Arts & Creativity

Write Your Life

Natalie Goldberg’s bestseller Writing Down the Bones inspired thousands to take up writing as a spiritual practice. Now she teaches us the art of memoir. In this exclusive excerpt from her new book, Old Friend from Far Away, Goldberg offers some lessons on exploring and understanding our personal history.

© iStockPhoto.com/PetroFeketa

There is nothing stiff about memoir. It’s not a chronological pronouncement of the facts of your life: born in Hoboken, New Jersey; schooled at Elm Creek Elementary; moved to Big Flat, New York, where you attended Holy Mother High School. Memoir doesn’t cling to an orderly procession of time and dates, marching down the narrow aisle of your years on this earth. Rather, it encompasses the moment you stopped, turned your car around, and went swimming in a deep pool by the side of the road. You threw off your gray suit, a swimming trunk in the backseat, a bridge you dived off. You knew you had an appointment in the next town, but the water was so clear. When would you be passing by this river again? The sky, the clouds, the reeds by the roadside mattered. You remembered bologna sandwiches made on white bread; you started to whistle old tunes. How did life get so confusing? Last week your seventeen-year-old told you he was gay and you suspect your wife is having an affair. You never liked selling industrial-sized belts to tractor companies anyway. Didn’t you once dream of being a librarian or a pastry chef? Maybe it was a landscaper, a firefighter?

Memoir gives you the ability to plop down like the puddle that forms and spreads from the shattering of a glass of milk on the kitchen floor. You watch how the broken glass gleams from the electric light overhead. The form of memoir has leisure enough to examine all this.

Memoir is not a declaration of the American success story, one undeviating road, the conquering of one mountaintop after another. The puddle began in downfall. The milk didn’t get to the mouth. Whatever your life, it is urging you to record it—to embrace the crumbs with the cake. It’s why so many of us want to write memoir. We know the particulars, but what really went on? We want the emotional truths under the surface that drove our life.

In the past, memoir was the country of old people, a looking back, a reminiscence. But now people are disclosing their lives in their twenties, writing their first memoir in their thirties and their second in their forties. This revolution in personal narrative that has unrolled across the American landscape in the last two and a half decades is the expression of a uniquely American energy: a desire to understand in the heat of living, while life is fresh, and not wait till old age—it may be too late. We are hungry—and impatient now.

But what if you are already sixty, seventy years old, eighty, ninety? Let the thunder roll. You’ve got something to say. You are alive and you don’t know for how long. (None of us really knows for how long.) No matter your age there is a sense of urgency, to make life immediate and relevant.

Think of the word: “memoir.” It comes from the French memoire. It is the study of memory, structured on the meandering way we remember. Essentially it is an examination of the zigzag nature of how our mind works. The thought of Cheerios ricochets back to a broken fence in our backyard one Nebraska spring, then hops over to the first time we stood before a mountain and understood kindness. A smell, a taste—and a whole world flares up.

How close can we get? All those questions, sometimes murky and uncomfortable: Who was that person who was your mother? Why did you play basketball when you longed to play football? Your head wanted to explode, until you first snorted cocaine behind the chain-link fence near the gas station. Then things got quiet and peaceful, but what was that black dog still at your throat?

We are a dynamic country, fast-paced, ever onward. Can we make sense of love and ambition, pain and longing? In the center of our speed, in the core of our forward movement, we are often confused and lonely. That’s why we have turned so full-heartedly to the memoir form. We have an intuition that it can save us. Writing is the act of reaching across the abyss of isolation to share and reflect. It’s not a diet to become skinny, but a relaxation into the fat of our lives. Often without realizing it, we are on a quest, a search for meaning. What does our time on this earth add up to?

We hope for a linear method of writing. Do A, B, C, and voilà—your memoir is before you, sprung like a cake from a pan. But look at your life: A often doesn’t lead to B or C. And that’s what makes it compelling—how things worked out in the wrong places or were a disaster where they were supposed to bring happiness. Even if you managed to narrow your life to one thin line—born, went to school, worked a job from nine to five, saved your money, ate a single lamb chop and baked potato on Saturday night—there were still dreams and nightmares, the gaping hole of death at the end, the sudden unmistakable crush on the woman with pale eyes who worked the register at the employee cafeteria.

And because life is not linear, you want to approach writing memoir sideways, using the deepest kind of thinking to sort through the layers; you want reflection to discover what the real connections are. A bit of brooding, pondering, contemplating, but not in a lost manner. I am asking you to make all this dynamic. Pen to paper gives muscle to your deliberations.

The title Old Friend from Far Away comes from the Analects by Confucius. We reach back in time to another country. Isn’t that what memory is?

To have an old friend visit

      from far away—

          what a delight!

The Four-Letter Word

Let’s dare talk about love for a moment, shall we? Being in love is a loss of control. Suddenly your life is dependent on the eyebrow twitch of Joe Schmo. It’s terrible—it’s thrilling. Everyone wants it.

No one says it but writing induces that state of love. The oven shimmers, the faucet radiates, you die into the mouth that only you see. Right there, sitting with your notebook on your lap, even the factory town you drove through heading north to Denver, the town you hated and prayed no flat tire, no traffic jam would hold you there, even that place while writing about that trip, that day, that year, you caress now. Your life is real. It has texture, detail. Suddenly it springs alive.

Hardly moving, only the pen, hand, wrist, lower arm in a quiet stir, yet love is exuding from your every cell. You are like a great mountain, a buddha. You are yourself.

Tell me about a breakfast you were once privileged to have. Eggs over easy? Grapefruit? One thin slice of toast? Not even that. You ate a pickle—and it never tasted so good. You vowed to eat pickles for breakfast for the rest of your life. Then what happened? Tell me. Be specific. Go.

Wild at Heart

In the essay “Wild at Heart” in a book called The Poem that Changed America: “Howl” Fifty Years Later, Vivian Gornick writes:

Allen Ginsberg was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1926 to Louis and Naomi Ginsberg; the father was a published poet, a high school teacher, and a socialist; the mother, an enchanting free spirit, a passionate communist, and a woman who lost her mental stability in her thirties (ultimately she was placed in an institution and lobotomized). Allen and his brother grew up inside a chaotic mixture of striving respectability, left-wing bohemianism, and certifiable madness in the living room. It all felt large to the complicated, oversensitive boy who, discovering that he lusted after boys, began to feel mad himself and, like his paranoid parents, threatened by, yet defiant of, the America beyond the front door.

None of this accounts for Allen Ginsberg; it only describes the raw material that, when the time was right, would convert into a poetic vision of mythic proportion that merged brilliantly with its moment: the complicated aftermath of the Second World War. . .

Let’s look at this. The first paragraph is a detailed list of the specifics of Allen Ginsberg’s early life. Yes, he was born in Newark; yes, yes, his father was what Gornick says he was and his mother is described aptly. It is true he was inclined to love boys when he was young. But then the stunning line: “None of this accounts for Allen Ginsberg.” Huh? I thought in writing we build up the details and create a picture of who we are? This is exactly the problematic trick.

You can be told what materials make a hand—the skin, the fine bones, the nails, the persnickety thumb—but then all the ingredients fuse and explode. Whose hand is this? A leap happens. Allen Ginsberg became a huge figure who changed the face of poetry. Notice, too, it is not only Allen Ginsberg the man, who created himself, but also his work that met the moment—he ignited with his time. Something dynamic happened.

We don’t live in a vacuum. That extra ingredient—the flint snapping across the rough edge of our era, the day the news broke, the flavor of our decade, our generation—makes the spark spring up. You never talk just for yourself. A whole flame shoots through you. Even if you’re not aware of it, even though your sorrow, your pain, is individual, it is also connected to the large river of suffering. When you join the two, something materializes.

When Bob Dylan sat in the third-row first seat in B. J. Rolfzen’s English class in Hibbing High School, his public school teacher had no idea that this quiet boy would, two years after he left his family at eighteen, write some of the best songs of the twentieth century.

Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan were brought up thousands of miles apart. Bob Dylan had stable middle-class parents. His father sold electrical equipment, stoves, refrigerators to iron ore miners in Northern Minnesota. His mother belonged to B’nai B’rith. But “none of this accounts for” Bob Dylan. Dylan took a leap into another life. As an adult fourteen years older than Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg heard Dylan’s songs and knew the torch of inspiration, of freedom, had been passed on to the next generation.

We each are endowed with original mind, which is like a river under the visible river, unconditioned, the immediate point where our clear consciousness meets the vast unknown; yet we’ve blown smoke screens to cloud it. Fake images, false illusions. When Allen Ginsberg sat down one night in his twenties to write what was really on his mind, he replaced the rhymed poesy he’d learned from his father and from school. That decision was the beginning of one of the most famous poems in our language. Imagine! The power of writing what’s truly on your mind. What you reallysee, think, and feel. Rather than what you are told you should think, see, and feel. It causes a revolution—or at the very least, a damn fine poem.

Raw material is poured into a burning vat and something different comes out. Maybe in past generations when people didn’t leave home and raised their children near their parents in the same town where they grew up, and if your father was a steelworker, you became a steelworker or if your mother was a secretary, you became an office manager, you might not have had the luxury of wondering about yourself. You might not ponder how A became B and produced C. It might all have been obvious. But I bet that even a third-generation physician on his way to work in his hometown who suddenly notices the glint off a parking meter, stops still and questions, “Who am I?”, and is left in this swirl that doesn’t make sense. One lives and then one dies? Who thought this scheme up anyway?

We go back to our past to piece things together. “I always loved coffee ice cream, roast beef, and hopscotch.” It still makes us happy to remember these things, but how did they lead to moving from the sprawl of a city on the East Coast to listening to mourning doves on a dead branch outside our kitchen door in the vast West? Can we turn around fast enough to catch a glimpse of our own face?

In some ways writing is our attempt to grasp what went on. We want an answer. We want things to be black and white, to be obvious and ordered. Oh, the relief. But have you noticed, it doesn’t work that way? We live more in the mix of black and white, in the gray—or in the brilliant colors of the undefined moment.

Can we bear to hang out in incongruity, in that big word, paradox? How did I end up with the partner I have, the children that sprang from me? How can I love my father, who betrayed me? This isn’t a call to ditch it all, even though nothing makes sense. Instead, don’t reject anything—the person who did something unforgivable, the white rose at the edge of your driveway, the split pea soup you never liked.

There are no great answers for who we are. Don’t wait for them. Pick up the pen and right now in ten furious minutes tell the story of your life. I’m not kidding. Ten minutes of continuous writing is much more expedient than ten years of musing and getting nowhere.

Include the false starts, the wrong turns, the one surprising right thing that happened. A lot of it is ungrabbable—but you might sense an aroma, a whiff of something. Always in writing at the back of words are no words, behind you is nothing. That nothing holds us up. Embrace it.

In 1997 at the age of seventy, Allen Ginsberg heard from his doctor that he only had a short time to live, and he cried. Then sitting in his hospital bed he picked up a pen and worked on a poem he was writing. That man had an abundant heart. His death was important, but so was a poem. Soon before the end he stayed up into the morning hours, making long-distance calls to friends to say good-bye, to ask if they needed anything, were they taken care of, should he leave them funds in his will.

I tell you all this because there is a sea of possibility out there. Again, I say pick up the pen and find it for yourself. Don’t begin with an idea: Begin to understand your life—and death—with the point of the pen touching paper.

Just Sitting—or Do the Neola

Let’s try something else, too. Drop it all—forget about the technique. Throw the anchor out the window or into the center of the Indian Ocean. Just sit for twenty minutes.Don’t worry if fifteen of the twenty are spent obsessing about your wedding dress and it turns out you’re sixty and in all likelihood you won’t marry again. Or you drifted off to a deep desire to suddenly cut your toenails, and you thought about it over and over—where you would get the clippers, how you’d bend over the tub rim. Oh, such fine detail.

For the first few years, every retreat I sat I imagined making a pot roast. I’d carefully peel the onions, get out the cutting board. Add carrots, brown the meat. It made no sense. I never cooked one when the retreat was over—or thought about it in my daily life.

This is the mind. If you were only present to the sitting for a moment in the full twenty minutes, you did not fail. There is no success or failure, no great place you are going. You are “just sitting.” To wander, to obsess, to lust—you get a flavor of the mind, a direct meeting. Without acting on any of the thoughts, you get to see how they rise up and—if you’re lucky—pass away. Sometimes we get stuck. You get to observe the nature of being stuck.

But eventually with this “just sitting,” thoughts are only another thing, like snow out the window. They get your attention for a moment and then they don’t. We need to give enough space in “just sitting” for our thoughts to settle. Let the mind quiet of its own accord. It takes time to become who we are.

It’s like shaking up vinegar and oil. Put down the bottle and wait for the vinegar to sink to the bottom, for the oil to become clear. Sit still and watch it happen inside you.

In “just sitting” you can drop any exact effort. There is a sound. You hear the sound. You feel hands on thighs. Then you might notice your breathe. Finally you are propelled into the deep unknown: open space between sound or feeling or the vagaries of your thoughts. Just here.

I’d been taught just sitting in a very formal way, but it didn’t become mine until thirty years later when it seemed I gave up everything for a few months. Daily I went to a café called Bread and Chocolate and sat at a table near a big window, holding on to a tall cup of steaming water, taking an occasional sip and nibbling at a chocolate chip cookie that had to last an hour. It was then that I dropped all effort, even discursive thinking came and went. I wasn’t caught by anything.

Maybe it was all the practice before that brought me to this place. Maybe I was finally exhausted. But you don’t need thirty years to discover it.

I have a student named Neola. Isn’t that a fine name? When I first met her, I immediately started a little ditty: Roll over, Mineola . . .

When nothing else seemed to work for her I suggested she go to a café and “just sit.” I created a shorthand for “just sitting”: “Do the Neola,” I told the class.

Neola loved having something named after her. And when a practice is your namesake you have to get good at it. I told her to write me a postcard from one of the cafés. Then I gave her another instruction to confound her: always follow the person behind you.

Ridiculous? No? Yes? You figure it out. Don’t exclude anything, including the dog bark, dozen roses and daylilies, the wails in Iraq, the cement, the nothing that was your life. Being right on the point, the point being there is no point. You go out between breaths. Your notebook becomes luminous. You suddenly know what to write.

One of the students said, “’Do the Neola’ sounds like a dance.”

Yes. A dance. The great dance.