The Great Spring

Natalie Goldberg, one of the greatest writers on freewriting, began as a student of Zen Buddhism.  It involved long hours of sitting meditation, disciplined timekeeping and mundane tasks, all in the spartan environment of the zendo (meditation centre). At the same time, she was beginning to write poetry, inspired by the idea that her own life in all its particularity and ordinariness could be material for poems.

In collaboration with her Zen master, Katagiri Roshi, she developed a way of using writing as her Zen practice.  As with meditation it was timed, she did it in a disciplined way and it honoured her actual life.  Her “writing practice” involved the attempt to capture thought as it occurred in the mind by writing it down for a set period of time without stopping or censoring and then repeating this activity daily.  The practice could have been anything, but because Natalie was a writer this is what she chose.  It was a way of observing the mind with detachment, and it also helped her develop as a writer.

The result of her practice was Writing Down the Bones (1986) a writing guide that has influenced thousands, maybe millions of people in America and across the world to take up writing practice and work with a form of freewriting as a spiritual activity and/or as a way to train as a writer.  Natalie Goldberg’s latest book is a wonderful collection of essays about her writing life and continued practice of Zen called The Great Spring: writing, Zen and this zigzag life.

No matter what you think of Zen, or indeed freewriting, Natalie is a compelling essayist.  Far more concerned with the truth than with selling her ideas, she talks more about failure than success.  The discipline of her practice and the humility and openness fostered by meditation has produced an inimitable style of precision and honesty.

She begins The Great Spring with a succinct expression of her core beliefs and her intentions for the current book: “I have searched through these stories,” she says, “to find answers — if answers are ever possible — about who I am and who I have become […] driven by the practice of Zen and writing”.  This attempt at total clarity was provoked, it seems, from being diagnosed with breast cancer (happily, I believe she is out of danger now) and in true Zen style, the book is made sharper and rawer by an awareness of mortality: “we are here,” she writes, “but not forever”.

From the Zen monastic tradition, Natalie has derived three important principles that have kept her going through a “long writing life”:

  1. Continue under all circumstances.  No excuses.
  2. Don’t be tossed away. If your kid falls and needs stitches, write in the waiting room. […]
  3. Make positive effort for the good. […] Positive effort doesn’t mean hauling a mountain to Iowa. Sometimes it just means getting out of bed and brushing your teeth.

The last of these principles was enormously helpful to me when we were going through a recent family illness and death.  In fact it seems to help in any situation.

And from Jack Kerouac she cites four principles for writers:

  • Accept loss forever
  • Be submissive to everything, open, listening.
  • No fear or shame in the dignity of your experience, language or knowledge.
  • Be in love with your life.

It might seem from this these lists that Natalie is in the business of neat self-help advice based on her own triumphs over adversity but The Great Spring is quite the opposite.  Each chapter wrestles with questions thrown up by broken friendship, the awareness of mortality, conflicts with family, or the problems of being well- (or not so well-) known.  A stand-out essay for me was “On the Shores of Lake Biwa,” which describes a trip to Japan in which all of Natalie’s illusions about the Zen tradition are shattered: no one “likes” Zen or has much time for it and the monasteries are mostly known for harbouring homosexuality.

Some of the best moments in the book are when Natalie struggles without success to solve the Zen riddles called “koans” that are designed to explode the rational mind (the most famous being ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping?’).  In “Blossom” she is at a Zen retreat and can’t even grasp what koan is being asked.  In the traditional one-to-one with the Zen master, when the student is supposed to try to answer the koan, her master (also a friend) assaults her in a possibly sexual manner.  On the way home when her car breaks down she is recognised by the car mechanics and actually asks them “who am I?”.

The experiences don’t add up but are placed in relation, and tension, with the story of Joseph (a Zen student in the 1970s) who realised that the answer to the supposedly easy koan “How do you manifest your true nature when chanting?” was to simply chant.  But when it came to it, Joseph was overcome by the memory of a teacher from schooldays telling him he was tone deaf and he could only manage to croak a few lines.  His teacher says “pretty good,” because, after all, the aim of the koan is to dismantle the individual’s habitual reliance on the illusion of certainty.  Natalie presents these scenes (her own and the story of Joseph) with brightly-lit pitch-perfect description and searing honesty and offers them to the reader without a resolution.

Instead of an exalted, mountain-top wisdom, the study of Zen and writing practice leads Natalie to experience and re-access in arresting detail her moments of complete disintegration as a person, such as the time when, going through her divorce, she has no option but to allow her parents to see the extent of her despair.  She describes the huarache sandals she wore on a visit to see them and the way her father’s put-down (“what are those, horse hooves?”) was the final straw.  She has a tantrum and leaves immediately.  But when her parents catch up with her on the road, she writes: “I uttered three words: ‘I am lost.’  I had no energy for a cover-up.  Those words came from my core”.  And despite the fact that this was clearly a significant moment for her, there’s no Hollywood ending: her parents are embarrassed and the whole incident ends with banality (“Now can we go eat?” says her father, “I’m starving”).

Natalie explains that, in Zen, “the great spring” is a way of describing enlightenment and that this is a shattering thing involving the hard and painful “acceptance of transiency”.  Paradoxically, writing practice, which is all about observing and recording experience, is her route to letting go and breaking through.  She says that her book is an “invitation to notice […] moments that move us forwards”.

I recommend reading this and all of Natalie’s books; she will inspire and provoke new approaches to both writing and life.  Here are some questions that I believe are thrown up by The Great Spring.  You might try to answer them using writing practice (set a timer, write continuously without reading back, go for the jugular, and be specific).  This is not a woolly, mystical quest.  It’s urgent and stark, because: “we are here, but not forever”.


  1. Who am I?
  2. Who have I become through writing/gardening/skiing (fill in whatever you do to seek something beyond yourself).
  3. Is my writing/gardening/skiing a spiritual practice and if not, could it be?
  4. From whom or what have I derived the most important principles for writing and/or life?
  5. What have been the most important turning points in my life and how, precisely, did they feel? What was I wearing/eating/thinking at those moments?


Picture credits, public domain:

Kodo Sawaki sitting in zazen meditation



Dieting for the Unconscious

New Year is the time for dieting but what is the best way to feed the creative mind?  A diet of high-energy, fast entertainment and hectic socialising is all very well for a short time and a change is as good as a feast, but very soon it will be time to return to a more sensible routine. If, by chance, you have the desire and the opportunity to engage in creative work at the beginning of this new year then having a quiet, disciplined approach and withdrawing from the din of people and the distractions of (social) media will probably help to accomplish what you set out to do.

This is all very well, but many would argue that the source of creative ideas and solutions is not the willed, conscious, disciplined mind but somewhere else entirely: the unconscious.  The rational, intellectual and analytic part of the brain is not the origin of real sparks of inspiration.  Instead, there seems to be another “place” or level which contains the really good stuff.  Ideas emerge unbidden.  They come as a surprise and often at inconvenient times, such as when you are working on another project entirely.  Then, as in Stephen King’s wonderful analogy of the story idea as a fossil that must be dug out of the ground without damaging it, the trick is to interfere as little as possible with the image, character or entire plot that has been apparently gifted out of nowhere.  You don’t have to be a writer or an artist to recognise this: it’s the stroke of genius that comes out of the blue, the solution to the problem you’ve been chewing away at for days.

Dorothea Brande, in Becoming a Writer, is most insistent that deliberate intention is wanted only in the planning and editing stages of writing.  “The conscious mind,” she writes, “is meddlesome, opinionated and arrogant”.  Brande argues that the intellect will supply hackneyed material such as stereotypes or over-literary characters if allowed sway during the writing process.  So her ideal model of composition is one in which the unconscious and conscious take turns to be in the ascendant: the unconscious writes, then the conscious edits.  “Hitch your unconscious mind to your writing arm,” she advises.

This, however, is a step too far for many people, writers included.  Heather Leach, in The Road to Somewhere, is wary and sceptical of writers claiming to be in touch with the semi-mystical realms of dream and the unconscious and she finds the idea of the creative process as not fully conscious as “nerve-racking”.  “If something is not in your control,” she says, “how do you develop or improve it?”

I am persuaded, by experience rather than the arguments of Sigmund Freud and others like him, that there is a higher, more organised wisdom beyond my selfish, distracted and limited ego and there have been moments when some other intelligence has taken over from me during composition.  There’s also the very mysterious phenomenon of going back to freewriting and not recognising it as your own work, even though you know you did indeed write it.  But I have no idea, apart from spending time in silence and solitude, of how to induce or invite this other, better source of art to provide me with material.

As Leach continues to puzzle over the apparent unwieldiness of the unconscious, she comes up with yet more questions:  “how does the unconscious learn and develop?” she asks, and then: “what does it eat and how can we feed it?”

Well, even if I am unsure about the truth or otherwise of the unconscious as a player in creative work, I can recognise a good writing prompt when I see it!  My students and I had a great session writing on the topic of “What does the unconscious eat and how can we feed it?”

Why not try it yourself?  Sit down for ten minutes and banish all logic and sense.  Resolve to waste time and paper and freewrite on what your unconscious really needs and wants to be fed.  Also, attempting such a nonsensical task might push that meddlesome intellect out of the way for a while.

At this time of year especially, it’s possible that you’ve been eating all the wrong things, and I’m not just talking about all those chocolates and cakes that have been bad for your waistline.  If you can figure out the right regime, why not put yourself on a diet for your unconscious this new year and see how much more creative you can be.

Things that Have Inspired Me Part 3: Yoga

I’ve been trying to work out if what I know about yoga, which I’ve practiced on and off since childhood, can help me with freewriting because these two activities seem to be very similar in their aims.

The aim of yoga postures, as I understand it, is to alter the way the mind works. Whilst breathing deeply is very beneficial, and having a slimmer, more flexible body and stronger, leaner muscles is good too, the point of yoga is to learn to step back from habitual thought patterns. The aim is to unite mind and body into one. Then, instead of spinning back over the past, or endlessly speculating about the future, or becoming obsessed with judgement, comparison and self-recrimination (or indeed self congratulation) there is total awareness without ego.

Well, I’ve never even got close to that enlightened state, but I think I might have glimpsed what it might be like once or twice for a few seconds in a yoga class. Then, each time, inevitably, I look around and start wondering what’s for tea or how good I am compared to the others in the room at a particular posture or am I wearing a T shirt as flattering as the one the woman in front is wearing and on it goes. The trick you are meant to use in yoga relaxation for this chatter in the mind (“monkey mind” as it’s sometimes called) is to observe it with detachment and let it go.


In freewriting the idea is to write down anything and everything that is running through the mind without any value judgements and without stopping. It’s observing the mind in another way. But as soon as you allow those same sorts of thoughts that bedevil yoga practice to take over (is this a waste of time? am I writing as much or as fast as everybody else? will it be any good? why should I do this when Virginia Woolf, or whoever happens to be your role model, didn’t need to bother [actually, she did, but that’s a subject for another day!]), the flow is lost. The same monkey-mind thoughts of past, future, comparison and self-worth, reassert themselves and the writing falters and/or becomes stilted, clichéd, self-conscious and boring.

Because I’ve been to a lot of yoga classes I know now to leave my competitiveness and vanity (mostly) behind. In a yoga class, the value of my forward bend is its value to me, not in its relative merit to the person’s next to me (who is inevitably reaching further and looking more svelte while doing it). So if I bring this same attitude to freewriting I might be able to go beyond myself into some bigger realm where the writing and me are at one and not pulling in different directions. For instance, in yoga I accept that I need to practice the same posture again and again and will never reach perfection because the practice is whole point of it: it’s the process, not the result. To accept the same thing about writing would be to release all the energy and possibility of my life’s experiences and knowledge into potential material (once edited) and circumvent that monkey the ego who jumps up at every opportunity to undermine me with notions of good and bad.

mountain yogaSo I think it is true: both yoga and freewriting require relaxation, a lack of competitiveness and a focus on the process not the result. And the aim of both is a dissolving of the self into the practice, whether that is the body stretching or the hand writing so that the ego finally gets out of the way.

Well, we all need something to aim at!


Photo credits:

Warrior II a4gpa on Flickr

both Creative Commons

Things That Have Inspired Me Part 2: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott


One of my favourite books about writing is Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.

It’s full of cheering jokes and really useful advice from a startlingly honest writer. One of the best chapters is about how an editor’s rejection of a re-written manuscript sent her into complete mental meltdown. “Luckily, I was still drinking then,” she writes and I hoot at that line every time (no, I know alcoholism isn’t funny, but even so).

Anyway, although Lamott doesn’t mention freewriting as such, her recommendation of starting out with “shitty first drafts” is in very similar territory, because Anne Lamott knows all about the terrors of the blank page. Here’s her description of the writer sitting down to write:

“You turn on the computer and bring up the right file, and then you stare at it for an hour or so. You begin rocking, just a little at first, and then like a huge autistic child. You look at the clock, yawn, and stare at the paper again…and you try to quiet your mind so that you can hear what that landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind… They are the voices of anxiety, judgement, doom, guilt.”

This is where freewriting can really come into its own. By enforcing just one requirement, namely writing continuously for an agreed length of time, freewriting makes it possible to bypass these voices. What you write probably won’t be usable as it stands and it certainly won’t be perfect but it will be a start (a “shitty first draft”). It’s a triumph of creativity over negativity.

Anne Lamott passes on another suggestion for dealing with negative, inhibiting, critical inner voices. A hypnotist recommended to her that she imagined each of her inner voices as a speaking mouse. Then she was to imagine picking up each mouse by the tail and dropping it in a jar. Next, the lid goes on and the voices get turned right down to nothing by a volume control button. “Watch the frantic mice lunge at the glass,” says Lamott, “and get back to your shitty first draft”.

I recently had one of the most immovable writer’s blocks of my nearly eight years of fiction-writing. The cause? I taught creative writing at a university. All of a sudden I was an authority on writing! It froze me stiff, and every approach to the blank page was drowned out by voices telling me that unless I was a naturally and genuinely gifted writer I had no business claiming to be able to teach others. Without freewriting I’d have made no progress at all on my new novel that was straining to get into the light but punched back every time by the voices of perfectionism.

So it makes sense to separate writing into two processes. First there are the early, freewritten, drafts. This is where you do whatever it takes to create a permissive zone into which no judgement, no assessment, and no authority figures can gain access: it’s the playground, the sandpit, the colouring book. Then, with plenty of messy, generous, rubbishy writing you can invite back the critic, the editor, the one who knows about genre and structure and dialogue and plot and find the beginnings of a viable piece of writing. Then you edit. And you rewrite (and maybe you freewrite some more). Then edit again and eventually, after the third, tenth or hundredth draft, you’ll have something that retains the wildness and the “you-ness” of the first, free, “shitty” draft and it will be worth reading. It might even be publishable. But that’s another story.

Things That Have Inspired Me to Write, Part 1: Baking bread


I have a friend who runs a microbakery from home and this week I did a short course in sourdough baking with him.  We made ten different types of bread: white, wholemeal, with black olives, with sunflower and sesame seeds, round-loaves, long loaves, flat loaves, plaits, rolls and baguettes. One was studded with candied fruits, another was dimpled with tomatoes, but all were created from the humble mix of flour and water.

I brought home a tableful of bread to share and store.  It’s made me want to bake, of course, but surprisingly I came back full of enthusiasm (sorely lacking in these bleak January days) for the process of writing and the making of written forms.  As much as anything else it was the array of “things” he owned and used to make these edible creations that inspired me: the scrapers and scoops and brushes and bowls and boxes and baskets and tins and racks and the whole fragrant space of the kitchen warmed by the two ovens that were on all afternoon.

Coming back to my writing room, I have a child’s desire for felt-tip pens and coloured inks.  For card and rolls of that old printer paper with perforations at the side.  For big blank drawing books and coloured A4 sheets, even for scrapbooks of grainy grey sugar paper.  For pin-boards and postcards, and index cards in pastels colours.  For thick vanilla paper with flourishes embossed on it.

Notebooks are my usual diet and like the sliced bread of supermarkets they can usually satisfy, especially a certain brand of floppy black ones that has somehow got linked up with Hemingway and a European, expatriate glamour.  Now, after the messy dough and the flour-strewn countertop, I’m more interested in the sort of writing that comes from forgotten scraps of paper or cut-ups or splurges in a diary.  But I want order, too.  Thinking about the wooden handles of the dough-cutters, the gleaming, waist-high rack for cooling, and the steel peels that slide in the pizzas, I am craving box files and hanging files and pigeon-holes attached to the wall so that each individual idea has space to breathe.  I want boxes for card indexes and in-trays that slide and detach for bringing to a desk.  I want anything with drawers.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, the experiences of shaping and kneading and weighing and combining ingredients calls up in me the primal desire for the making of image and line; character and story.  First to introduce a dry name and then add the bubbling ferment of incident, dilemma and crisis.  To mix together a stream of picture-words onto a white sheet of paper like pouring water into airy white flour.  Then to mix it all, with a pen or with the fingers on the keyboard, and leave it to rise in the dark warmth of my mind.  Next day, to lift up the cloth and shape it, ready for the final tempering by the heat of honest critique.  And to hope, hope that it grows and expands and splits its sides and becomes a thing of beauty, and sustenance.

The writer and the baker (using all the skill and equipment they can muster and cherish) both create new forms.  My appetite for words was renewed by the bread I baked in such an inspiring, creative place.