Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir by Natalie Goldberg. Free Press. 309 pages
Books on writing fall into two broad categories: how-to and inspirational. Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones is solidly in the latter tradition, and I suppose so is Old Friend From Far Away. Yet Old Friend is ultimately highly practical, for it captures the spirit of writing and the essence of memoir. I think I tend to be kind of . . . straight-ahead, directed, event-driven in my writing approach, and this book underscores how important it can be to slow down, explore memories, and discover subject, theme, and narrative thread. Her freewriting methods (basically bursts of timed writing to discover subject or to pile up pages once one’s subject is found) seem great at getting beneath the chattering “monkey mind” (which Goldberg says is also highly and destructively critical) to tap what we really experienced and how we felt and feel.
In Old Friend—that person we were—Goldberg manages to blend the essence of good writing—tactile, visual, specific, quirky—with related Zen principles and a theme of human mortality. In this she conveys that writing is, or can be, a path, a spiritual path, a way of being in the world, a way to grow and to reach out. I can see why she’s so popular as a teacher, for she empowers. What she’s saying over and over is anyone can be a writer, an artist, which is true! Talent is common, actually. Just do it. This is an antidote to the feeling that one must have big Certified Success or why bother? How common but how narrow and narcissistic.
Writing can be part of being alive and a way to be more alive. Her way, that of the artist rather than someone who has a recipe for writing a bestseller, may seem somewhat artsy and touchy-feely to some (and as a guy who can be kinda macho I tend to resist) but Old Friend has a core of steel in it: spirituality, craft, and artistic determination. She’s obviously an artist herself, someone who tries to see and who tells the truth, and she tries to nurture and encourage and empower that part of others. Her approach to writing is intuitive rather than linear. As a linear guy, I needed Old Friend from Far Away a lot sooner than I got it. But perhaps it’s simply true that the teacher you need appears when you need her.