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Thursday, September 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 52.0° F  Fog/Mist
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A conversation with Natalie Goldberg
Writing teacher, creativity guru to appear in Madison

Natalie Goldberg burst onto the nascent creativity scene in 1986 with her book Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, which exhorted would-be writers to banish destructive self-editing processes and just get writing. Goldberg bullied writer's block with a number of exercises. The book eventually sold over a million and a half copies. Others followed suit; Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird and Jula Cameron's The Artist's Way also encouraged those battling stifled creativity to come out of the closet.

Goldberg has now written another book, meditating on the importance of writing memoir: Old Friend from Far Away (Free Press). It's full of ways to jump-start would be memoir-writers. "So let's pick up the pen and kick some ass," Goldberg writes in the introduction.

We spoke on the phone in advance of her reading at Borders West on March 18 at 7 p.m., part of a 10-city tour that ranges from Boston and New York to Asheville, N.C., and Austin, Texas.

The Daily Page: Why did you feel the need to write a book of 'starters' and exercises for people who want to explore memoir writing?
Goldberg: What I teach is finally 'shut up and write,' so I don't want to talk too much about memoir; I want you to be doing it. Because then when I say something, you are involved in the process. It's more alive that way. That's the hallmark of my teaching -- when you're with me, you write a lot.

If you had to throw out a few words that are the hallmark of a good writing teacher, what would they be?
My writing teacher was a Japanese Zen master I studied with for 12 years and we rarely talked about writing. But we talked about The Ground of Being. And through that I understood writing.

Can you explain 'The Ground of Being?'
The essential human [experiences]: We are all going to die; we are all going to face, if we're lucky, old age, sickness and death; that there is suffering in the world. I have learned to sit with my breath, to sit still. To drop down through discursive thinking to the bottom of the mind. I think that was a good training for writing, to be comfortable with silence, because behind words is silence.

What are your bookstore readings like? Do you have people do a writing exercise?
It's sort of 'An Evening with Natalie Goldberg.' I talk about writing, about what's going on; I read from my book; I answer questions. I have a conversation.

What do you think the most damaging emotion to creativity is?
Hate. Because writing is about love. Hate is something that solidifies things and doesn't allow you to move. So if you're frozen in that place, that's hard.

Has any one of your starter exercises ever gotten to you into trouble in a class?
Oh, I'm always in trouble in class. If I'm not, then it's not alive. It's when things are dangerous that it's alive, so I hope that I'm in trouble a lot in class. And that the students find themselves in dangerous territory.

What's the most rewarding thing that's come back to you from teaching?
When I find out that people continue to practice, continue to write. Not good or bad, not getting it published, not becoming famous, but that they continue the activity. That it becomes something that they do with their life, a way to go deeper into their own mind and have a relationship with themselves.

There are a lot of new venues for people to self-publish almost instantaneously on the web, through a blog or even the 'notes' function on Facebook. What do you think about these new technologies?
I think it's fun. It's just great that people are having fun and feeling freed. Suddenly, everybody's writing! I think it's terrific. You know, Writing Down the Bones came out in 1986 and it's gotten more and more alive, what's possible, what can be done.

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