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The Great Spring
Writing, Zen, and This Zigzag Life

Natalie Goldberg

ARJ2 Chapter: On Writing
Published by Shambala/CO in 2016
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2018


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"I thought you were dead!" With those words, Dottie Zold of California greeted me in the Schreinerei of the Goetheanum in 2013. "That's interesting," I said, "and why did you think that?" "Because you've been writing for so long," was her earnest reply. I feel the same way about Natalie, "You have been writing for so long." Over forty years, she says.

What a delight to find a new book written by Natalie! One in hardback and First Edition, containing pieces that she has written elsewhere over the years, which I am happy to encounter collected into a book. I remember Writing Down the Bones which I read first in 1987. She wrote down things which inspired me and inspire me still. "If only one line in the poem has energy, then cut the rest out and leave only that one line," William Carlos Williams said to Allen Ginsberg. On page 157 of Bones, she wrote, "A quiet poem. Those are tricky poems to find; they are the subtle hum in your notebook that can bring you into another world." And this short poem oozed out from the underground of my psyche.


running below
       a subtle hum
a quiet poem
       carrying you
into another world

In Natalie's introduction she writes of the bursting joy of Spring this way: "The title The Great Spring signifies the great rushing of energy that arrives when you think no life will ever come again." I was reading this on the day of an LSU baseball game when freshman pitcher Todd Peterson talked his coach into letting him take a swing at the ball saying, "I nuked them in high school!" He hit the ball against the fence for a 2-RBI double to win the game. His jaded coach Paul Manieri, whose team was facing sure elimination, suddenly beamed like an eighteen-year-old kid! Later the pitcher admitted he lied, "I only hit the ball in batting practice, Coach, but I wanted to swing!" He was batting a thousand! His swing created a bursting of joy in his team and coach which will carry good feelings for LSU baseball into the next season.

Bursting of joy continues: Natalie leaves a monastery and is overcome by a yen for chocolates and buys two bags of M&Ms; they are all melted but she shoves them in her mouth. A monk all in formal traveling attire walks towards her; she tries to hide her chocolate-smeared hands, but the monk pulls out a bar of something and holds it up. Almond Joy. They both burst out laughing. (Page 14)

In her chapter Tennis, Natalie writes:

[page 22] I love tennis with every cell, and the amazing thing was I couldn't do it alone. I had to have a partner. I tried the squash walls: the ball answered wrong, came back too fast, too low, too artificial, too alone. I needed others before I knew or could pronounce loneliness.

I never knew aloneness growing up as one of six kids and two parents. Reading was the only thing I ever did alone — maybe that's why I did a lot of reading — I could be alone. I enjoyed one-on-one games, handball, ping-pong, chess, and even tennis for a few years. I liked the head-on competition of these games, and mostly avoided team games. Tennis was just another one-on-one game and not my favorite game. But Natalie loved tennis and even remembered it late at night as she lay in bed.

[page 22] In the middle of the night I remember how I visited my grandmother in Miami Beach in December and walked away from the ocean four blocks to where a tournament was being held at Flamingo Park, sat on a green bench between the high iron fences separating the eight courts. I closed my eyes, feeling the paaa paaa paaa around me in all four directions from the felted yellow balls hitting in the magnificent center of the strings, I could tell from the sound who could play and who was faking it, who drank too much, who had wrong sex the night before, and whose wife didn't love him. It was all men playing that afternoon, and soon my grandmother would be looking to serve me her boiled plain chicken. To return to family, I tore myself away from the hum in my body, the central hunger in my breath.

Her grandmother's taste in chicken causes me to pause and ask, like my grandson Garret, "What flavor is plain?" In the city of New Orleans, one cannot find any food that tastes plain. Someone said, "If you die of old age here, it's your own damn fault!"

In college, a boyfriend remembered Natalie's smile on the tennis court "when she made a good shot, swung hard, the swirl below the right toe of her rubber sneaker deepening." She puzzled, "How did I dare leave tennis behind, drop that true poetry for the one of words?" (Page 25)

Natalie inspired me to write a short poem and finish with a quote from page 27:

Tennyson Love

I dropped the true poetry
       of Tennis,

The paaa paaa paaa
       around me in four directions,
               for the poetry of words.

Like in Tennis,
       it's better to keep a limber mind
               and develop a tenderness
                     toward existence.

On page 29, Natalie learned from a writer that if you stop writing, you remain a writer. "Even if you can't write, you can see the way a writer does, notice, take in, digest the details and stories of what surrounds you." Another poem flowed from my finger.

A Writer

If you can't write:
       See like a writer
       Feel like a writer
       Smell like a writer
       Taste like a writer
       Dance like a writer
       Live like a writer.

Her chapter Archer City is about a ghost town I would love to visit, about 2.5 hours north of Dallas, a ride so monotonous that "even the cows are bored out of their minds." As Natalie's friend says as she asks her to turn around because, "There's nothing here." Natalie responds by relating how Larry McMurtry saved Archer City from oblivion. He turned it into a town of book stores!

[page 60] In the mideighties, as his hometown of Archer City, the setting for some of his novels, was slowly becoming a ghost town, McMurtry bought up the buildings and made each one a bookstore. One building held books of poetry, another history. He said that whenever an independent bookstore any place in the country went out of business, he bought up the stock and brought the books home. His Family herded cattle; he was going to herd books.

The metaphor of an archer for a writer seems fitting for me. Around 1981 I bought a wood sculpture of an archer which is my favorite. Writing about Archer City, my wood sculpture came to mind. The archer in the wood carving is holding the bow string taut with his own body which acts as the arrow! A writer creates the tension in his words, shapes himself into a story, and launches himself in the direction of his intended reader. My wood sculpture is a fitting symbol for Archer City.

This book I am reviewing is a First Edition, but I have already glyphed the date in it, written where I bought it, and have written numerous marginalia inside it. In my early days, I underlined important passages, but I switched to writing notes in the margins because the underlines became distracting as I re-read the book for my reviews and research later on. I own few rare books because they are meant to be looked at and admired, not to be consumed by this hungry reader. I decline offers from friends who want to loan me a book, "Sorry, but if I read your book, as hard as I try to avoid it, I will make notes inside it." I buy books I choose to read. Kindles to me are only useful as night lights if you have no other source of light.

[page 68] I was driven to write books in order to find my lost voice, to be seen by people who could not see me. Why did I think books — something I cared for but they didn't — would wake up my parents? They would read my books and we would have the connection I longed for. It thought they would see into my true heart.

My parents hardly read my writing. Once my father asked me if I would write a poem about the small sawmill town of Donner in which my mom grew up. What can I write about a sawmill town, I thought, but Dad was interested in my writing and knew that I could write poems, so I needed to produce a poem which somehow summarized my mom's life in this now-gone sawmill town. Like cypress kindling, Donner flamed up in the early 20th century and was snuffled out when the old growth Bald Cypress were clear-cut by 1938. That led Annette to move to Bourg where she met Buster and they became my parents a couple of years later. I basically came into being because of Donner, one might say I came through the sawmill town of Donner, a sawmill town that was through now. Those words in italics became the title and theme of my poem which you can read here: Donner. Years later, Dad asked me one day out of the blue (we rarely talked about my work as a writer), "Is writing hard?" Boy, that was a hard question to answer, but I thought about it and came up with this reply, "No, Dad, writing is easy; it's having something worth writing about that is hard."

When I made a decision to spend the rest of my life writing, I had no idea where to begin. Up until that time, I wrote when I was given assignments to write. I wrote several articles in national journals, such as Datamation Magazine, Journal of Irreproducible Results, and International Transactional Analysis Association Journal, among other small journals, but nothing that filled my time and I struggled to find myself as a writer. Into this vacuum strolled a man named Peter Elbow. What a perfect name for a writing teacher! And his book was perfect for me, Writing Without Teachers. I bought a copy immediately and began writing following his instructions. "Take out a piece of paper and write for ten minutes without stopping". WOW! How simple is that? I thought. Write without stopping until you have filled ten minutes of time, which amounts to two pages at my speed of writing. If you can't think of anything to say, write "I can't think of anything to say." The main job is to keep writing, to write through the pauses even.

Soon, the editor in my head simply GAVE UP! I kept writing so the editor got pissed and left me alone to my foolishness, as he called it. My writing began to make sense and led me into an occupation as writer. I had already made the decision, but I had a family to house, feed, and entertain, so I took a job at a nuclear power plant. I was driving to work for 90 minutes each way, which gave me about an hour and a half of time for reading each day. I taught myself to drive safely while reading, and one day I finished reading a book while on my way to work. During my coffee break, I got ready to do the daily Free-Writing Exercise suggested by Peter Elbow and my feelings perked up as I thought, “CONTENT!” What I felt was relief that today’s writing exercise already had content ready to fill the two empty pages, namely, writing about the book I had just finished reading! That is how I began my practice of writing a review of every book after I finish reading it.

When Natalie said that she avoided doing writing workshops, I understood what she meant as I had avoided them in my own career. I did start a brief Writing Without Teachers class for a half dozen friends which helped them and me get this process started, but no writing workshops or classes after that for me.

[page 71] It is widely acknowledged that writing cannot be taught as a chronological step-by-step method and that this workshopping process, we were doing in class, is the way writing is transmitted in America. Many great writers have been initiated this way. But I grew impatient. I have assiduously avoided workshopping for the whole of my writing career.

Natalie described what happened when she sent a friend directions to a newly built retreat in Taos. What her friend discovered was that we get lost in maps we create out of the words people use to give us directions. My preference is always a sketchy map over an elaborate verbal description of the route, and her friend describes my very reason for the map preference.

[page 144] "I rented a car at the airport in Albuquerque. Getting to Taos was fine — only one highway pointing north — but then I had to follow Natalie's directions on these dirt back roads. I got lost. I realize now that when I listened to her over the phone, I pictured in my mind what she was saying, and when the markers appear in actuality — for instance, the right at an abandoned adobe — they weren't how I'd pictured them, so I ignored them and went looking for what matched my vision. Isn't that how we also work in our life? We don't see reality."

As a 35-year-old, my supervisor told me, "In the Norwegian Boy Scout Handbook, in the section on Map Reading, it said, 'When the terrain differs from the map, believe the terrain." Natalie drove to Hibbing, Minnesota with Mary, a filmmaker, to find Bob Dylan, but instead found Bobby Zimmerman. But along the way they couldn't find Bob Dylan and became tangled up in attempting to find Dylan and made a movie about their process of looking for him, named Tangled Up in Bob. Mary said she knew they had a movie after they met BJ Rolfzen, Dylan's English teacher.

[page 150, 151] We traveled back to Hibbing several more times and made the film Tangled Up in Bob. At the end I realized I couldn't find Bob Dylan, the man I played on my stereo, in Hibbing. What I found in Hibbing was Bobby Zimmerman, who eventually gave birth to Bob Dylan. Hibbing was where he came from but he left and went on to another life. . . . The film turned out gorgeous, and something large and unexpected happened to me in the process. I went up to Hibbing hoping to find home — Dylan's, mine, somebody's. But you can't find a home in a house, a building, a place. Instead I found friendship, with the breath of poetry breathing us, both BJ and me.

In the Chapter called Losing, Natalie loses friends in six stories. Sandy was one.

[page 154] "Do you see that bird's nest on top of the telephone pole?" He
       I'd have to squint hard. "Yes, you're right. Wow."
       He was clear almost to the end. I'd stop by, bring watermelon — his favorite — out of season, while he was propped up in bed reading the New York Times.
       Gone now. A rush of death in a month's time.

A friend of mine gave me this advice decades ago — he's probably dead now. "If you live long enough, all your relatives and friends will die — keep getting younger friends."

Stories and more stories, Chinese in St. Paul, Zen at the High Chapperal, and at the end, a memorable Afterword titled The Smoke of Memories. I like to think of it as a poem with which Natalie ends the Great Spring with a Lingering Summer:


After word
there's only
the smoke
of memories.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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