Once again, the dreaded Writer’s Block is upon me. I have again picked up my copy of Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg. What a terrific book, full of wise suggestions and honesty about writing and what it means to be a writer. Written in the mid 80’s, it remains one of the great books on contemporary writing. Goldberg is full of compassion for herself and for us who would take up this strange and often frustrating creative art form. She is also a life-long student of Zen Buddhism, and her writing is a major form of her zen practice. Here are some excerpts from an interview with her in Ascent Magazine, http://ascentmagazine.com/articles.aspx?articleID=97&page=read&subpage=past&issueID=08
So why does a writer write, why do writers publish what they write, put it out there?
NG: You can write for sheer pleasure, and to get to know yourself and things like that. But if you go the next step and want to become a writer, part of what a writer does is publish. There’s something a little bit stinky if you write all these novels and just keep them in your notebook and don’t make any effort to share them with the world. Part of why writers write is because they want to speak!
Writing practice is a way to get in touch with your inside, the internal. Then you have the job of finding a structure to carry the insides outside into the world. And that’s the difference probably between someone who just enjoys writing and someone who’s a writer. The writer does the second step too. Part of going all the way is publishing, putting it out there, and then being eaten alive, getting your heart broken. It’s not romantic.
How is the ego involved in writing?
NG: Well, I call it monkey mind. It tries to undermine all your writing, telling you constantly you’re no good, you shouldn’t be writing, etc, etc. I’ve learned to work with monkey mind, I don’t pay attention to it or let it run my life. Some people follow that voice like it was God, but really, it’s just a little mechanical thing in our minds that is repeating, “You’re no good, I hate you, you shouldn’t try this.” I found out that monkey mind is the guardian at the gate. It guards the jewels. You have to be willing to stand up to it under all circumstances…the jewels aren’t going to be given easily to you.
In another interview with Goldberg, she says, ‘Writing is one of our inalienable rights. It should be in the Declaration of Independence: pursuit of happiness, dash, writing. It’s building a spine, a confidence in your voice, a confidence that you can speak, and that your life on this earth mattered. And having a trust in what you see, think and feel.’
One of Goldberg’s Zen teachers was Katagiri Roshi. She quotes him as saying, ‘Your little will can’t do anything. It takes Great Determination. Great Determination doesn’t mean just you making an effort. It means the whole universe is behind you and with you– the birds, trees, sky, moon, and ten directions.’ Goldberg writes, ‘Understanding this process cultivates patience and produces less anxiety. We aren’t running everything, not even the writing we do. At the same time, we must keep practicing. It is not an excuse to not write. We must continue to work the compost pile, enriching it and making it fertile so that something beautiful may bloom and so that our writing muscles are in good shape to ride the universe when it moves through us.’
Why do you write, Dear Readers? I write on this blog because I have ideas and thoughts and a zillion questions about life, both my own and everyone else’s, and words on the page help me to communicate these thoughts in a somewhat coherent way to all of you. I write because I have a need to express myself through written language. Talking can become so tiresome sometimes. But writing is a place where I can go where I can feel free inside myself, where the words and sentences can add up to something meaningful, at least to me. Of course I hope that my blogs will have meaning to some of you as well, that I am not simply a lone ship out on the vast ocean of virtual reality. But even if I am, I choose to believe that the very act of my typing these words into the computer has some kind of value in itself.
Pink Floyd’s famous work, The Wall, has a song with these words, ‘Hello, is there anybody out there? Just smile if you can hear me, is there anyone at home? There is no pain, you are receding. A distant ship, smoke on the horizon. You are only coming through in waves. Your lips move but I can’t hear what you’re saying. I have become comfortably numb.‘ Yes many of us have heard that song a thousand times, and it has become a cliché. But I don’t care, because the heart of these words has immense meaning for all of us in the western world. We have become collectively numb. We are collectively distracted to the point of no longer able to focus on what is actually important or even real anymore. Between I-phones, computers of one variation or another, films, pop music, pop culture, football matches and drinking fests, combined with thousands of varieties of pills which untold millions of human beings from children to grandparents are popping on a daily basis, cheap food and sugar products, we are being collectively drugged, bound and gagged into a state of utter inability to speak, hear or think for ourselves. Our collective will has been taken from us. Very few of us are actually awake in 2012. No wonder my blogging friend Robert Morrow laments this fact with his post entitled, ‘What’s the point?!’ It is becoming exceedingly difficult to take heart in the face of this everyday reality. Life is quickly degenerating into a parody of itself. Every person who is awake and honest enough to notice, must agree with this.
But it is not the whole story. Through observation, we can see that the undercurrent remains strong. Those of us who are awake, who are working for Truth and Beauty and Good, who are fighting the influence of collective unconsciousness, cannot afford to sleep. Make no mistake, we are waging a battle, and it IS serious, folks. Happy thoughts are great, positive thinking is absolutely important, but by itself, is not enough. This battle is unfathomably large.
There have been other times throughout human history when large-scale forces lined up and gathered immense power. We can all name examples of this; Nazi Germany in the 1930’s, Napoleon’s reign of terror throughout Europe and Russia in the early 1800’s, The Reformation, The Inquisition and Crusades, The Roman empire and its many invasions, and that’s just to name a handful in Europe alone. During the Roman times, the rulers figured out that by giving the population ‘bread and circuses’ they would be distracted and content enough to let the leaders do what they wanted. In our times, our leaders are doing the very same. Instead of being fed to the lions for entertainment, people are playing virtual reality games and sublimating their actual lives and personalities to some kind of unreal fantasy world. It is becoming increasingly difficult for people to know where they end and their fantasy alter-ego begins. What is real now? Who? What matters?
Through the course of this rather convoluted blog post, I think I have unblocked. I have taken Natalie Goldberg’s advice to just write, write through the blocks, just keep going. Dear Readers, perhaps you don’t think what I am saying is true, or maybe you don’t care, even if it is. Within the scope of one day on WordPress, there is an entire universe of diversity. People are writing about everything from black bean soup recipes to political controversies, from sexual fantasies to pruning the bushes in their gardens, from thinking about dead relatives to observing their two-year-old’s latest adventures, from travelling to remote corners of the world, to figuring out the stars and planets; and then there are a few of us who are simply observing it all, alternating between wonder, disbelief, dread and laughter.
In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg writes, ‘Someplace in us should know the utter simplicity of saying what we feel. Not in anger, self-recrimination, or self-pity, but out of an acceptance of the truth of who we are. And though we would rather be in the high hills of Tibet than at our desks in Newark, New Jersey, and though death is howling at our backs and life is roaring at our faces, we can just begin to write, simply begin to write what we have to say.’
- Loved “Writing Down the Bones …” (vickitlee.wordpress.com)
- Why It’s Good To Scribble (thebestchapter.com)
- Writer! (omniaunum.com)