What on earth do I mean?
Years ago, I bought Natalie Goldberg’s book Writing Down The Bones. I couldn’t get into it and left it on the shelf. Then last year on retreat I was listening to one of my favourite podcasts (Tara Brach) and Natalie was a guest.
Natalie sounded just wonderful and so wise. And when I got home, I dug her book out and read it. I can’t recall if it was on the podcast that she mentioned this hamburger situation, or if it was when I read her book that I came across it. Either way, it stopped me in my tracks. It is quite simply, the most amazing advice for everyone who is writing a memoir.
Here’s what she says.
“Sometimes I have a student who is really good right from the beginning. I’m thinking of one in particular. The air was electric when he read, and he was often shaking. The writing process split him open; he was able to tell about being fourteen years old in a mental hospital, about walking the streets of Minneapolis tripping on LSD, about sitting next to the dead body of his brother in SanFrancisco. He said he had wanted to write for years. People told him he should be a writer, but anytime he sat down to write he couldn’t connect the words on paper with the event or his feelings.
That is because he had an idea of what he wanted to say before he came to paper. Of course, you can sit down and have something you want to say. But then you must let its expression be born in you and on the paper. Don’t hold too tight; allow it to come out how it needs to rather than trying to control it. Yes, those experiences, memories, feelings, are in us, but you can’t carry them out on paper whole the way a cook brings out a pizza from the oven.
Let go of everything when you write, and try at a simple beginning with simple words to express what you have inside. It won’t begin smoothly. Allow yourself to be awkward. You are stripping yourself. You are exposing your life, not how your ego would like to see yourself represented, but how you are as a human being.”
What more can I add? Not much. Natalie says it all.
“…those experiences, memories, feelings, are in us, but you can’t carry them out on paper whole the way a cook brings out a pizza from the oven.”
So many authors want to know how their writing, their book, will turn out before they’ve written it. They ask me this, in workshops, in classes, on Zoom. They want me to anticipate with them and for them, how their book is going to turn out.
But as Natalie says: “…allow it to come out how it needs to rather than trying to control it.”
That’s not to say you can’t have an idea, a plan, a spreadsheet if need be. And it doesn’t mean that I can’t shine a guiding light as you make your way along the path. But it’s not painting by numbers. It’s an act of self-reflection, observation, and introspection. It’s a process that few humans undertake. If you’re thinking of doing it, you have my admiration and my gratitude.
Because it IS wonderful and I have seen it be life changing.
But Natalie Goldberg is right on this. Writing is NOT a McDonald’s hamburger.