By Guest Blogger, Linda Johnson.
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Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir, Natalie Goldberg, hardcover edition, November 2007, writing practice, $25.00, 13:978-1-4165-3502-7
Natalie Goldberg rocked the writing world in 1986 when she wrote Writing Down the Bones, a treatise on using writing as practice. That is practice, as in practicing scales for a musician, and practice, as in the Buddhist tradition of practice as a way of meditation. Since then, writers all over the world have filled countless notebooks with pages and pages of handwritten words as their own writing practice.
Goldberg returns to the idea of practice in Old Friend from far Away to help her readers learn to write memoir. In her introduction, she emphasizes that writing memoir is not a straight path from A to B to C. She says that we need to write and remember and realize “…the zigzag nature of the way our mind works.” (pg. xviii) She says that we need “to approach memoir sideways, using the deepest kind of thinking to sort through the layers…” (pg xxi) Then she says, “Go!”
Goldberg believes in using a pen and a notebook; she believes that writing is a whole body experience. Plus, if you are comfortable with the simple tools, you have no excuse when you are away from a computer.
Just as in Writing Down the Bones, Goldberg advocates these simple rules given on pages 2 and 3:
• Write for a full ten minutes.
• Begin with “I am looking at.”
• If you get stuck, start with your first line again—“I am looking at…”
• Don’t cross out.
• Don’t worry about punctuation, spelling, grammar.
• Be specific.
• Keep your hand moving.
• Say what you want to say, not what you think you should say.
• After your first ten minutes, take a short break, and then start with “I am thinking of…”
• Go ten more minutes.
• Next, write for ten minutes on “I remember…”
These rules form the basis for all Goldberg’s teaching. If you follow these alone, you will find enough to write about for a long time. As she says, “’I remember” hits smack-dab into the heart of memoir.”(pg 4) And as you continue to write “I remember” entries, you will find one memory leading to another until you suddenly remember something that you had not thought of for years. Write them all down—the familiar and the forgotten.
The book is organized into short chapters and short exercises, which all contribute to unearthing those forgotten memories. The book is excellent for use alone and in writing groups. My group is especially fond of Goldberg’s three-minute lists. She gives a list of unrelated topics, and then tells you to write on each one consecutively for three minutes each. When we do this as a group, we are amazed at the beauty and unexpected ideas that come up. Something about the short time, the continued effort and the juxtapositions always loosens up something inside almost every one of us.
Goldberg concludes the book with a chapter on structure. We need to know what to do with all these seemingly disjointed memories. She reminds us to discover our own organic structure, a “…way that is natural to what you have to write…” (pg286). And to find our own structure, we look at other memoirs to see how different authors have constructed their works. We don’t imitate; we look for the plot, the thin red line, the spine that connects the memoir. Then we figure out what our spine is and shape our writings around that.
We don’t try to do a whole life biography; we focus on a telling event or period in our life and see what form the writing needs to take. Then we let go of the parts that don’t fit this structure. Don’t try to force everything into this one book. Even though we have to write about everything, we do this to get to the essential ingredients for this particular memoir.
She ends the book with two pages of summarized guidelines and suggestions, and then a list of some great memoirs to read. Goldberg’s goal is to get us writing and to introduce us to “…who you were, who you are, and what you remember.” (pg. xix) Her prompts will get you writing, and if you follow them all, you will definitely meet that old friend from far away.