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Thunder and Lightning
Natalie Goldberg

Cracking Open the Writer's Craft
Published by Bantam Books/NY in 2000
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2003


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"Why are you reading another book on writing by Natalie Goldberg?" one of my friends asked me. Because she writes on life, she writes living sentences, she writes with a narrative drive that pulls me through her books, and because when I read her books, I learn to write better — to heed Hemingway's dictate, as she says, "write clear and hard about what hurts." (Page 153) Or about what feels good. Or means something. Or gets you through the day. Or got you where you are. Or speeds your feet and fingers on their way.

I remember a story about a woman who approached Isaac Stern, the great violinist, after one of his last concerts with this comment, "Mr. Stern, I would give my life to be able to play the violin as you do." His reply was, "Dear Lady, I did."

[page 1] I once told my great teacher Katagiri Roshi, "If I put the effort into zazen that I put into writing, I'd be sitting where you are."
"Yes, yes," he beamed.

If you would be a violinist, begin playing today; if you would be a writer, begin writing today. Natalie continually breaks the illusion for any beginning writer that to be a writer, one must have a story to tell. To be a writer, one must write. Write everyday, as if you were training for a marathon. A marathon is to daily running what a book is to daily writing. The marathon means something, but it would not have been possible without the daily running which means nothing. Daily running and daily writing. Your feet moving across the path, your hand moving across the page. Footsteps fade behind your feet and words fade behind your hand. Then one day you find yourself on a path that becomes a marathon and your words will glow into meaning behind your hand.

Writing every day gives one clarity, clarity that a marathon runner gets when her second wind kicks in and she knows she's going to finish the race. Natalie sought this clarity for herself in her writing and strove to inspire it in other writers. Yet, so many that she encouraged to write ended up with suffering instead of clarity. For example, her friend Norm told her:

[page 2] " . . . art leads to suffering. I have a lot of poet friends. The ones who've made it seem miserable. And the ones who haven't — when I go to visit them they whip out a newly published anthology and point out a poem: 'See, this isn't as good as mine and he's getting published.' "

When another writer friend told her he didn't know any writer who is happy, Natalie responded:

[page 3] "I know what you mean," I said. "If there's any clear steering in this life for me, it will be through writing. But knowing what we know, how can I encourage people any more? I wanted my work to help people, give them clarity, not make them sad and desolate."

One cannot give clarity to another person as one might give a glass of claret. Clarity is a do-it-yourself job. What Natalie gives people is a path to follow with their writing so that they may write themselves into clarity if they follow the path — of their own volition, in their own way. Like in running, there are days when you don't feel like getting out of bed, don't want to put one foot in front of the other, the weather is cold, it's too muggy, the streets are under construction, the traffic is heavy, or your legs are sore. There's excuses and there's running. There's excuses and there's writing.

The weather's clear and the next minute there's thunder and lightning. That happened to Natalie one day as she stood looking up at Arenal, an active volcano in Costa Rica.

[page 4] Wind howled through trees, and the rain, twice changing directions, first pelted the sides and then the front of my legs. Suddenly everything became soft, quiet, dripping, drenched, thick and muggy — and cracks of blue appeared in the sky overhead.
      I thought, some divine structure has just whipped through here. That which manifests from nothing, changes everything and then is gone.

And she realized that writing books was like that. "They presented themselves, I was absorbed; they were finished and I was left empty-handed." Writing practice is writing without stopping for ten minutes, twenty, thirty, an hour, whatever time you choose, with no plan, no design, no structure, but to keep your hand moving on the page. Words will fill those hand movements as you experience the freedom of writing down your every thought. But writing a book requires a new kind of freedom, the freedom that comes from adhering to a form.

[page 6] Writing a book is my one chance to experience freedom, to cut loose by succumbing to the discipline of form. It is an opportunity to touch something holy — like that storm in Costa Rica — independent of my human ego.

If you've ever considered writing an autobiography and wondered how to start it, you might have found yourself writing one word on a page like Natalie did. "When" She crossed it out and stared out the window. She then wrote "While" followed by more staring. Sounds like a Peanuts cartoon I saw recently with Snoopy performing a similar writing feat on top of his doghouse. Then she found West with the Night by Beryl Markham who wrote:

[page 27] How is it possible to bring order out of memory? I should like to begin at the beginning, patiently, like a weaver at his loom, I should like to say, "This is the place to start; there can be no other."

But we often cannot think of a structure for our weaving, so we simply stare at the loom instead, like Natalie at her desk and Snoopy on his doghouse. But Natalie finds a suggestion from Markham's structure of her story, and enlightens us here.

[page 27] She allowed memory to inform the structure of her book. Memory and names. . . .

[page 28] Try it for yourself. Name something you know even slightly. If you pay close attention, a whole card deck of thoughts begins to flip through your mind.

What a neat way to write an autobiography, I thought. I ran off a whole list of names, Dale Boudreaux, crystal radios, six-shooters, four-leaf clovers, among other things that I could write a page or two or three on without missing a beat. Each word phrase would take me to a specific memory full of life, of my life — all I had to do was to write the first thoughts that came to my mind as I thought of each phrase.

[page 30, 31] First thoughts have their own structure, move in their own rhythm, rise full-muscled from the bottom of the mind. They appear and disappear, present themselves and fade away unless we try to smother them, frightened by their power and truth, or smash them into polite second or third thoughts. What might seem illogical — or scary — has its own integrity.

I got it, Natalie! Just as thunder and lightning frighten us by their power, have a scary illogic to their occurrences, they also have their own integrity which can power the narrative drive. And you do it so well that we can feel that drive pour over us as we read your words.

Autobiography. So dry, so logical, so sequential. Natalie directs our attention to the French word for the process of writing down one's memories — memoir.

[page 31] Think of the word: memoir. It's French. It's not an efficient, quick, sanitized prepackaged meal at McDonald's. It's a long afternoon, inhaling the bouquet of a rich port, sampling cheese, rolling a grape around in your mouth, a long conversation while another course is served, seeing light and shadow move across the street, long moments of silence.

Coincidence or deep structure? An event will occur to us that seems insignificant at first, and then gradually we realize that the whole structure of the rest of our life depended on that event. Was it a coincidence or a deep structure? What does the phrase deep structure mean anyway? Was this event part of a plan that we came into this lifetime with? If so, the other person involved must have also come into this lifetime with a matching plan. If karma involved working out and rectifying mistakes from a previous lifetime, the other person involved must somehow meet us during this lifetime, and since the meeting was planned in a state we are unconscious of once we are born, the meeting will seem to be coincidental for the very good reason that we have no memory of the deep structure during which we did the planning.

[page 32] But the deep structure — what was it really all about, anyway, this New York Jewish woman meeting a Japanese Zen master? — was slippery, like trying to catch inky fish in the middle of the night.

Our individual karmic destiny, rightly understood, provides an "inner rightness or structure that we carry within our psyches." That was what Natalie found out: that fiction, where she thought imagination could let her do anything, had to conform to her inner sense of rightness or structure. Characters in novels we write have a karmic destiny which evolves on its own, often to our surprise. It is part of our karmic destiny — a part that is able to express itself through our writing. We may attempt consciously to say no to it, but the deep structure breaks through finally and shines out of the pages of our work.

[page 40] One of the reasons we read a story is to bring forth from within ourselves that glow, that yes. The tale affirms something large within us. The structure of Banana Rose had become bigger than my little will. Anna was no longer mine. She had stepped into the life of fiction, and karmic determination, or plot, took over. She had to die no matter how unfair it seemed to me, no matter how wonderful she was. The truth of the story was deeper than my love or desire for things to be different.

This next passage reminded me of how teenagers in every generation always look alike. In their struggle to be different from their parents, they take to fashions that make all of them look alike. But let them get into the military service, receive close haircuts, and wear uniforms, and then we can see their uniqueness.

[page 42] Suzuki Roshi once said to his sixties American students that the way they dressed — with beads, long hair, brightly colored clothes — they all looked alike. Shave your heads, wear black robes, he said — Ah, now I can see your uniqueness.

Natalie came to see that the path of the writer and the monk were the same. One sought publication and the other enlightenment, both of which is "nothing less than ego's great disappointment." Both the writer and the monk have to learn to enjoy the path to the edge of the cliff because there is nothing to hold onto in the end. (Page 44)

In the chapter "Shall We Plot Along" her friend Kate helps her to understand how to write a plot by demystifying the process.

[page 52] "Plot is what happens, Nat. A woman sitting and having a cup of tea is good for one sentence. Plot is a sequence of actions that compels a reader to want to know more. It's a seduction, bread crumbs dropped deeper and deeper into the woods — into the unknown."

[page 53] "This is what a good plot feels like," Kate murmured. I leaned in, hungry. "You don't want to skip ahead. Everything feels germane. You are afraid you'll miss something important. You want to keep reading. You plan to go to bed early so you'll have more time with the book. You stay up too late. You are as changed by the story as the characters are.

Nell was the main character in the novel Natalie was writing, but she wouldn't cooperate with Natalie. "Once I'd given my characters guts and will, I found that none of them wanted to go where I directed them." Finally she resorted to pretending that she was Nell and Nell was writing her own story. In this next passage Natalie described the key day when Nell finally took over the pen. Is this a transition that comes in every fiction-writer's life?

[page 60] And then one day, lo and behold! It was early spring, March, I had on a gray crewneck sweater. Outside the café window snow was lightly dusting Taos Plaza, the lighting was poor over the wood table, my left hand held a brown jug of lukewarm mint tea, and as I wrote, Natalie faded out. She was gone, disappeared, and this character Nell Schwartz was telling her own story through my hand. I was no longer doing writing practice. Nell was doing writing practice, telling all about her adventures, her boyfriend, her girlfriends, her home, her parents, her sister. Even now I can remember the sensation of feeling unglued — I experienced a heady freedom. I no longer existed. I could lay down my burden and let the kid walk on her own two feet.

In her chapter "Smack! Into the Moment" we get a reminder that the power of literature has nothing to do with logic or science or laws of nature — which is why as a physics major in college I avoided literature as much as possible. It seemed trivial to be concerned about the present moment when I was studying eternal verities, or so I thought. I missed the great gift of literature because I wanted something that is not part of literature.

[page 77] Literature gives us the great gift of the present moment. As we read we enter the author's mind and follow it like a train on its tracks. If the author derails — gets lost — so do we. But if she is alive, steaming along in her full power, we chug along with her deep into pleasure country. She is taking us far out or far in and we're there! — no place else. Mind to mind. The writer is concentrating — she has been practicing a lot — and we get the benefit. Mind reflects mind. If we read someone who is awake, it helps to wake us up. And think of it: while you read you're not spending money, getting into a fight, creating karma. What better gift can you give yourself than to arrive in the present moment? I know of no greater delight, and I have lived a rich, expansive life.

For many years, I couldn't tell the difference between what was alive and what was dead. I applied all my reasoning and logic and couldn't make sense of literature. What's the attraction, I thought? I could write technical articles for national magazines because of my logical mind. But since "mind reflects mind" only logical minds could comprehend what I was writing about. A feeling type would say that I was disconnected if they read my writing.

[page 84] If he's disoriented, we become disoriented. If he's not connected, we disconnect. But if the writer is present, our mind zooms in like a cat about to pounce. We become glued to the words. Noplace else on earth we want to be.

Reason and logic are dead — they cannot tell the difference between something that’s dead, such as mathematical equations, and something that’s alive, such as literature. I know that now. What I was trying to figure out in my head could only be calculated in my gut, in my feeling response, something whose existence I had yet to discover at the time. Natalie said that when she listens to students read their works, if she finds herself drifting it is usually an "indication that their writing has become disconnected." There is the other extreme she found, when the reader disconnects because the writer comes too close.

[page 89] He holds his gaze on every detail of the eagle — his talons, plumage, neck, beak, black pupil — and the eagle looks back at him: inside him, he says. The students felt touched and it scared them.

Fiction or non-fiction. These are not the mutually exclusive categories I once made them out to be. Natalie quickly disabuses her writing pupils of that notion as when someone from the back of the room calls out, "But this is nonfiction."

[page 93] I lean in close as if to tell the real secret of writing. "Don't be so rigid. If you learn a good move in one genre, use it in another. Fiction, nonfiction," I toss my head, "are a breath away from each other. Grab the reader's mind whatever it takes."

The man was furious. The woman was shocked. Neither of these two sentences tell us anything specific. Exactly how did the man show he was furious? What told an onlooker that the woman was shocked? The man's eye bulged out from his bright red face as he slammed his fist on the table. The woman stared into space and the color drained from her face. Compare the two versions of the same description. One is carried by a flattened abstract word, the second throbs with visual and visceral words. The former is dead and listless, the latter alive.

[page 166] We have to communicate, get the picture across. How best to get the result? Practice freezing moments or situations as photos. Step through the abstract names for emotions — shocked, furious — and touch the details.

In terms of Natalie's wonderful metaphor: Let out all your wild horses! This next passage best illustrates her enlivened writing style. One can learn by modeling one's writing style after Natalie's. One need never remember her advice if one models her writing style because the two are essentially one: what she says in content about how to write, she demonstrates in process as she writes..

[page 159] Writing practice lets out all your wild horses. Everything you never dared to utter — didn't even know you thought — comes galloping and whinnying across the page. This is good. You become connected with a much larger force field, one where you're not in control. Suddenly your little will is not doing the writing, but instead writing does writing. The trees and skies, cemeteries, nightclubs, barns, old loves and worn shoes step forward and take their true positions.

Okay, you think, "But does everything in our book have to alive?" Natalie asks and answers this question below:

[page 183] Why not? We don't want our reader falling asleep alongside us.

I've read books that put me to sleep and books that keep me awake. Natalie Goldberg's books keep me awake. The consistency of her style with her content, her narrative drive, and her enlivened prose dance before me on the page as three members of a ballet troupe who offer me their service for my own writings. Thank you, Natalie!


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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