Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir

M Jane Ross

This past week I had the great good fortune to hear writer Natalie Goldberg speak when she visited Austin for a book signing. Goldberg was here at the end of a book tour to promote the recently released paperback edition of her latest book, Old Friend from Far Away: the practice of writing memoir

I bought copies of Old Friend and her very first book, the one that made her name as a writer and writing teacher, Writing Down the Bones, which I’d always felt as if I’d read—I’d heard so much about it—but never had. This was the book that in 1986 cracked open the black box of writing craft and writing practice and made the psychic engine of writing and all its nuts and bolts visible and accessible to aspiring writers.

Old Friend carries on where Writing Down the Bones left off, with dozens of writing prompts interspersed with reflections on the mind, memory, and the writing process.

Cosmos-Physique. MJ Ross, All Rights ReservedGoldberg began doing sitting meditation in her twenties and had been a student of Zen Buddhism for 10 years before she published Writing Down the Bones. Her Zen teacher Katagiri Roshi had suggested to her early in her studies with him that she make writing her Zen practice. Goldberg dismissed this idea and did her best to be diligent and sincere in her sitting meditation, believing only thus could she gain some control of the monkey mind. It was while she was working on Writing Down the Bones that she understood how writing could be a practice that would do for the mind just what Zen meditation does, allowing us see our thoughts as just thoughts and waking us up to the present moment.

We all know the cathartic effect of journaling about the frustrations and upsets of life. Suffering arises from our wanting life, things, circumstances to be other than they are; so says the Zen tradition. In writing practice—and journaling certainly can be writing practice—we use the writing moment to document things exactly as they are and, if we stay with it, the documenting alone allows us to let go of a neurotic craving for those things to change. The key is to write through and beyond complaint to the other side, to the point where the object of our complaint is simply observed, witnessed, and allowed to be just what it is. We might write about a loved one who has Alzheimers and the pain we feel as their memory and sense of self slip away. And in the writing and the witnessing we give dignity to their life and touch the beauty of the fleeting moments of connection we can still share.

The recurring refrain in Goldberg’s new book Old Friend is, “Write ten minutes. Go.” From “Broken” to “Fish” to “Everything,” her many short writing-prompt chapters will spark myriad memories and give you myriad points of entry to your own writing practice.

2 responses to “Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir

  1. Jane,
    I also heard Natalie Goldberg speak recently–in St. Louis, at Left Bank Books, our city’s longest running independent book store.
    As always, she was warm, charming and enticing. A few years back in California I’d attended a weekend writing workshop with her at the Yosemite Lodge in the Sierras. I’d read all her books before I went, and wasn’t disappointed with the human being and teacher I discovered.
    I love what you have to say about her and her two books. You’ve got it just right.
    Janet Riehl

  2. Yes, Natalie had quite a crowd packed in that St. Louis bookstore! Like you, I also bought Writing Down the Bones because I had heard so much about it for so long. She recommended her book Thunder and Lightning after I asked how to connect all the dots of one’s lifestory. I did a blogpost about her, too. She was great!

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