Wednesday, 23 April 2014

My Book of the Year Last Year - The True Secret of Writing

     As I have been very slow to get caught up in any book reviews, despite reading some very wonderful books this winter, I thought I would write about my book of the year for last year:  


Natalie Goldberg's The True Secret of Writing

Some history first:  I am a writer.  I write stories,  have completed one full draft of a fantasy novel now hidden away in a drawer, and a lot of poetry.  I am always looking for books on writing, on finding time to write, and how to open up more to the writing I want to do.  I have read Natalie's Goldberg's writing books since the very first one came out twenty years ago, Writing Down the Bones.  I loved that book. It taught me to pay attention to details, especially when writing characters, and setting.  Writing could be done anywhere.  And that there is always time to write, somewhere, in your life, even if it 20 minutes in a cafe somewhere.

When I saw  The True Secret of Writing, I picked it up out of curiosity, since I had found some of her other books following Writing down the Bones were along the same themes found in that one.  Not that they aren't good, but that I had already come across those ideas before.  To my surprise, when I opened The True Secret of Writing, I was immediately captured.  I bought it, and read it through July, dipping into it every evening or so. 

It has changed everything for me.

Her secret she has found is simple:  Sit.  Walk slowly.  Write.

It is a case of the right book at the right time for me.  Last spring, I knew I had to quiet down, stop moving, just sit and rest, though I didn't know how to.  I knew I wanted more silence in my life, in a big way.  Too much drama, conflict, too much getting away from my past, all were taking a toll on me.  And I realized that I like my life now. I am happy.  So why did I need silence, crave it so much?  Why did I not feel fully present in my life, and how could I?   And what did this have to do with my writing?

Into these beginning questions I already had asked myself, this book fell and rang into me and through me.  It's still ringing.  It is changing everything in how I approach and do things, in my life.  All from a perspective of greater calm ( I hope).  Possibly just a better perspective on things, which is calming too.

Natalie suggests sitting for 5 or 10 minutes at first, and then increasing it to 20.  You just sit there, and every time your mind goes somewhere, bring it back to here, now.  Breathe.  And it is amazing.  It is bringing me into now, the present, which is where I want to be.  Thoughts are powerful, and they can pull me off track, into imagining/planning the future, rewriting the past (or wishing I could), recreating conversations and dramas, trying to pay attention to everything in my children's lives, at work, with my is innumerable the number of claims on me, and become all the ways I distract myself from being here, now.  I distract myself from looking around me, and taking in what I see and hear and feel.  This is exactly what I have needed to do, part of what my craving for silence was about.  It's not that the world around me is too noisy (thought with cell phones, the internet, tv, etc, it is noisy), it's that I wasn't quiet within myself.  Natalie's book showed me how to do just this:  quiet down.  Sit still. 

And then, the walking slowly has been a revelation for me. I have always been trying to hurry, walk faster because I'm already a slow walker, hurry here, try to get my heart beat up and burn more calories on my walks, hurry hurry hurry.  Walking slow is hard!  I have to slow down, to my own pace.  It is amazing what I see, hear, when I look around me as I walk, then.  I love it.  I find I do end up going a little faster, but at a comfortable pace that doesn't stress me at all, and is a good workout that is comfortable for my knees. Most of all, I take in more of the world around me, the shape of the trees, the light in the sky, the water, the sounds of the birds.  I am present, and I have time for it.

Natalie has been a Zen student for most of her life, and teaches writing groups through the philosophy of Zen.  It is an interesting idea, and she explains how she runs her writing retreats, what happens during them, some of the outcomes for people involved.  They all want to be writers.  She wrote this book to bring her Zen writing classroom out into the world, so even if we can't go to her workshops or retreats, we can still teach ourselves how to silence our minds, how to sit still, how to walk slowly, and then go to our writing.  She has taken her 20 years of running workshops and writing retreats and distilled her wisdom into this book.

This book has been working on me all year.  I remind myself almost daily to walk slowly.  I try to sit every day, though I have been resisting it lately.  I love the peace sitting brings.   I have learned that taking the time to sit quietly, means I somehow have more time in my day.  I feel like time is slower, that there is time for all I want to do. Maybe I am slowing things down so I can see what is important to me, and making sure I do them, or pay attention to them if it involves other people.  I'm trying to, anyway!  I can't see yet if it affecting the quality of my writing, though I suspect it is and I will see it more clearly when I look back. 

It is a book that I recommend to anyone who wants to write, whether it is journal writing, memoir, biography, history, fiction, whatever you want to write, there will be something in here for you.   There is no magic that will make you a writer, just sitting down and writing, putting pen to paper.  This book will help you to sit down, and with your mind calmer, hear those writing thoughts and ideas more clearly and write them down. 

For me, it is also helping me to calm my life down, so that it is becoming still and quiet, like a deep pool.  I want to be more present in my life, with my family, with my friends, in everything I do.  For me, this book has been the way into moving deeper into my life.  And for that I have been so thankful every day since last summer.

So that leads me to my question of the week for you, dear reader: Have you ever read a book that seemed to open up something in you, or led you to where you wanted to go? 


Margaret @ BooksPlease said...

As I read your post I was thinking that this is a book for me. Many years ago I used to go to a yoga class where we did exactly the things you describe in this book - the sitting, breathing, being in the present moment and so on. That yoga teacher opened up a new way of being for me.

But I think the modern desire for speed gets to us too much and I need to remember to slow down. I read a book a few years ago which has stuck in my memory - 'In Praise of Slow' by Carl Honore, about about living better by striking a balance between fast and slow.

Literary Feline said...

It sounds like this book has tips in it that could apply to life in general and not just for those wanting to write.

Alex said...

I'm another one who knows that finding space and time in which to be silent and slow down is imperative but somehow never quite manage to find the time to do it! I also know that writing is a complete lifesaver. I shall definitely be looking out for a copy of this. Thank you.

Susan said...

Margaret: I have to find the book you mention, In Praise of Slow, that sounds interesting. Thanks so much for the recommendation. I am interested in this subject, as I have felt for quite some time that things are artificially faster. I like moving at the tempo of the earth, so I find being in nature restorative. Fster (yes, spelled like that! lol) by James Gleick is another book that is about this subject.

I used to do yoga too, and still remember the breathing part - I often use it when at work, and helping my co-workers de-stress!

Literary Feline: Yes, this book could be applied to regular life, though Natalie wrote it specifically for writers. I think because zen is for everything, there are tips in this book. Especially 'do what you love NOW, this is the only time there is" sense that comes through at the end. Zen teaches about here and now, and fully being in it. It was fun seeing it applied to writing! lol

Alex: I'm so happy that this book is interesting for you too. I wasn't sure if anyone would be interested in it, when I wrote about it, outside of writers, though of course journal writing, biography, non-fiction, as well as creative writing, is included in her groups. I think you and Wendy are write, this book could be applied to life in general - sit, walk slow, and then do whatever it is you want to do :-)

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