book review

“Old Friend from Far Away” by Natalie Goldberg

Introductory Notes

Natalie Goldberg grew up on Long Island, New York. She studied Buddhism with a teacher in Minnesota for 17 years. At about the same time that she began her Zen studies she also began writing and painting, and those three activities have coalesced into an active philosophy of living creatively.

Natalie Goldberg has been conducting workshops and retreats about writing as Zen practice for 30 years.  She now lives in New Mexico.

Goldberg focuses on what she calls writing practice, which she describes like this:

I consider writing an athletic activity: the more you practice, the better you get at it. The reason you keep your hand moving is because there’s often a conflict between the editor and the creator. The editor is always on our shoulder saying, “Oh, you shouldn’t write that. It’s no good.” But when you have to keep the hand moving, it’s an opportunity for the creator to have a say. All the other rules of writing practice support that primary rule of keeping your hand moving. The goal is to allow the written word to connect with your original mind, to write down the first thought you flash on, before the second and third thoughts come in.

Review: Old Friend from Far Away

Goldberg, Natalie. Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir
New York: Free Press, 2007
ISBN 978-1-4165-3502-7

Highly Recommended

In Writing Down the Bones Natalie Goldberg produced what has become a classic manual for writers eager to stir up their creativity. In Old Friend from Far Away she focuses her advice on memoir writing. The old friend of the title is, of course, you–all the yous, all the selves you’ve ever been or only dreamed of being. And the far away place is the past–50 or 80 years ago, or five minutes ago.

In the introduction Goldberg discusses why memoir has become so popular in America over the last 25 years: “Think of the word: memoir. . . . It is the study of memory, structured on the meandering way we remember. Essentially it is an examination of the zigzag nature of how our mind works” (p. xviii). We have turned to the memoir form with such gusto because “We have an intuition that it can save us. Writing is the act of reaching across the abyss of isolation to share and reflect. . . . Often without realizing it, we are on a quest, a search for meaning. What does our time on this earth add up to?” (p. xix).

Most other books for memoir writers aim to stir up memories in a fairly straightforward, traditional way, with prompts about things such as your early childhood memories, your favorite relatives, your best vacation. But Goldberg is much more unconventional. She warns that we cannot approach writing memoir head-on; we must approach it sideways: “because life is not linear, you want to approach writing memoir sideways, using the deepest kind of thinking to sort through the layers: you want reflection to discover what the real connections are” (p. xxi). 

It’s difficult to describe exactly what Goldberg means by approaching a topic sideways. It’s better to let her show you. Here’s a section from the entry “Place,” chosen at random from Old Friend from Far Away:

Write about a place you haven’t lived. Go, ten minutes.

Make a lost of thirty things pertaining to place; i.e., boulevard, street corner, gulley canyon, arroyo.

Write another ten minutes including ten words from your list but with this topic: the place I am most afraid to go.

Notice the different levels you can write about place. One is concrete: Colorado Springs, Colorado, Memphis, Tennessee. . . . The other is inner: I have not been in a peaceful place for a long time. I have been in a thoughtful place. I feel lost; I can’t find a place for myself. 

(p. 201)

Goldberg’s sideways approach to memoir writing forces us to probe beneath the surface of experience to find its kernel of meaning. “Memoir is taking personal experience and turning it inside out. We surrender our most precious understanding, so others can feel what we felt and be enlarged. This means when we write we give up ourselves” (p. 147).

Most of Goldberg’s writing exercises instruct us to set a timer and write for ten minutes. Why ten minutes?

Ten minutes is a convenient starting point. It’s a sprint. Feel free to ease into longer runs. But don’t abandon that ten-minute hard-core pressurized feeling that you have to get it all down on two or three pages. There is something wildly exhilarating about that: gun to the head, writing for life and death in ten minutes.

(p. 98)

She seems to be advocating here a kind of writing sometimes called free writing or automatic writing–a keep-the-pen-moving-across-the-page act of writing that does not stop to edit or judge but keeps going to see what will emerge onto the page. The idea behind this kind of writing is that whatever thoughts, feelings, or visions are just below the surface of consciousness will take advantage of this uncensored opportunity to jump out and present themselves. And these thoughts are usually the ones that most need our attention right now.

Finally, why write memoir? Goldberg says we write about our life

to remember all of it. The good and the bad. To trust your experience, to have a confidence that your moments and the moments of others on this earth mattered, not to be forgotten. . . . It is a great thing you are doing whatever it is you are remembering. You are saying that life–and its passing–have true value”. 

(p. 265)

And for whom do we write? For “our better, worse, encumbered, forfeited, imprisoned, beloved selves” (p. 299).

©2008 by Mary Daniels Brown

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