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Day 1, part 1 of "True Secret of Writing" Retreat with Natalie Goldberg

Updated: Jul 23, 2022

Note: This is post #3 in a series of blog posts about my experience attending a 2-week writing retreat with author & teacher Natalie Goldberg on Madeline Island, WI. Start with the first post here.

Well, for those of you placed bets: no, I didn't make it the whole 2 weeks just walking or biking to campus.

After my first bike ride in the rain, I took a fellow retreat participant up on their offer for a ride to and from the campground as it turned out that she was just a few sites down from me. Maybe if I hadn't gotten soaked to the bone during the first 5-mile ride I might have at least tried, but... well, "when God sends a boat" and all that (::shrugs somewhat guiltily::)

After we arrived in the early morning light to the lush green campus, we silently walked into the Barn House where we poured ourselves some coffee before the first morning sit (which I'll use interchangeably with "meditation.") I had been worried about the "gentle silence" aspect of this retreat, but I quickly came to appreciate it. No small talk with 40+ strangers before caffeine? Hallelujah.

That first meditation practice was stunning. I've been an all-over-the-place, solo meditation practitioner for about 5 years, but today, sitting with Wendy Johnson and the others who came to the optional 8:00am sit demonstrated to me why sitting in community is an entirely different act.

I'd never sat "Zazen" before. As far as I know, I've mostly just practiced Vipassana meditation, and while both types of practice have many similarities, I was pleasantly surprised by the other components to this type of practice. I'd come find that with a real-life teacher and community, I would deepen my practice significantly over the next two weeks, not an outcome I expected of a writing retreat.

Then again, in The Way of Writing, there is no separating these two practices. Everything Natalie has written about writing is rooted in her Zen education, practice, and teaching, after all.

Wendy came barefoot into the Milk House studio silently, bowing at the doorway and making her way to her seat at the front of the classroom. One of the two other teachers, Carrie, stood up when Wendy motioned for her to do so, and she went and lit a tall candle on a table with flowers on it.

I watched everything in silent fascination, wondering about these new rituals and acts in the cushy chair that felt kind of strange to be doing mediation on, but the alternative was the floor, unless you brought your own cushion.

One of the only photos I got of the classroom that doubled as the Zendo (meditation space)

I'll never forget Wendy's message and reminders before we sat for 30 minutes. She grounded us in a way I've never experienced before; she spoke of the Anishinaabe land upon which we were staying, sitting, and walking and asked us to remember that we were guests upon this sacred land, to be mindful and respectful visitors.

She gestured to the table with its red-and-white checkered cloth, the candle, and flowers, pointing out the corn and seeds placed in a bowl and reminding us it was the summer solstice. She drew connections between the island's history and present day, calling it "dangerous times." She spoke so gently, softly asking us to "Acknowledge the truth of these times but don't get swallowed by it."

Wendy paused for a while before bringing us back to the heart of why we were here, which was to deepen our Writing Practice. "Tell the truth," she said. "It'll show up in your writing."

She ran a bell and we sat for 30 minutes with nothing but the sound of birds and the breeze coming through the window. Occasionally, the squeak of someone adjusting their posture or coughing. The crunch of gravel outside the open windows as others arrived.

When it was over, Wendy rang the bell and we bowed. She asked for Carrie to come and dedicate the merit of our practice, and then she stood and reminded us to be "mindful of the transitions" such as walking through doorways.

The practice stayed with me all day in a way none ever has. I felt deeply present.

It was hard to believe the first day had barely begun and was already affecting me so profoundly. I walked outside, noticed the transition for perhaps the first time ever, and made my way to breakfast. The following would be our schedule for the next two weeks:


with Natalie Goldberg

21-25 June 2021

Madeline Island School of the Arts


8:00AM - 8:30AM Zazen sitting meditation (optional) at the Milk House

8:30AM - 9:30 AM Breakfast

10:00AM - 11:00AM Small group writing and reading at the Milk House

11:15AM - 12:30PM Reading and listening group at the Milk House

12:30PM - 1:30PM Lunch

1:00PM - 3:30 PM Individual practice: write, walk, nap

3:30PM - 6:00PM Session (with Natalie) at the Milk House

6:00PM - 7:00PM Dinner

7:15PM - 7:45PM Zazen sitting meditation (optional) at the Milk House

Wednesday’s schedule was different (more on that later), and Friday ended at lunch, but this was our schedule otherwise.

Breakfast. What can I say? For 2 weeks, we were completely spoiled with delicious food for every meal. And the coffee! It never ended. If it had, I might have, too. I had barely slept my first night in my tiny tent on my creaky cot with the never-ending wind, but the coffee + my excitement at being at MISA kept me conscious (for most of the day...)

There was usually extra time between breakfast and the 10am small group writing and reading, and I used it to complete our first writing assignments that Natalie had given us at the welcome reception the night before. By the way, I forgot to mention that, because of the current situation with the pandemic and her own health, Natalie asked us all to continue to mask up and maintain a distance, and she would not be joining us for meals in order to stay safe. But we'd see her every afternoon for the session with her at 3:30pm, most of which revolved around a book she had pre-assigned.

Natalie had given us two prompts:

1) Tell me the 3 worst things that ever happened in your life (you know, to start off on a gentle note)

2) Write about rain

I also noted down a line she said that night that stuck with me,

"Writing is an act of discovery; if you already knew everything, you wouldn't need to do it."

I completed the writing assignments in time for the 10am session. All 40+ of us filed in and took a seat in the Milk House, and the two teachers that have been working with Natalie for years, Doretea and Carrie, faced us from the front of the room. After dividing us into 2 groups in the 2 classrooms, we began with a brief sit and then Writing Practice reminders- keep the hand moving, no editing, "go for the jugular," no comments before or after sharing- and then they gave us a list of writing prompts, which we copied into our journals.

The plan was to number off and get into groups of about 3 or 4, head somewhere on campus to write and share for the next hour, and then come back for a large group reading.

They handed us the basics, the "foundational prompts," and a few others:

  1. I remember

  2. I don't remember

  3. Tell us what's in front of you

  4. Tell us what's behind you

  5. Tell us what you brought

  6. Tell us what you left behind

We sorted ourselves into groups of strangers and proceeded to pour out our steaming guts and anguish and joyous insides with each other at various picnic tables scattered across the lawn. We shared things with each other that we may have never ever spoken to our most trusted and beloved friends and family without even knowing each others' names. And we got to do it in complete safety, knowing that nobody could say anything now or later about whatever we shared, which is truly liberating. And why we were all here.

A verdant slice of the MISA grounds

After we finished 3 or so of the prompts from the list, we headed back inside for the group read, where everyone got to share about 1 of their writes. I had surprised myself by talking about the days I spent hunting with my family as a kid, dressing a deer hanging upside down in our garage and thinking that every kid in the neighborhood was doing the same thing on chilly autumn nights, cooking the venison freshly cut from the bones right there on a little camping stove, with salt and pepper, of course. It wasn't what I thought I'd write about, but then again, you often surprise yourself when you do deep Writing Practice, not allowing your ego to catch up with you and force a topic as you respond to a prompt, because you keep the hand moving, no matter what. Second and third thoughts don't get to inhibit you, and writing does writing.

I was physically and emotionally exhausted by lunch. We all filed out of the Milk House after that first session and scooped our meals onto our plates and sat next to each other with the only sounds coming from the soft hissing of the stoves keeping the food hot and the shuffling of chairs and feet. I was grateful for the silence.

We had been given more prompts as homework, which we could work on if we chose during the 1:00-3:30 individual time, but with a full belly and fuzzy brain, I wandered off into the campus grounds and decided to nap in this hard wooden chair:

After some snoozing and writing and walking came the hour we'd all been most looking forward to: our first session with Natalie.

Coming up in part 2 soon!

Thanks for coming along with me on this journey; I made this video tour for those of you interested in seeing more of the school's grounds :)

Keep writing,


The Long Quiet Country Road on Madeline Island that takes you to campus - photo inspired by the memoir, of course! :)

PS: Join me for a workshop or creative writing class, writing practice retreat modeled after Natalie's, or one of my free offerings such as my memoir book club, Friday writing practice, and more.

1 Comment

Anu Mitra
Anu Mitra
Aug 17, 2021

Delicious, exhilarating writing. Katie, you inspire me to look through my writing to make my own acts of discovery! I connected so many dots on my life path while I was in retreat, had a few a-ha moments and noted them down. Oh to live life with full attention to the goings-on of our daily existence!

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