Natalie Goldberg didn’t like the looks of us. Adrienne Mantegna and I, along with a hundred or so others, sat like dutiful attendees at a lecture, upright and attentive with notebooks and pens, in chairs neatly lined up in rows.
Like a firm Zen master, Natalie commanded, “I want you to crack open structure!” and pried open her empty hands as if she were breaking the spine of a book. So our massive group in Kripalu’s cavernous hall—formerly a chapel—spent the first few minutes of our weekend writing workshop dragging our chairs around the carpet, moving them out of the pattern, finding a proper space to breathe and do our work.
In the short introduction that followed, Natalie zeroed in on the physical act of writing: hand holding pen loosely, hand connected to arm, to heart, to head. We needed to write more with our bodies and hearts and less with our minds, Natalie emphasized, especially working to ignore the critic in our heads she termed “monkey mind.” This “monkey mind” simply distracts us from our writing practice and diminishes our true voice. With our physical space now improved—chairs rearranged, structure cracked open—and our tools ready, we could begin. “The only tools a writer needs,” she said, “are pen, paper, and the human mind.”
Over the course of the weekend, Adrienne and I listened, wrote, read aloud, and wrote some more. With our English classes in mind—particularly Senior English with its emphasis on personal essays—we lived through a full and rich approach to the practice of writing. We’d write continuously for 10 minutes at a time on prompts such as, “Tell me about your scars,” “Everything I never knew about my mother,” or “What I will miss when I die.” We’d then have to read our writing aloud to a small group who was not allowed to give any feedback, good or bad. The feedback at that stage would not be helpful, Natalie explained, and we learned to just “write, read, write, read.”
Natalie would snap her fingers in a zigzag motion while saying each word, “write, read,” implying, Don’t think, just do it. This method, she says, allows “the true voice to come out. It’s always authentic. It has its own intelligence.” And this method would allow us to be free of the critic in our heads, an invaluable concept certainly for us as adult writers, but especially for the young writers we support in our classes.
With this practice, she said, “I’m helping you develop a spine for writing.” Because of Kripalu’s long tradition as a yoga center, the mentioning of a spine seemed to fit in perfectly with the literal practice of yoga there, as well as the metaphor stemming from the meaning of the word yoga, “unity.” Every aspect of the weekend was united, from the workshop practices, to the yoga classes, to the silent spaces for writing and reflecting.
One thing Adrienne and I can try to reconstruct at Williston is what that environment created so well: the time and space to be quiet. ”Writing is 90 percent listening,” Natalie said; we practiced that all weekend, listening to our own voices while writing about rich topics and listening to the writing of our fellow workshop members.
Natalie also emphasized the somewhat paradoxical need to “let go” in order to achieve deep connection with your subjects: “Writing does writing, and then you get out of the way. But doing this lets you step forward.”
She also emphasized detail: ”You don’t have to go to the moon to write,” showing us that the words standing out in our pieces were simply “ordinary details.” She added, “Writers stay with the heat and detail of experience.” We needed to tap into a vein of truth, to pay attention, and to finally sift down through surrounding thoughts to get to the essence of what we really wanted to say.
During our final workshop session, Natalie had to “pay up” on a reward she’d offered the day before to the person who could find her lost purse. The reward, she’d said playfully, would be hearing what “the secret of writing” was. We laughed and then forgot about it in the intensity of the writing sessions that followed.
So on that final day, when a woman announced that she had found the purse that morning at the lake, it felt like being in the audience at Oprah. Something big was about to happen, and murmurs spread across the hall as the finder walked up to the front holding the small canvas handbag.
The secret to writing? It was like knowing that someone was about to tell us the meaning of life.
Natalie first let us take some guesses and miss the mark, and then after a few anecdotes, she finally told us the secret: it was the line she had used with us so many times throughout the weekend, “Shut up and write.”
She was not being unkind. On the contrary, she was giving us a final gift, asking us to simply be quiet, listen, and to finally, just “pick up the pen and do it.”