Natalie Goldberg’s book The True Secret of Writing, like many of her other books, talks about the relationship of Zen meditation practice to writing. Reading it recently reminded me of a favorite Zen story not in the book, this:
The eager student seeks out the Zen Master and at last is able to get a meeting with him. “Master, please, tell me how long it will take to achieve enlightenment.”
The teacher replies, “Twenty years.”
“Twenty years? No, no, you don’t understand. I am going to follow your instructions to the letter, I have a will of iron, I will meditate every day for as long as necessary, twice as long, I will not stray nor will I rest until I achieve enlightenment.”
There are lots of good books about writing, but this one is still reverberating. The premise of this little book is that the essence of good writing comes from being able to access that part of us that doesn’t know what it is doing: the Wild Mind. We are lurching through a desert in a car with no brakes at 150 miles per hour, our eyes straining through the windows and our job is to write it all down as fast as we can. Better yet, kick out the car windows, feel the hot air rush against our cheeks, smell the sulfur night, hear the wolves bay. And when we crash into the twelve-foot cactus that was hidden around the bend, at all costs hold onto your pencil. Your Monkey Mind has just crashed into your Wild Mind and the skid marks are your next poem or story.
She writes about the day she got permission. About how every artist needs that nod from another, more respected, artist which says, “It’s okay, you’re one of us, you have permission to continue.” Permission to fumble, fail, fall. Who would want permission to be in such a club! But the journey is helped with the encouragement of others.
Her writing exercises are very practical but not at all like What I Did on My Summer Vacation. Start with “I remember” and keep writing. When you can’t remember anymore, start again: “I remember.” Do this for ten minutes. When you are finished, repeat, only this time begin with, “I don’t remember.”
I like her recommendations for revision as well. In order to keep the new material as fresh as the original, she suggests you make a notation next to the paragraph that needs revision. Then on a separate paper let yourself run free with that paragraph’s subject. It may go anywhere. The idea is to let your Wild Mind out so that even in revision the language is chewy and alive.
She talks of her life, how it is not different from writing, how lovers, family, jobs have disappeared and changed but the one commitment she could keep, she had to keep, was her writing.
The sickness and the cure are the same. Pick up the pencil, keep the hand moving.