05 April 2009

Author of 'Writing Down the Bones' Visits Austin

Natalie Goldberg and Bookwoman's Susan Post. Photo: Alice Embree.

Natalie Goldberg Visits Austin
By Alice Embree / The Rag Blog / April 5, 2009

Natalie Goldberg was in Austin on April Fools’ Day promoting her book, Old Friend from Far Away, The Practice of Writing Memoir. She read and took questions at Temple Beth Israel to a crowd of about one hundred. Austin was the last stop on a national tour before she returned to her home in Santa Fe. She extended her Austin stay to see Leonard Cohen the following night and mentioned that he often refers aspiring songwriters to her books. That’s a formidable endorsement from one word wizard to another.

For two decades, Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones has been part of my life and at the core of writing practice in several of my writing circles. The advice Goldberg imparts to writers is to practice -– to practice through writing prompts and timed exercises -- to practice the way she practices Zen Buddhism -- to get to a place where the editor steps aside and the writing can emerge. Memoir, she says, is the study of memory. It isn’t boring and linear. It is about taste and smell and sound.

She reminds us of the importance of practice among marathon runners, baseball players, and violinists. It’s about muscle memory. The image in my mind is watching my son’s Pony League baseball team practice catching. The coach had players catch the ball and swoop down to tag out imaginary base-runners. Just as muscle memory is built in baseball practice, writing can become instinctive through practice. Spontaneity can be a learned response.

Bookwoman was selling Goldberg’s books. I got three signed – one for myself and two for members of a current memoir circle. I haven’t made my way through this Old Friend from Far Away yet –- in part because Goldberg urges you to practice, not just read. In many ways her advice is as plain as the back of your hand. But Natalie would have you really look at the back of your hand, the age spots and ragged cuticles, the curve of your index finger, the scar on the ring finger. Get really specific and write for ten minutes.

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