Zen and the Art of Writing: A Q&A with Natalie Goldberg

After more than 20 years, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones remains the definitive guidebook for those who see the writing process as a journey of the soul. Natalie broke ground with the book, first published in 2005, when she compared writing with Zen meditation. In this Q&A from the 10th-anniversary edition, she explores that connection.

What are the “I can’t write because” excuses that you hear the most?

People offer me thousands of excuses about why they can’t write. “I’m afraid to let myself out.” “I’m afraid to follow what I really want.” “I can’t do it now but it’s my deepest dream. “I can’t do it now because I have a family.” “I have to make a living.” “I’m scared that I’m not good enough.” “I’m afraid my father will kill me if I write about him.” I don’t pay attention at that level. All I see is that they are using some excuse, that they want something and they are not stepping forward and taking hold of it. Over the years what I’ve watched is that people don’t let themselves burn. They don’t let their passion be alive and then feed it. But I don’t listen to their excuses. After a while it’s boring. Just like my complaining is boring. It’s monkey mind. It doesn’t really matter what the excuse is … I think it’s the human predicament. We give a lot of names to our excuses, to the reasons we don’t want to write or are afraid to. Finally, if you want to write, you have to just shut up, pick up a pen, and do it. I’m sorry there are no excuses. This is your life. Step forward, Maybe it’s only for ten minutes. That’s okay. To write feels better than all the excuses.

What is the monkey mind?

Monkey mind is actually a Buddhist term. We could also call monkey mind the editor or the critic. Something that creates busyness to keep us away from our true heart. Our whole culture is built on busyness. And that’s why we’re so unhappy. But we love busyness. We have to understand it. There’s busyness, there’s monkey mind, and then there’s our true heart. What does our true heart want? We have to give it at least 50 percent. Otherwise we fill our whole life with busyness. I have to do this. I’m going here. I’m making that. Daily life is very seductive. Weeks go by and we forget who we are.

How is writing affected by Zen practice?

Writing has always been connected with my Zen practice and with mindfulness and meditation. Art for art’s sake never interested me, because I’ve seen many unhappy artists whose egos are very much solidified. In this case, the practice of art engenders suffering. But if you know you have nothingness at your back, emptiness, you can’t crystallize as easily. For me, writing is always connected with that kind of emptiness. You can create a word because there was no word there before. There was a blank page. If everything was filled, there’d be nothing you could step into. So I guess art, creativity, without meditation practice doesn’t interest me. Zen has always been at my back.

What is the difference between meditation and writing practice?

When I’m sitting, the object is to let go of thoughts and anchor my mind with my breath in the present moment. But, of course, it’s not so easy. When you sit a lot, you see that those thoughts are sticky and they keep coming back. In writing practice, you grab these thoughts and write them down, and by writing them down, you go on to the next one and you keep moving through them. You are anchoring your mind with your pen. Your thoughts become a quick stream you’re sitting in. So they’re not quite as sticky. In a sense, writing practice is a more expedient way of settling into a quiet place. I get to run through the thoughts and then let them go; where as when I sit, there’s no place to spit them out and they take a long time to digest. They just hang around, roll around in the mouth of my mind. So it’s a different process. It’s a parallel process. Writing is my deepest Zen practice.

How did writing practice come about?

I discovered this relationship with my mind. I was sitting a lot of zazen in Taos when I was a hippie, and I went up to Colorado in 1976 to study with Allen Ginsberg for six weeks at Naropa Institute in Boulder. He taught the examination of thoughts and writing. And I continued it. I feel as though he was the visionary and I was the worker bee that documented it. He said, “When the mind is shapely, your writing will be shapely.” I did a little retreat by myself before I went to Naropa, and I found an article in the retreat that he had written in which he talks about polishing the mind. I didn’t understand all of it, but it piqued my interest, and I made a promise to myself that someday I would understand it all. Nobody I’d ever heard talked about the mind when I studied literature in college and grad school.

I started to write and time myself and keep my hand moving. I explored vast space of what was possible on the page—where my mind traveled, backward, forward, upside down. I had no goal, no product direction. I watched how I thought. I came into some kind of intimate relationship with myself. I was alone. I wasn’t sure what I was doing, but it was so compelling that I went deeper and deeper into it. I noticed things: how repetitious the mind can be, how to dive below discursive thinking, how to use the details in front of me to ground myself. I didn’t call it monkey mind then, but I was meeting it. I saw that certain things helped me write and other things didn’t help me write. This timed practice gave me a structure; I wasn’t going to go crazy. Whatever came up, I kept my hand moving, and I stayed there until the time was up. Just as in meditation, whatever comes up while you’re meditating, you keep the structure of the posture until the bell rings.

Find out about upcoming programs with Natalie Goldberg at Kripalu.

Reprinted with permission from Sounds True, Inc.