Name: Natalie Goldberg
Born: January 4, 1948, Brooklyn, New York
Lives: Santa Fe, New Mexico
Role: Writer, painter, Zen practitioner, teacher
Quote: “I wanted [Zen] bad. And I wanted writing bad. That’s what I tell my students: you gotta want it bad. Because no one’s looking over your shoulder. They don’t care. So it has to come from you, and you have to want it bad.”
Natalie Goldberg has had several awakenings. One happened in front of a sixth-grade classroom in Albuquerque, which resulted in her moving to Taos to live on the side of Lama Mountain at the Lama Foundation, a spiritual community deep in the Sangre de Cristos. Another came when she read Carson McCullers in high school, and still another when she began to read women writers after many years of loving literature but being exposed primarily to “seventeenth-century dead white authors.” It was then that, as a writer, she had a practical model (“at the time, Erica Jong, Leslie Marmon Silko, Willa Cather, Vivian Gornick”). Goldberg enrolled in the St. John’s Graduate Institute Great Books program in 1970, when she was twenty-two. “I’d never seen a sky like this. I’d never been West. I didn’t even know what West was,” she says of arriving in Santa Fe from New York the first time. At St. John’s, “even though it was all white men at the time, and I had just become a wild feminist, and I drove the tutors crazy, I did love it. There’s real caring there,” she told me. But writing opened up for her later, when she went to Minnesota to study Zen with Dainin Katagiri Roshi. After twelve years of “going to the root of the human mind,” she returned to New Mexico, her “deep home,” where she has lived ever since, and devoted her life to painting, writing, and meditation.
Her first book, Writing Down the Bones, which she wrote in New Mexico, is actually aimed at teaching Zen through writing. Bones was a sleeper hit, but it went on to become one of the best-selling writing books of all time. As often happens with prodigious first books, the author found herself suddenly awash in success and paralyzed by it. “Writing Down the Bones… broke a paradigm and broke open a new way of doing—I hate to call it—a how-to book. I made it half memoir; I changed the structure.” This early success had a powerful effect on Goldberg as a young writer, and she continues to wrangle with its legacy. “I love that they love Bones, and I should be very grateful, because it opened my whole career, but,” she confessed, “I feel like I’ve written a lot of other good books, really better than Bones, but Bones hit some nerve in American society.” Suddenly, people seemed to want her—and to want to find her. Eventually, she says, “I realized it wasn’t me; it was their projections on me.” For the first time, she was making money, which seemed at odds with her idea of being an artist. “I was just naïve. I had no handler. I was living on a mesa in Taos: beer-can and tire houses. People came looking for me, but they couldn’t find me.”
The answer to this moment of unexpected fame was the same as Goldberg’s answer would always be: to return to the page, to the physical practice of writing, day after day. And to return, as well, to the meditation seat and to the canvas. Goldberg still writes only longhand, and showed me around her writing studio, painting studio, and secret garden at her home in Santa Fe, which was paid for “entirely by writing.” When she was diagnosed with cancer, what at first felt life-ending became a new opportunity to spend time on her writing. Gesturing to the couch across from where we sat, Goldberg told me, “In the middle of cancer, I had space for the first time. I wasn’t so busy. I would sit there, and I had hours and hours to really care about my writing.” She compared writing through cancer to brushing her teeth. “You don’t stop doing it when you have cancer. You don’t stop brushing your teeth when you have cancer. Brushing your teeth is a practice; you do it every day. Well, the writing was a deep practice in my body. So when I had cancer—and the space—I wrote.” She finished three books in five years, which she refers to as “the cancer trilogy,” though they don’t all deal with cancer directly. The first two, The Great Spring and Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home, are out now. I read them in the space of two days. The third book is about haiku and does not yet have a publication date.
What’s next? “I’m purposely saying no right now. Because I’m burnt.” Goldberg plans to take a break from writing and teaching. Will she really be able to step back, after fifty years and fifteen books? “That’s a really good question. I want to learn how to do it. I want to learn how to just wander and not have so many plans. I was an old hippie; I want to go back.” For those who want to write, she offers simple, unyielding advice: “Shut up, and write. Physically do it. Don’t discuss it. Go.”
You can find all of her books on display at Garcia Street Books and view her paintings at nataliegoldberg.com.