountains. I don't live in the mountains so I can't write." In response, I'd say, "Get to work. I want to hear about Cleveland or Ames, Iowa. If you hate where you live, you must know it well enough to hate it. I want to learn about it." Also, much of what we write about is inside us: we carry the landscape inside us and write. Many other people would have very different things to say about New Mexico.

Q: How about a juicy writer's prompt or two to get our pens moving?

A: In forty minutes, tell me your story of love. In another forty, tell me your story of loneliness.

Q: What's the one question no one ever asks that you'd like to answer?

A: The question no one ever asks me that I'd like to answer right now is this: "Do you ever feel you've written the book you wanted to write?" Never. That's why I keep going. It's like it's right out there, and I have to catch it. I hope to break another paradigm before I die, like I did with Writing Down the Bones. I'd like to see something in a totally different way that will help and give people their life force.

For more than 35 years, Natalie Goldberg has been challenging and encouraging writers through her books and workshops. Start with her seminal classic, Writing Down the Bones in print or for your Reader.

Comments (closed):

Q: How does Natalie's own process resonate with your own writing process?

I like what she said about the "landscape" does not/should not affect how you write. I am at the very first rung on the ladder to writing, live in the boonies, and have used this excuse and many others to keep from writing, lol. I would love to win her book! — Carol Henley

I just love Natalie Goldberg. I somehow was led to Natalie's writings after reading "Bones of the Master" I don't remember the journey, just that I got there! Through her I realized it didn't matter that I don't have a degree, I'm not in the place that my soul yearns for or any other excuse that walled me off from writing. When she said "wherever you are is the place to be writing from" it opened the door. One of my greatest delights will be to attend a writing retreat of hers someday. — Kimberley Hitzges

Some things don't always turn out the way we plan them too, particularly in high school. When I read Natalie Goldberg's book in my Creative Writing class taught by Ms. Oldfield I was hooked. The book inspired my life in such a way that I have now taught classes in creative writing and poetry to friends, children, my nieces and nephews and fellow creative writers. Natalie Goldberg has been a true inspiration to me in bringing one of the best things out of me, the soul of inspiration. Thank you Natalie and Thank you Creativity Portal for your awesomeness. — Veronica Garcia

©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