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Book Review: The True Secret of Writing by Natalie Goldberg

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Natalie Goldberg is the author of one of the classic texts for writers, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. Published in 1986, it has sold over a million copies and has been translated into fourteen languages. She’s back with another book on word craft, The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language.

Goldberg is a long-time Zen practitioner, and her unique contribution is to blend Buddhist principles and practices with the writing life. The retreats she leads combining meditation and writing form the backbone of the book.

Goldberg’s expressed reason for writing this book is to record her retreat practices so others can use them, and this she does. In Part One: Basic Essentials, she describes her methods and the philosophy behind them: writing is for everyone, writing is a practice, writing retreats can be mostly silent and succeed. In Part Two: True Secret Retreat Essentials, she describes daily schedules and more details (Reading lists and sign-up sheets for routine jobs shared, Zen-style, by students can be found in appendices).

Part Three: Elaborations, tells retreat stories and provides some sample writing prompts for the reader. In Part Four: Encounters and Teachers, Goldberg describes more of her personal experiences and talks about teachers, authors, students. As the text progresses, more memoir appears.

In the introduction, Goldberg explains that the title “The True Secret of Writing” stems from a joke. Sometimes if a student is late, she will say, “I just gave the true secret of writing, and you missed it.” The joke is that there is no true secret; there is only the practice. And this Goldberg is willing to share in abundance.

Through her stories, Goldberg expresses truth as she understands it. “What is true? Maybe tomorrow I can sift down closer. What is essential? This practitioner’s life. Not to act and react, but to notice, to come close to ourselves–and others–close to all things. And also accept our mind where it is and meet it there.” (p. 160)

Goldberg sometimes comes off in her stories as the crazy Zen master. Spontaneously at a retreat she might say, let’s go walk outside in our bare feet (even in winter). Or she might jump and wave her arms while reading her favorite Zen poems. This is her training. If it’s not what you want in a writing teacher, best not attend her retreats. That doesn’t mean you won’t find her book interesting.

What Natalie Goldberg has done is present her retreat practice for anyone who wishes a sample it. I now feel like I have spent some time at a New Mexico retreat as an observer. I’m sure her methods and views are not for everyone, but I am also convinced anyone can learn something from her life’s journey and accumulated wisdom.

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About Nancy Fontaine

Nancy Fontaine is a librarian and freelance writer living in New Hampshire with her husband, two cats, and every four years during presidential primary season, the national press.
  • Glenn Contrarian

    I like your review – it makes me want to go buy the book and try again to write. It’s there, just begging to be written, and my fear of rejection is holding it back.

  • Margoli

    Natalie, I have been doing writing practice for nearly 20 years and I hope I stilll have a pen in hand on my last day. Took a weekend workshop with you years ago at Land of Medicine Buddha in CA and a 5-day one at the Mabel Dodge house not so long ago. What I remember is you coming up behind me as we all walked along the gorge and tucking a bit of sage into my pocket. Thanks for that.

    I’m looking at your teaching schedule & November looks awfully good if I can convince my writing partner to go too; I’m getting to the age of not travelling alone so I might need the “lying down meditation” rather than much walking and my hand doesn’t move as fast as it once did but I just accept my limitations and push on.

    I’m savoring the new book and hoping to see you in the fall.

    Maggi Sullivan Godman (one of my personas)

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