Old Friend from Far Away:
How to Write Memoir

by Natalie Goldberg

Sounds True, 2002. ISBN 1564559599 (CD) or 1564558010 (audio cassette).
Reviewed by Mary Ann Moore
Posted on 05/23/2002

Nonfiction: Creative Life

Several years ago I read Natalie Goldberg's book, Writing Down the Bones, and was pleased to see in an ad in a weekly Toronto newspaper that a couple of women were starting a writing group based on Natalie's teachings. That meant we would do timed writings and make sure we kept our hands moving with fast-writing pens. There were about 17 people the first night we met. The two sisters who began the group were very enthused as they had just returned from a workshop with Natalie in New Mexico. I don't think we ever saw the sisters again after that first meeting, and the group kept dwindling. It stayed at about six for a while, and then we became four women who met weekly for about two years. It was wonderful support for our writing. Although we've gone our separate ways now, I do keep in touch with one of the women so she has become an "old friend from far away."

I'm such a fan of books, not just for the reading of them but for the tactile nature of them, their design, smell and companionship while they wait in the pile to be read. I can make margin notes and underline in books. With a cassette or a CD that's a bit difficult, although you can certainly make notes. And make notes I did. Natalie Goldberg speaks as if she's talking to you from across the table. Those people at Sounds True sure know how to get their authors to sound natural, as if they're talking to you, not as if they're reading a script. I know Natalie is used to inspiring people at workshops, but talking to an unseen audience into a microphone is rather different.

I highly recommend this set of cassettes. Natalie's voice is soothing—a blend of America (Long Island, Minnesota, New Mexico), France and Japan. Her chuckles are contagious. The writing prompts wake up the details of many memories. They stimulate the senses and are a great way to get to that big story we want to write. Listening to the tapes is having your own coach who, although she knows you're already writing, can give you some fresh insight—for the writing process as well as the writing life.

We carry those old friends from far away inside us. That's why we have a desire to write about those memories and keep them alive. As Natalie points out, we don't want to be alone with the memories, we want to share them. The writing becomes a way of letting go. Even when we're writing about abuse, the act of putting our stories on paper, expressing ourselves, not silencing ourselves, is a very positive act. Saying who we really are, how we see, think and feel. Finally, and this is a new insight for me, being fully alive before we die so we can meet our death full heartedly.

Elizabeth Ehrlich's Miriam's Kitchen and Vivian Gornick's Fierce Attachments are among the excerpts Natalie reads as examples of larger stories contained in the exquisite details of everyday life. She reminds us to name the trees as beings who surround us, such as those of her beloved New Mexico: sage, pinon and cottonwood. "When you know the name of something," Natalie says, "it wakes you up to it." And who wants to read the details of your ordinary life? Be confident that if they filled your world, they will fill someone else's, she assures.

There are lots of entry points for writing. As Natalie suggests in her book, Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer's Craft, keep doing this turning over of memories for two years before you look at the structure. She reminds us to continue under all circumstances. To not be "tossed away" by other distractions. To keep writing and not forget who we are and where we are going.

Natalie Goldberg lives in northern New Mexico where she teaches most of her writing workshops (based on her best-seller Writing Down the Bones) at Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos. Natalie Goldberg—Jewish daughter and Zen master, writer, poet and painter. Old friend from far away.

(See another review of this book, here)

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