Interview with Natalie Goldberg

The writer of many books on writing shares what's part of her media diet

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Natalie Goldberg has spent much of her creative energy showing others how to be creative themselves. A practitioner of Zen Buddhism as well as a painter and speaker, she is perhaps best known for her books on writing. In Writing Down the Bones, first published in 1986, Goldberg brought Zen and writing together in a series of essays on “freeing the writer within.” Her candor about her own creative shortcomings was a big part of the work’s success. In her new book, Thunder and Lightning (Bantam), she returns to exploring the writer’s craft, going so far as to declare it a legitimate Zen practice. In other words, sitting on the pillow is not the only way to encounter one’s Buddha nature.

Born in New York, Goldberg has lived on a quiet mesa near Taos, New Mexico, for 15 years. Not one to miss a chance to see the world from new perspectives, she has traveled extensively, including a trip to Japan in 1998. Goldberg is currently spending a year studying at the Clouds in Water Zen Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. She spoke with editorial assistant Nicole Duclos.

What have you been reading lately?

The Book of Serenity by Hsing-Hsiu, a commentary on 100 classic Zen koans, and the Avatamsaka Sutra, which is one of Buddha’s teachings. I'm also enjoying Two Arrows Meeting in Mid-Air, a commentary on koans by an American Zen master, John Daido Loori. This isn’t what I usually read, but because of my studies I’m immersing myself in Zen.

What do you usually read?

More novels and creative nonfiction. On the side, I did read Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx, which is very good. And I also just finished Bones of the Master, George Crane’s account of his friendship and trip through China with a Buddhist monk.

Are you a moviegoer?

I loved Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog, about a street person who’s a hit man but also a samurai with a higher moral code. There was some violence, but the visuals were incredible, and every moment of the movie was awake. Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown was wonderful too.

In Japan, what did you learn about Japanese attitudes toward Zen?

Not speaking the language, I was limited in what I learned, but I got the sense that Shintoism is the more active religion. Of Buddhism, especially Zen, many people just said, “Oh, that’s the religion for death,” meaning that they look to it when somebody dies, for funerals. I often got the feeling that I knew more about Zen than the average Japanese person.

Were you attracted to Japanese pop culture?

I think I went looking for 16th-century Japan and, of course, modern Japan is very different. I found their popular culture to be pretty tinny, and I couldn’t relate to it well. But I can’t relate to it here either.

In what sense?

I can’t relate to our commercialism. I’m not that interested in computers; I don’t own a television. I like to take walks. But if I get holier than thou and precious about it, then I really suffer. I enjoy going to cafés; I like to take people however they are. The trick is not to be separate from human activity, whatever it is. But if I’m in a room with a television going, it does tend to drive me crazy.

What’s the last television show you watched?

Seinfeld. And I liked it a lot. I found myself laughing out loud. I don’t think all TV is terrible; it’s the idea of it all being fed to you. I become mesmerized, I can’t move. Maybe that’s what we want, for the world to drop away.

What about the daily news? Do you read newspapers and magazines?

I’m not too great about that. I look at The New Yorker and Shambhala Sun, and occasionally The Sun and Tricycle. I get all of my news from NPR; I love listening to in-depth discussions on the radio.

In your new book, you write that “Western intelligence, preoccupied with thinking, avoided examining the mechanism of thought.” Can you explain that a bit?

We tend to think wildly, but we seldom stop to notice that our minds are going all the time, and then go even deeper and realize that it’s actually an involuntary mechanism at work. The heart’s job is to beat, the lungs inhale and exhale, and the mind keeps thinking thoughts. Our problem is that we identify with the thoughts, believe them, get carried away with them, and never just stop and watch what’s going on.

How does that affect what we’re fed by the media?

It’s probably much the same thing. Just as we don’t examine our own minds, we don’t examine the mind of the media and what’s being fed to us all the time.

In your book Living Color you wrote about how important painting is to you. What’s your take on the “art world” today?

When I wrote that book I discovered that women were really underrepresented in the visual world, and that they’re not protesting enough. We’ve made a lot of headway in the writing world, but not in the visual world. When someone talks about women painters, they just say Georgia O’Keeffe. I also discovered the deep pleasure in looking at art. I enjoyed it so much I started traveling just to see particular shows. In Europe I discovered the work of American artist Joan Mitchell. We don’t really recognize her much here, but she’s extraordinary.

How does painting relate to your Buddhist practice?

It’s interesting, I’ve never related painting to my practice. I relate painting to writing. It really feeds my writing life. I’ve come to understand that writing is a visual art. And that painting makes me much more alert to the visual world.

You conclude your new book by declaring writing a legitimate Zen practice. What would you say to others who might insist that meditation is meant to be still?

Writing is very still; all that’s moving is my little hand. What I’m doing is examining my mind. It’s just another way of letting it go, and then coming back to the breath.