the good, the bad, and the ugly about the writing life

The Best Advice I Ever Read: Natalie Goldberg, Wild Mind, “Who Gave You Permission?”

Photo courtesy of Upaya Institute and Zen Center and Natalie Goldberg

Photo courtesy of Upaya Institute and Zen Center and Natalie Goldberg

I read this entry in Wild Mind to my writing students somewhere near the end of our time together as a class. I always threaten to get a fairy wand during Halloween and bring it to class, so I can wave it wildly in front of them. Maybe pixie dust would be better because I could sprinkle it on them.

The essential point that Natalie makes is that we seek another writer’s permission to be a writer.

Here’s how she puts it:

“Naturally, anyone can be a writer, ‘It’s a free country,’ I used to scream as a kid when I was in an argument with another kid. But there’s someone further along the path, who gives you the nod, who says yes, who adores literature as much as you and so gives you permission to love this odd thing all the way and to continue with it in the face of everything.”

She explains that you don’t actually ASK if it’s okay to write.

Natalie says: “It’s more like you stand shoulder to shoulder, looking out at the vista, and the older writer says, ‘See,’ and you nod and smile, knowing that the vista is good and sweet and you always want it in front of you.”

You have to read the whole entry yourself. In fact, buy the book. It’s that good. Buy her book Writing Down the Bones, too. As a writer, you will never regret it. Her writing is like the water in my Mother’s refrigerator: breathlessly cold and sweet. I always think that I prefer a Cherry Coke until I get my first mouthful of that water. Then I know.

She also says something wonderful at the end of the article:

“I was thrilled. A seasoned novelist had given me the nod. After she left, I sat on my bed, thinking, ‘I want to be a writer more than anything else. That’s what I want to leave to future generations. If I stay true to this path, I won’t be afraid to die when it’s my time.’ I felt an invisible thread pulling me through my life. I wouldn’t be so afraid to die because I would have been busy dying in every book I wrote, learning to get out of the way and letting my characters live their own lives.

But a thought just occurred to me. ‘Well, when do I get to live my life?’

The answer that came back to me is ‘You don’t. Not in the old small-minded way.  A bigger life happens. You extend yourself to the past and future. When you get tired of your big life, take a break. Go have a cup of tea of maybe even a chocolate chip cookie.’”

Natalie Goldberg is brilliant, so go out and get all her books. Off you go!

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