I’ve been reading and working through Natalie Goldberg’s book Old Friend From Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir.
Now, I don’t necessarily have any great need to write a book-length memoir. I don’t have any particular story about my life that I burn to tell publicly. This is simply another book by Natalie Goldberg that I’ve never read or written through, and really, the lessons inside it are not so different than what she’s taught in other books. So why not?
I discovered Goldberg probably 25 years ago, when her book Writing Down the Bones had been around for a few years. This book was truly significant for me. In a sense, it gave me “permission” to be a writer. I didn’t have to have a degree in Literature or Creative Writing to write. I didn’t have to be a genius, or in a writing-related field, or have writers in the family, or lead an exciting life, or wear a beret. I, in all my ordinariness, could be a writer, if I truly had the desire and was willing to put in the work.
Her methods are simple: Buy a cheap notebook and a pen you like. Write inside it. That’s all. There’s a few other things: don’t think, lose control, don’t worry about punctuation or grammar, go for the jugular. Keep your hand moving for 10,15,20 minutes. Don’t cross out, go with first thoughts. Keep doing this, make it your practice. And from this, stories, poems, novels may emerge.
I did this for years. Sat in cafes and restaurants with a drink and a snack and poured out my thoughts onto paper. After a while, I wanted to channel all of that effort into stories. I’ve done that the past few years, but I got away from the Goldberg method of writing in the notebook with no agenda, just pure mind and memory and practicing words. I’ve missed it. Because after a while, when the stories keep getting rejected and the ideas dry up, it’s time to get back to basics, and just write for the pure joy of writing. I want to meander a bit and find my way again.
One basic exercise of Goldberg’s is to begin with “I remember” or “I am looking at” and go from there. Some of the more quirky ones are “Tell me everything you know about jello,” or “Tell me about a time you washed dishes.” The ordinary becomes extraordinary, if you stay with the concrete details.
Here is something I recently jotted down from the prompt “Where is home for you?”:
The rolling hills of the valley are my home, fall foliage in October and snowstorms in January, the hill towns and Yankee reserve are my home, this mezzanine in the co-op is my home with the bag of nuts and chocolate, the pen moving across my paper. Coffee is my home, steaming cups swirling with cream in winter, sweating plastic cups with blue straws in the swelter of summer, and green tea at the desk in front of the computer, my kitty curled up somewhere, even though I may not see her, I know she’s somewhere in the house sleeping and feel at home with an animal roaming around the house on soft paws. My mother is my home, her silver hair and silver glasses, her laugh and her soft, pillow-like arms around me, her kissing my cheek and her constant worry. My daughter is my home, her freckles and crooked front teeth, her wet kisses on my cheek, and her stunted feet, the warts on her belly, her long shiny hair, her finger in her nose. My husband is my home, his arms around me at the end of the day, even though I was mad at him in the morning, I fall into his arms at the end of the day, a giving in, a refuge, a place to feel safe and loved.
It’s fun and it’s also liberating. Goldberg says, “Feel free to write the worst junk in the world,” and I do, and I have, but I’ve been trying to zone in on the details, to chase down those memories that matter, to make connections and see what picture emerges.
Goldberg’s methods may not be for everyone. But you might want to try it and see what comes up. If anything, it may help jar you out of a block, get words flowing again. For me, it’s an anchor, a base that I come home to again and again.