Tuesday, September 18, 2012

How I became a Natalie Goldberg student

     So it is 3:05 a.m. and as usual I can't sleep.  I'm wired and tired.  I have taken the medication and the supplements hours ago and am still awake, so what to do, what to do. Well write, of course.  It is what I always do.  I turn to the page, pull out the virtual pen or the physical pen and off I go.
   Yesterday was a little nerve wracking because I posted my first blog post and it was pretty darn revealing, but since I am an old student of Natalie Goldberg's, and I have been taught by her to go for the jugular, I am fearless in what I feel comfortable revealing to readers.  Readers want to know how writers' minds work, and we all hunger to know each other.  Natalie taught me that.  Thus my Wild Mind blog title.  I got it from my favorite book by her: Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life.  I first tracked down Goldberg's books way back in the 1980's when she came out with her best selling book Writing Down the Bones. I vaguely remember reading it and sticking it on the shelf.  I was a cocky poet then in my twenties, thought I knew everything. Ah the arrogance of youth.  I didn't "need" a book on writing.  I was a poet.  
     After I graduated with my Master of Arts in English in Creative Writing/ Literature (poetry) from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program, I managed to a secure a full time community college teaching position at Lone Star College-Tomball in Tomball, Texas a small country town (back in 1989) outside of Houston. The one thing I feared the most happened, something that I had been warned about after graduating from a writing program: I stopped writing. My teaching load and grading load took over. So to remedy that I began reading books on writing, convinced the college to allow me to teach an intro to creative writing class, and found her book Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life and read it, but still didn't think I could apply it to my poetry. 
     In this seven year span of no writing, I contacted one of my poetry professors from U of H, Edward Hirsch and told him what was wrong. Writers who aren't writing are miserable. I was miserable.  I decided I needed to continue my studies, so I applied to the only two low residency MFA writing programs in the country at the time: Vermont College of Fine Arts and Warren Wilson.  The competition was stiff.  That never stopped me before.  I was accepted at Vermont.  I remember panicking after the first twelve day residency ended in Montpelier.  I came home with the assignment to write and send in at least five poems and three short papers on any poetry books from my new reading list. I had exactly five weeks.  Seven years is a long time to not write, and now I was teaching five sections: three freshman comp classes, two literature classes, and one creative writing class.    
     I was stuck.  So I pulled down Wild Mind and read how to do writing practice. I thought what the hell. It was easy enough:   Start with a topic, such as I'm thinking about or I remember or I don't remember.  Time your writing practice and follow these seven rules:  1. Keep your hand moving  2. Lose control.  3. Be specific   4. Don't think. 5. Don't worry about punctuation, spelling, grammar.  6. You are free to write the worst junk in America  7. Go for the jugular.   After each short chapter, she had a "Try this" assignment.  
     My back was against the wall; I was now in my late thirties and not quite as cocky about using books on writing for help.  Amazingly, poems began burbling up on my hand written pages. The Muse was back.  I got that first packet of poems sent off in time. And the feedback was positive.  I built up my writing muscle and got up to over an hour of writing by hand.  This little book had saved my ass. I wrote my second manuscript (unpublished) of poetry titled Survival and graduated from Vermont College in 1997.  But still, I didn't have the courage to try creative nonfiction.
     In 1987, I was brutally attacked in a parking lot, stabbed in the throat, and left for dead by a crack addict.  I am lucky to be alive.  I had only a fifty fifty chance of surviving. The trauma surgeon at Hermann Hospital was extremely clear about that when he came to see me in the intensive care unit.   I knew I wanted to write a book about that some day. I didn't know how.  I was a poet.  Memoir and creative nonfiction was a genre that was just beginning to heat up in the market.  I remember going to a writer's conference in Louisiana with a friend.  I got a ten minute pitch session with an agent from the Writer's House in New York City.  She was all fired up and told me she would help me. She gave me her card and encouraged me to write to her. I didn't know what I was doing.  Stupidly, I went home and never contacted her.  Now I see I wasn't ready to face writing about the attack in prose.  I could write poems about it, but I didn't know the first thing about writing a memoir. It was overwhelming. I was a poet and my "monkey mind," that internal critic told me I couldn't do it.
     So I graduated with my MFA in 1997 and kept teaching.  I began using writing practice in my creative writing classes. My students loved it. I formed a writing practice group in my home, but something kept pulling at me. Who was this Natalie Goldberg?  At the back of her books it said she taught writing in northern New Mexico.  Back then she was hard as hell to find.  She had no website. So I began researching and I don't remember what I did, but I was determined and I finally found out that she taught week long writing workshops at a place called the Mable Dodge Luhan house in Taos, New Mexico.  In 1999 or 2000 (I can't remember) the college let me go using professional development funds plus some of my own money.  That trip changed my life. Natalie became my third and most important writing teacher.
     Over breakfast, on the second day at her workshop in Taos that July, I timidly went up to her and told her the story about the agent and how I ran away. I told her how stupid I felt, but also that I wasn't ready.  She looked straight at me and said, "Oh don't worry. That's what agents do.  They fire you up.   Just go home and write the book.  Poets do very well writing memoirs." I needed to hear just that.
     At that first retreat, I screwed up my courage, wrote the opening scene about the attack, and at the end of the week got up and read it (feeling terrified) to the other sixty students.  There is no commenting on writing practice which really frees writers' minds. But Natalie broke that rule with me. She walked up to me afterwards and said quietly, "Do you realize that no one was breathing in the room while you were reading?" I shook my head. I was stunned. She poked me in the arm and said, "That was hot. Go home; write this book. You can do it." I have been studying with her ever since.
     I am now one hundred and seventy odd pages into my memoir and in my third round of a long distance writing course called Write to the Finish taught by Sean Murphy and Tania Casselle, two other writers I met at the Goldberg writing retreats.
     After a three year break I got to finally go back to do a week long silent writing retreat with her.  I wasn't sure I could pull it off because of the me/cfs, but I did it. 

Thank you, Natalie.  Three deep bows (as in the Zen Buddhist tradition) to you.