Old Friend from Far Away:
The Practice of Writing Memoir

by Natalie Goldberg

Free Press, 2007. ISBN 978-1-4165-3502-7.
Reviewed by Karen Ryan
Posted on 04/16/2008

Nonfiction: Creative Life

In Natalie Goldberg's new book, Old Friend from Far Away, the theme is in its subtitle: The Practice of Writing Memoir. Best known for her seminal book, Writing Down the Bones, Goldberg once again preaches the dogma of PRACTICE... Ten minutes of freehand writing on any topic. Just get it down.

This is not a book about how to put together a memoir, what topics to write about, or how to publish. Plenty of other memoir-writing books cover those topics. Goldberg is 100% cheerleader—reminding us over and over to "Shut Up and Write" because what we have to say is fleeting and so important. There are no great answers for who we are; don't wait for them. Pick up the pen and right now, in ten furious minutes, tell the story of your life. I'm not kidding. Ten minutes of continuous writing is much more expedient than ten years of musing and getting nowhere.

Natalie Goldberg is first and foremost a poet, so you can expect the pages to drip with delicious imagery. She is particularly adept at food analogies:

"Memoir gives you the ability to plop down like the puddle that forms and spreads from the shattering of a glass of milk on the kitchen floor."

"You crack open sentences, like egg shells letting the bright yellow, the clear white, in all its unorderliness, fall out."

The author advises us to jump in wherever we like; this is not a book to be read from front to back. In fact, she wants us to WRITE our way through the pages in whatever order we desire. And because life is not linear, you want to approach writing memoir sideways, using the deepest kind of thinking to sort through the layers. You want reflection to discover what the real connections are.

If you want to dive in and find exactly the inspiration you need, she provides advice in an index of phrases—a great place to start.

"Go for the jugular."
"Don't try to make it pretty."
"Trust your insides to lead you."

If you want to read some great memoirs, Goldberg provides a list of her favorites (and some of mine), including: Anne Lamott, Mary Karr, Maxine Hong Kingston. She features an eclectic mix of memoirists within her text from James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston to Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsburg.

If you are already an old friend of Goldberg, you will find comfort in her newest tome. If you are new to her work, you are in for a juicy treat.

Natalie Goldberg is an author, poet, teacher, and painter who resides in New Mexico. She has written eleven books and teaches life-changing workshops and retreats. Visit her website.

(See another review of this book, here)

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