Last weekend I enjoyed sunshine, warm air, a beautiful room in the carriage house of the Phoebe Pember House affiliated with the Sophia Institute, a long walk in historic Charleston, a wonderful memoir workshop, and delightful conversation with Natalie Goldberg, the workshop leader, at the Slightly North of Broad Restaurant. Here she is, on the left. I learned a lot more than I can share in a short post.  But I’ll do my best to help you share the experience.

A Natalie Goldberg workshop envelops you, takes you on a ride, and challenges you.  Goldberg doesn’t mess around.  Minutes after she begins, she is doing one of the four or five activities that make up the core of her curriculum:  leading meditation practice (including walking meditation), assigning timed writings and then asking students to read, guiding other students to recall the exact words or images they heard in the reading, playing music (Bob Dylan’s “Mississippi” and Greg Brown’s “64 Dodge”), or reading passages from Hemingway and Patricia Hampl.

Goldberg is the author of many books about writing, most famously, Writing Down the Bones, a book I read in the late 1980’s soon after it was published.  The book has sold more than 1.5 million copies.

Goldberg stresses listening, paying aural attention, as the key to writing.  I found this an interesting twist on the more usual focus on seeing, noticing, paying visual attention.  She wants students to become very familiar with how their minds work and to recognize the connection between their own mind and a larger mind.  Meditation does this.  So does timed writing that starts with one subject and then moves to another.  Eventually, if one writes enough, the work deepens, descends to the level that anchors both writer and reader to the ground of all being.

Practice, practice, practice, is Goldberg’s mantra.  She believes that all children need to know how to do this kind of practice, not the boring, linear, writing exercises they learn in school.  Go deeper, lose control, find the wild mind, break the rules–these are the ways to discover your own self as a writer.  You find it by losing it.

I have not yet read Goldberg’s latest book, which was the title of the workshop.  Have you read it?  I promise to buy a copy and review it here at a later time.  Please comment below if you are a Natalie Goldberg fan.  I’d love to hear what others remember from her books or workshops.

Until then, thank you, Natalie, and thank you, Carolyn Rivers, co-founder of the Sophia Institute, for making me feel like I was an “old friend from far away” this past weekend.

Shirley Showalter


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  4. fernandocoelho on September 2, 2009 at 10:54 am

    Please forgive my poor english. I'm brazilian. Since very early age i try to write better and more. I discovered Nattalie Goldberg when i was looking for some books about writing romances, the creative process etc. When i started to read the inicial words about “Writing Down the Bones” i felt that was what i was looking for! The combination of zazen and writing, i mean, the dive in the practice enlighted my mind.I came at this site by looking material about Nattalie Goldberg and liked very much the “spot”. A brazilian hug to you, Shirley Hershey.

  5. shirleyhs on September 3, 2009 at 6:49 pm

    A big electronic hug back to you, Gulongo. I am so glad you found Natalie Goldberg and then this blog. Good luck on your writing. I had no trouble understanding your English and wish I could write a little Portuguese back to you.

  6. Richard Gilbert on February 17, 2010 at 3:47 am

    I liked Writing Down the Bones but just read Old Friend From Far Away and liked it better. It is about the core of writing and the spirit of memoir. I think I tend to be kind of . . . straight-ahead, directed, event-driven in my approach, and this book showed me how important it can be to slow down, explore memories, and discover subject, theme, and narrative thread. She manages to blend the essence of good writing–tactile, visual, specific, quirky–with related Zen principles to convey that writing is, or can be, a path, a spiritual path, a way of being in the world, a way to grow and to reach out. I can see why she's so popular, for she empowers. What she's saying over and over is anyone can be a writer, an artist, which is true! Talent is common, actually. Just do it. This is an antidote to the feeling that one must have big Certified Success or why bother? How common but how narrow and narcissistic. Writing can be part of being alive and a way to be more alive. Her way seems kind of artsy and touchy-feely (and as a guy who can be kinda macho I kinda resist) but has a core of steel in it–both spirituality and artistic determination. She's a real artist herself, someone who tries to see and who tells the truth, and she tries to nurture and encourage and empower that part of others. I respect her book and am reading it again. Long may she run.

    • shirleyhs on September 6, 2010 at 3:08 pm

      Amen, Richard! You understand Natalie at her essence. And you will enlarge your macho self as you take in her capacious vision and practices. 🙂 Think Walt Whitman.

      Sorry it took me so long to find this post. Now that I am not going to the office every day, I am tying up loose ends on this blog. Loving it!

  7. mysticmirror on September 5, 2010 at 7:38 pm

    Thank you for your post. I am a fan of Natalie and her methods. She has much to teach and being a Buddhist myself and long term meditation practitioner, I really appreciate and can relate to her ways to draw you deeper into your mind and one’s writing.

    • shirleyhs on September 6, 2010 at 3:09 pm

      There’s a sign on the front door that says, “Buddhists welcome here,” Mysticmirror. Thanks.

      • mysticmirror on September 7, 2010 at 2:12 pm

        Great, I’ll have to come over!! But in the meantime, I’ll keep reading, writing and appreciating. Thanks for responding.

  8. Spiritual Roots on February 7, 2011 at 7:32 pm

    […] back in 2009, Shirley Showalter’s blog 100 memoirs, featured an excellent post about Natalie that shares more about the memoir workshop that Shirley attended.  She writes: “A Natalie […]

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