That Glow, That Yes!

by Mark Chmiel

Natalie Goldberg, Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft
30 September 2000

It’s clear to me today, anyway, that my Holy Contour of Life book will be a structure like Natalie’s: short, compressed, easy to read and reread, straightforward. I can continue to play with this. Because having “finished” the new version (how many versions have I had???) in which I fractured chronology, now it seems too disjointed and contrived, so I want to break it up further, maybe chronologically, but just keep it to two pages max.

Commentaries, yes, but creatively done, maybe with lists, found shit, short portions of letters (like mine to Peter Pfersick), journals, and articles. Weave them together. Like on riches and poverty: Set it up, find one quotation from GG interview, then one from Sobrino interview, then add a further comment, then use the photos.

Here in Thunder and Lightning, Natalie is still giving her Zen advice on writing as a spiritual practice … Writing Down the Bones, III (After Wild Mind being Bones II). She’s found what works for her, she’s just giving good advice coming out of her own vulnerable, wise experiences as a writer, a meditator, a slow walker, a Jew, a neurotic. “What if Natalie Goldberg were one of us? Just a shmo like one of us?”

And I read this, quelle surprise, only for insight on how to keep going with Book of Mev, Holy Contour of Life, My Fucking Memoir, whatever it’s to be entitled. And this book moves beyond writing practice to structure, craft, finishing a project. So what I note below may be useful in this process:

  1. Write in slang, and don’t be so prissy: she uses expressions like “write their asses off” — this is one of Nealon’s gifts to me. Lighten up! [1] “Natalie, you can’t write shit!” [16] “this was great shit” [81]
  2. What is the meaning of being saved anyway? Why do we use it so much? What does save have to do with here and now? [2]
  3. Spiritual practice of writing: Writing is about being “one-pointed, alert, present, alive.” [3] “A writer’s path includes concentration, slowing down, commitment, awareness, loneliness, faith, a breakdown of ordinary perceptions — the same qualities attributed to monks or Zen masters.” [44] Put writing first in my schedule and let the rest fall, can’t do it all, and do it first! “I believe that this is a primary commitment a writer makes to her writing, an essential commitment she makes to her reader: a willingness to be open to encounter, to experience — and to the suffering this may bring.” 86 “I had chosen writing as my primary path rather than being a monk and hoped I hadn’t abandoned my way to clarity.” [155]
  4. Affirm: Build a vignette around “There’s No Comfort for you tonight.” [5]
  5. Ask, ask, ask: what’s the form, structure of the Book of Mev? [6]
  6. Don’t be afraid of my own mind: what Jack meant with, “No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language, knowledge” [12]
  7. The Five Precepts: a “scent of guidance, an intimation of direction.” [15]
  8. Writing: A way to develop a connection and relationship to my own mind. 17
  9. The form: I am not sure what my form is going to be — I had thought it would be straight chronology holding it all but today — 9.25.2000 — I am not so sure at all. Her form was that of Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. “Once I had a strong framework I could pour my wild mind into it, secure that something held it up.” 22 It’s how I tell the tale. [25] “Finding that inner structure is not easy. The search takes a certain faith and animal determination — a willingness to get to the core and expose ourselves. But often we honestly don’t know how to find it. This is where work comes in, hard nerve and sweaty persistence: ‘I won’t give up and I’ll do whatever it takes.” [32]
  10. How to get it done!: Pick the theme, Mind Map it, then spend a week writing the chapter. 12 chapters. Boom. 120 single-spaced pages. 20 photos. Enough. [this week: Gratitudes, mind map it, though I’ve got a draft and see where I want and need it to go… then next week try “Listening.”]
  11. Try this: write in contrasts, 30 m. on photos, 30 m. on words. [29] Also, try many quick writing burst exercises.
  12. On Memoir: we write memoir to free ourselves. [26] Don’t worry about all those notebooks, yet read them as I can. [27] Pick a few key themes and stories.
  13. Vividness Tip: Focus on the senses, stay away from labels, sparkle with original details. [30] “imagine a scene as a photograph — the moment a husband tells his wife he’s just been fired from his job — and describe what you see…. We are trying to bring the scene vividly alive in the reader’s mind.” [165-6] “But now we are writing for a reader, and the new taste of responsibility is in our mouth. There is another person here. We have to communicate, get the picture across. How best to get that result? Practice freezing moment or situations as photos. Step through the abstract names for emotions — shocked, furious — and touch the details.” [166]
  14. Julie Landsman’s approach: (1) Do straight writing practice, generating material using topics off a list. (2) Do this collecting practices for themes, go on to the next, let them sit. (3) Search for themes as I go through the writing. no preconceived ideas! (4) Arrange original material by theme and hope an inner structure emerges. (5) Type directly form handwritten notebooks (and past typed journal entries) what i have found and underlined. type it all up and let it sit for a while. (6) Go to a cafe, get out of the apartment, read and cut and add. (7) Then begin to write the book: refer to typed pages and notes and do fresh writing practices in service to the inner structure. (8) Then give to few readers for feedback. (9) Next make small revisions in sentence structure and individual words. NB the stages are fluid. It takes a year to generate material and two years to complete the book.
  15. On Reading: “One of the reasons we read a story is to bring forth from within ourselves that glow, that yes.” [40]
  16. Modus Operandi of a Wild Mind: “Trust the design holding up the netting. Move quickly. Don’t think and plot too much. Surrender to the structure of the mind and it will give you much more freedom. We don’t know where we’re going: trust the rise and fall.” [41]
  17. It’s simple: Kate Green: “Time to write is simply that. An hour here, a half hour there. Go. Move pen. That’s it. The rest is all bullshit and I know it but I get caught up in it and create a lot of suffering around not writing. Writing itself is pretty simple. ‘Just do it.’” [51]
  18. Make it a Game for Mev Book: “She decided the novel would have thirty chapters; there had to be action in each chapter, and she would set it up so that when readers came to the end of a chapter, they’d want to go on to the next.” [50]
  19. Essentials: character, place, and plot. [52]
  20. On Plot: KG — “It is what happens. It better be good, it better matter, it better not trail off or give up or wimp out. It better lodge in the heart. It better take up residence and live on in the hearer, the listener, the reader. It better be a living transmission.” [53] Question: is there narrative drive in all of this? Forward motion?
  21. Deal with our shit: no hagiography here: “here’s the catch: people don’t really like to read about nice people…. We want to read about cruel impulses, raw desire — we want the author to get down and to take us there.” [58]
  22. Don’t be nice: “Finally, I had to put my concerns aside. For a while, I tried to make everything nice, so no one would be offended. … No clout, no texture, no rough edges. More like three-day-old warmed-over bean soup.” [62] On not being a role model: “Now I’m not a person with an iron will. Take chocolate. I have vowed not to eat any more of it at least four times a week for probably twelve years. I don’t even think I hear the vow anymore as I storm into the candy store. Every time I say I will never eat chocolate again, I’m really saying, run along darling, go buy a fat dark bar. Why should I trust myself in this area? I’ve never done what I say.” [73]
  23. How to be a Writer: read a lot (esp. in my genre, listen deeply, write). [77]
  24. Good tips: “Being politically correct is not something I’m usually concerned about, but being awake is.” [68] “Open your heart and let it bleed.” [70] “take us into the real texture of life — no generalizations.” [125]
  25. Structure my time and schedule my writing time on Sunday planning time — the only way to do it. [71]
  26. Passion of reading: “But when I’m reading and I love what I’m reading, I’m totally connected, whole. Me and Shakespeare, me and Milton — no time or space between us. We are one == not two, not split.” [78] Invade the bookstores. “As a writer you should go to a book thirsty and suck it dry.” [91] “I’ve been trying to tell you all year — reading is the hottest thing going.” [99] “I’m never ashamed to read a book twice or as many times as I want. We never expect to drink a glass of water just once in our lives. A book can be that essential, too.” [115] “With a mate we love to recall ‘how it happened’ — how the connection was made. A lover is charged with passion, so we are more aware of the passage into intimacy, but it’s no different from the development of friendship or the final bond with a good book.” [144]
  27. On reading engagingly: “Who is this person who wrote this book? How does the book’s structure communicate the writer’s intent? What’s the structure? What’s happening here? Why?” [84] To study someone else’s mind is to also study my own. “Wake up to everything about a book. If you do, it will become alive and take flight.” [95] Writers are my mentor. [109] [reread Styron]
  28. Presence: “What the reader is hungry for — what all readers crave — is presence: the writer’s presence awake to the presence of the situation. I don’t mean to get religious here. I’m not talking about the Presence, but how you, the alert, awake writer, meet the life of the scene or circumstance you’re writing about. It’s about life meeting life – -engagement.” [171]
  29. Pacing: “he knows intuitively to choose a high moment to tell a low one.” [93]
  30. Spacing: “this kind of physical spacing paces our reading and creates blocks of meaning. In some books this spacing allows for big discontinuities.” [95] On O’Brien’s book: “There are twenty-two clearly delineated sections, some only a page long, each with a strong and simple title….We expect a regular narrative, but somehow this fractured structure slices us open. There is no remote, comfortable ground to stand on.” [130] “Even a hungry story-monger like me has her limit when the line in the story is always unbroken and linear, and the structure is predictable.” [133]
  31. Do this in class: “Read something aloud. Show us what you mean.” “Often when we study a book a good portion of the time is spent reading parts aloud. I cannot tell you the tenderness that is evoked when adult students one after the other stand up and read their favorite parts. Everyone becomes attentive. Alas, our society has forgotten the pleasure of being read to aloud.” [122]
  32. Novel: “Fiction lets us unhinge from facts and unleashes the soul of a thing.” [129] “Everything you never dared to utter ….” [159]
  33. Crazier the better: “Meaning is not a bad thing, but if we let go of purpose we might fall through to the bottom of our mind where everything — good and bad — is propelled with energy and original shining insight. Imagine writing from that radiance, coming from back, under, inside out. It will certainly wake up the reader.” [137] “a great lesson: not to hurry for sense when I write. I might land too quickly and miss out on half my mind. I think of her in that big meandering country of the self and take comfort.” [140]
  34. What splits me open? What brings me to my knees? “The secret is we’re all lost — and those of us who come to writing are searching for our jolt home. It’s the cross of gain and loss that electrifies our language — gives it force, direction, urgency. If I had consciously looked for a writing voice, I might have missed it.” [143]
  35. Rereading Notebooks: read it over, underline lines I like as possible future topics, may find a whole poem or passage I can use, observe: what monopolizes my mind? do a ten minute timed writing right after finishing reading a notebook (read one in a single sitting 2-3 hours). “Reading our notebooks is a way to digest and close the gap, so we don’t feel like we’re always running ahead of an abyss.” [161]
  36. Basic Questions: What’s really important to you? What are the subjects that really pull you? What are you willing to be witness to — to stay in there and carry for a long time? What are you the most afraid the write about? What is your darkness? Whom do you write for?
  37. Where is our urgency, our burning?
  38. Who Knows How It’s Gonna End? “her journey would be revealed as I write. That is the adventure of writing, it is an act of discovery. If I knew everything she’d do beforehand, I would be bored sick and never keep writing.” [181]
  39. Revision: use writing practice to revise my work, see what needs work, and then go write on it for 10 minutes. [183]
  40. Sympathy for the Editor: “Imagine how many books editors work on. If they had to administer to each writer’s wounds and woes, they’d have to build a mile-wide mental institution.” [185] Do not take it personally!
  41. Ruthless with the Sword of Discrimination: “Three weeks later I look at those two chapters again and discover they don’t matter to me anymore. they’ve been cut from the bloodline. The novel is what matters. I am in service to the novel.” [190]
  42. Same with Teaching: “Mostly I try to create a space where they can step forward with whatever they’ve written and build confidence in their voice.” [195]
  43. “You’re a fuck-up just like the rest of us,” one of them piped up, grinning ear to ear. [199]
  44. Walking as a way of calming the writer’s neuroses and character assassinations. She needs to train for the “Zone,” and likes writing in busy restaurants, tuning all out to focus on the writing.
  45. Honesty: “Tell the plain truth. Taking one step after another, arrive in the center of your writing.” [208]

 

Ted’s copy of The Book of Mev; Circ desk, Pius XII Library, St. Louis University