Sit. Walk. Write: Natalie Goldberg’s “The True Secret of Writing”*

Changing Hands Bookstore
Tempe, Arizona
March 21, 2013

I have a confession to make: when non-Asian first-world people use Buddhist philosophy as a guiding framework for understanding some random part of life, it feels pretentious to me. I guess it’s because I’ve never vibed emotionally with that particular school of thought. Intellectually, I understand what someone describing their practice is saying, and there’s nothing that feels false or wrong-headed in it. It’s just not my soul’s “way.” So when someone extends that philosophy to writing or therapy or motorcycle maintenance, I turn off. I bristle. I wander around what they’re saying and don’t settle into it.

Natalie Goldberg is one of those people. Birkenstocks and Zen. Her approach to writing is all about Zen. And, I must admit, she put me on the defensive from the moment she stood up to speak Thursday night by admonishing us all to overturn Arizona’s new immigration law. As if we disagree. As if we aren’t already at work. As if we haven’t heard such admonishments from a hundred other people before. But she’s just explaining why she almost didn’t come to Arizona on her book tour. She’s trying to live her political convictions, I get it.

And I don’t disagree. Quite the contrary. But ex-hippy baby-boomers just have this way of making me feel utterly inadequate. I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s. Tough times when you had a little depth to you. And the Reagan era was brutal if you were very young and very liberal. The previous generation set a high bar.

So you can imagine that when that ex-hippy baby-bommer is Natalie Goldberg, you can amp that feeling of inadequacy up by a thousand. She reads from her book and you feel inadequate even if her whole point in doing so is to encourage you to Go For It, to ignore the inner voice that says your writing is inadequate.

Her approach is summed up by three words: “Sit. Walk. Write.”

Sit: You do the first to cultivate a silence that turns off the noise of life and its distractions.

Walk: You do this to connect with your body and its feelings, and your immediate surroundings. To be present in the present. It’s a slow walk, for her, where you feel where your feet are connecting to the ground. Meditative. Undirected.

With both of these, what you’re trying to do is find an entry point for your writing. That starting place, that if found, triggers the words of the thing you really want to write about, rather than a blinking cursor or an empty page or a dribble of crap (although you have to give yourself permission to write crap. Write crap!) You’re turning off the noise of life so what’s inside you can burble up, so your mind and body can reveal to you what’s deep inside.

This is a practice she does in the middle of writing. “Leave it alone,” she says–meaning your writing–“Come back when you have some distance from it and you’ll see where it’s alive, where the energy is.”

Personally, I have a hard time leaving my writing alone for very long. I write every day. Or, more specifically, I do “story work” every day: outlining, researching, editing, composing. Lately, it’s been in the morning, because my brain shuts down after work and I go to bed early. 8:30 pm. And then mornings are mine, to do with as I please with my morning-person brain. How can I leave what I’m writing alone?

I know my best ideas come when I’m not writing, but unoccupied: standing in the shower, driving my car, lying down. They come, as she says, when I walk away. I’ve learned to trust that. But I never walk away for long. I return to my chair and start back slamming on the keyboard anyway, no matter how unproductive it is. I can’t stop myself.

I’m a left-brain, beta-wave control-freak who understands that the unconscious part of my brain is the Source, the subconscious creative, the part that doesn’t think in thoughts. The part that curdles and churns unnoticed and untracked, then spits out its ideas full-grown. Or, at least, spits out the elusive starting point to the flow of ideas. And it doesn’t perform on command. It needs space.

So yeah, everything she said is true. I just have to frame it in my own frame for it to feel true.

*The title of her book is entirely tongue-in-cheek. There is no true secret, only what works for you or what doesn’t.

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