I discovered Natalie Goldberg in high school when I read a copy of her first book, Writing Down the Bones. As a young person who wanted to write, it was freeing to read that you didn’t have to write in order to please someone or be published; all you had to do was grab a pen and paper and write. Pure and simple.
After Bones, I read three more of her books before moving onto other authors, and I stopped keeping up with her work. Recently, I stumbled across her page on Goodreads and noticed that while I had been reading elsewhere, Natalie was still writing and publishing. It’s funny how writers do that.
This 2013 book, The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life and Language is a description of the writing retreat of the same name that she hosts. Don’t worry, it doesn’t contain bottled down “do this and you will be published” trash advice, despite what the title seems to imply. In fact, early in the book Natalie states that there is no true secret of writing that works for everyone. Like most of Goldberg’s books, True Secret discusses Zen Buddhism and how the spiritual implications of both the practice of Zen and writing are interwoven for Natalie. It also covers the overarching philosophy of Sit, Walk, Write that she uses in the retreat. As I understand it, sitting and slow walking are more traditional forms of Zen meditation. Writing (specifically, the type of timed freewriting described in her works) is a form of practice developed by her. For the most part, the book doesn’t cover any ground that her previous book on writing haven’t already. If you are new to her writing, I would start with her earlier works, as I think they lay out her approach to writing in a more straightforward way–particularly Writing Down the Bones. However, True Secret was still a joy to read. Seeing the author once again tackle the same themes she describes so well was like listening to an old friend tell a story that you’ve heard numerous times before but still love the telling of it. I came away with a renewed drive to continue my own writing.
The last section of the book contains some of its best writing, particularly the chapter Gwen, an account of one of Natalie’s students who is dying of cancer. It strikes me that Natalie’s books contain chapters (each one a self contained essay, really) that are so scattered. There is a chapter about assigning chores to the retreat students, another about what it’s like to try writing at the same time in the same place every day for a week, and then a moving chapter about what it means to live fully before dying. Yet the book still forms a cohesive whole. Her books are like boxes of chocolate. Each little section needs to hold a piece for the box to be complete, and yet each chocolate is its own individual delicacy.
Hopefully, Natalie will continue to follow her own advice of sitting, walking, and writing. Hopefully, we will get to keep reading the books that come from this practice.