Updated: Jul 23
Note: This is post #4 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.
"I'm Natalie, I came from Santa Fe, and I can't believe you still want to do this."
We're all sitting in front of Natalie in our black or hot pink swivel chairs, hungry for every word she has to say. We came here to learn from her, and this 3:30-6:00pm session on day 1 is the first time we're all together. You can feel people's excitement, their eagerness.
Natalie had just asked us to introduce ourselves, say where we're coming from, and to share just a single sentence about why we're here. She started us off, and then we went around the room one by one through 40+ of us as we all sweated bullets about the one sentence we got.
Any time somebody spoke for too long, she'd sort of gruffly cut them off, which made many of us laugh. It wasn't done in a mean way at all. People were getting creative with long sentences and their conjunctions; I think we all had so much we wanted to say to her- she's the kind of author and teacher who can change your life with her work- but she's been doing this for a half century, so she doesn't have time for everyone's love stories as much as we're bursting to share them with her.
She asked a few follow up questions here and there when people introduced themselves, and we all had a good laugh when the only man in the large group introduced himself and finished with, "...and I'm here mainly for some quality man-on-man time."
This was Natalie's first foray into the world since the pandemic began- and many others' as well- and she seemed to be processing it in real time as she stood before us, looking around at all our masked faces and commenting on the venue. She pointed to the large, open windows, commenting on the Midwest landscapes. "It's the old kind of pretty... trees," she said, gesturing to the many pines lining the property.
Sometimes there were long pauses in between what she said, the kind of thing I picked up on having been an educator in higher ed for the past decade and having a keen interest in the various ways in which people teach. It seemed to me that the silence held a heavy sort of respect, one that few people would interrupt over the coming two weeks. It wasn't the kind of class where students would raise their hands, ask lots of questions, or shout out comments without being asked. It felt... different. I liked it. A lot.
At the beginning, I didn't- I couldn't- appreciate how much she was essentially teaching us Zen as much as she was teaching us about Writing Practice. That's where the roots of it all come from, after all. But it would come to help me understand and appreciate the starkly different kind of classroom and educational experience the whole retreat would provide us all.
Sometimes, after a pause, she'd go sit down, cross her legs, and look outside for a few moments. Then, she say something like, "A student once asked a Zen master, 'What is enlightenment?' and the Zen master replied, 'Doing something all the way to the end.'" Then she'd say something like, "There are 2 things: you can finish, and you never finish." And then I'd sit there, analytical brain firing off thoughts like: what does it mean? Is she talking about writing something? Or the practice? Publishing? What does she mean, never finish? Or something else? Monkey mind (= our internal critic or negative voice) went kind of wild, but I'm happy to report that by the end of week 2, I calmed wayyyyy down, "hanging out in the mystery" much more comfortably than I ever thought possible.
Natalie talked about why she was still teaching. "If I knew everything, it wouldn't be fun," she said. "And I'd stop teaching."
Not long after the session began, she says, "Okay, let's write," and gives us the prompt: Write what you see for 10 minutes.
In my excitement, I write about a hundred superficial things, the things I can literally see around me, and my hand cramps from how quickly I'm writing. I finally encounter a hard topic- my nieces- and I feel like I'm kicked in the gut with my love for them and how much I miss them, and I break a rule of Writing Practice: I change the subject and write about something else because I felt too afraid of letting myself go down that path to explore it further. "But that's where the energy is," Natalie would say whenever someone mentioned avoiding writing about a topic because it's too hard, scary, sad. "Go for the jugular."
After 10 minutes is up, she reminds us to "Write in the margins- save paper!" and our second prompt is: Write what you don't see.
These are the harder prompts, the ones that force you to think differently, that allow you to study your mind even more deeply, from another angle, through your writing. Sometimes, I find myself repeating the prompt over and over- at Natalie's suggestion- when you get stuck on what to write so that you don't stop writing. Like during her live 8-week online class I'd done several months before, and I wrote, "I'm not thinking of / I'm not thinking of / I'm not thinking of..." because I just didn't get it and couldn't think of what to write, so I repeated that line until something came to me.
During the rest of the session, Natalie shares various pieces of advice, anecdotes, and resources. When she mentioned "Letters to a Young Poet" by Rilke, and I smile and think of my friend Ellie from my women's memoir writing group and how she recommend it last year, and how it's still sitting on my shelf, unread.
When she opens the floor to some questions, people have a lot about the meditation portion of the retreat. "In 10 years," she said. "You're gonna like it."
She reads us the poem "Ways to Disappear" by Camille Rankine, and when she notices the stunned looks in our eyes, she nods knowingly and says, "Yeah, I know. Do you want me to read it again?" We all nod. So, she does. We drink in every word.
She then asks us to do a recall- a simple activity where we shout out lines we remember, and that's it. No analysis or discussion. We'd continue to do this over the course of the two weeks with most things that we read.
"In the dark"
"On your knees"
"In a cage"
She then reads us Wang Way's "The Blue Green Stream," and maybe it's the saturated summer shades of blue and green everywhere- maybe it's Natalie voice and the color of the end-of-day rays filling the classroom- but we all soften upon hearing it, and Natalie notices, so she reads it twice. "When you hear a poem, it's like the wind," she says.
We do a recall again, and she also tells us to "Notice how he writes from the inside out." She then makes up our homework on the spot, and includes the confusing assignment of "Can you imitate Wang Wei's tumbling into peace?" which prompts a dozen questions from us all when she asks. Still unclear of what to do, she reads our eyes and then simply says, "Just become Wang Wei," with a smile, and we all laugh. "Just take it where you take it."
For the other homework, she tells us to sit outside for 10 minutes. "That's the only sitting I do now, outside," she said. "Because then I'm never alone." She also tells us to do two, 20 minute writings by 10am the next day. Besides imitating tumbling into peace, she gives us the prompt, How did you come to be here? And tells us to "Interpret as you wish."
Finally, we also need to be ready to discuss her newest book, Three Simple Lines.
It's unlike any kind of class I've ever experienced, and it feels exactly like what I need, probably because we are "breaking the structure" of everything, which Natalie constantly repeats.
I get back to camp after the evening sit with time to walk along the shores of Lake Superior and dip my toes in the frigid water. I breathe in deeply, breathe out. I hear the words of our meditation instructor, Wendy, settling into my bones, "Sit with a straight, strong back. Never rigid. We're building our writer's spine. Soft front. White silk heart," she finishes, inserting a line from The Blue Green Stream.
Until next time,
(and don't forget- keep the hand moving!