on February 23, 2008
What I love about Natalie Goldberg's latest is how the book grows, how it swells, how it starts with small, private memories and joins these to the larger world. "The reason we want to write memoir," she says, "is an ache, a longing, a passing of time that we feel all too strongly." The longing calls up stories, calls up details, which are the anchor of any memoir. The details are vital, "but detail devoid of feeling is a marble rolling across a hard wood floor."
Memoir, says Goldberg, "is taking personal experience and turning it inside out. We surrender our most precious understanding, so others can feel what we felt and be enlarged." Our feelings connect us not just to the past, but to the rest of the sentient world, even the political world. We may lead a lucky life compared to others around the globe. We may write about a red wagon or "the slow spring we remember in Ohio, while at the same time atrocities, torture, genocide are happening. It's not wrong that our life has been graced, but it's important to acknowledge that while a rose blooms a bomb is being dropped."
Much of Goldberg's advice on writing we have read before, in her earlier books. But her suggestions here for putting the mind and heart in gear, as we put pen to paper, are perfectly fresh. More and more of us want to uncover and write down our own stories, and Old Friend from Far Away will be welcomed by anyone struggling to set down the sweet or painful pressure of her life, the past as it flows into the present. The book is filled with inventive observations, and with Natalie Goldberg's infectious belief in writing practice. "Stay connected to the power," she says, "the pleasure of writing. Come back to that over and over."
A lovely and trenchant book.
on April 22, 2008
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.
by Karen Ryan
for Story Circle Book Reviews
reviewing books by, for, and about women
on January 4, 2009
I love Natalie Goldberg, and Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind are not to be missed, but this book was a real disappointment because all too often it was repeating ideas from those two classic works (things like "monkey mind" and approaches to writing fast without self-censorship). If you're looking for something new here, you aren't going to find much. I also think that Goldberg is long on inspirational writing prompts to uncover new ideas (write about a memory associated with cabbage or a bicycle, that kind of thing) but short on the follow through. This isn't about how to craft full memoirs.
Old Friend from Far Away is supposed to be about writing a memoir. It's really a set of exercises to help readers begin writing about themselves and their memories, interspersed with tantalizing glimpses of the author's own life.
On the positive side: The topics for the ten-minute timed writings (Goldberg's significant contribution to the world of writing) seem like fun. She teaches us to see details, not get derailed into abstraction. Her own writing demonstrates these principles. The author's own memories -- all too brief -- are the best part of the book. I loved her stories of studying with Alan Ginsberg and finding an unusual coffee shop for writing. As always, her writing elevates mundane events and gives them meaning.
But I was disappointed to see so many pages with just a sentence or two of writing exercises. Is she just tired of writing, I wondered, forcing herself to finish her book to meet the demands of her publisher? We don't get the kind of background Goldberg shares in earlier books, especially Thunder and Lightning. We get snapshots when it would be nice to have a movie. We don't get new exercises. And I'm not sure we get helpful insights into memoir as a genre.
For publication (or a good review, if you self-publish), memoirs need to make meaning of a life. The strongest memoirs carry a theme of struggle and redemption. We read about someone's life and something resonates with our own. Or we see this story a part of a bigger theme, giving us new insights and ideas. Weak memoirs leave the "so what" question unanswered.
Maybe that comes later...after you've written dozens and dozens of timed writings. Maybe it's not possible till you realize you've got to face down the truths that Natalie Goldberg urges us to expose in writing.
Or maybe I just feel frustrated because I know a few people who ought to be writing their memoirs. This book won't help them.
The last part of the book includes a list of published memoirs, a curious selection. Although Goldberg has made a recording with Julia Cameron, and Cameron's blurb appears here, there is no mention of Cameron's own memoir. There's an obvious allusion to the James Frey story (although no names are mentioned) and the author briefly describes some memoirs she likes.
Ultimately, the title describes the way many readers relate to the author herself. Those who like Natalie Goldberg will pick up this book to visit with an old friend. What's new in her life? Will we get an update of what happened since she wrote about the monk and the bartender?
Alas, our visit will be more like a fast encounter at an airport, catching up between changing planes, than a long satisfying conversation in one of those coffee shops where Natalie Goldberg used to sit and write. She really is an old friend from far away, and she's not getting any closer.
on April 3, 2008
I read this book through once, without doing any of the exercises, and I felt as if I was sitting across the table from my old friend, Natalie. I felt like we were drinking tea and chatting over tasty cookies and not worrying about the clock.... I was wearing my favorite comfy-yet-stylish sweat clothes... I am not sure what she is wearing but I do know she looks stunningly beautiful.
Then I started again, reading... and working through the exercises.
I am a life-writer so I write many essays that involve memoir type writing. I wasn't so pleased with Natalie - yet I was deeply pleased to write with Natalie... one of my earliest writings from the book I entitled, "Natalie Goldberg goes for the jugular" because the places I went from her prompting were places I would not have chosen to go on my own.
Her simple prompt on page 14 was: "Tell me what you will miss when you die."
This has been a tough year. I didn't WANT to go there yet I wanted, so much, to go there.
Most recently, I had an "a-ha" that was 18 years in the making, thanks to Natalie's simple prompt. Her prompting is so simple, yet so compelling - like on page 240:
"even though you are keeping a list, for the heck of it: do ten minutes right now. All the times you remember saying good-bye. Go. Ten minutes."
like on page 282:
You gave your mind a lot of galloping room. Now you need to pick up the reins and direct it to trot down a path, your path. You can't take the whole wheat field with you but you can canter through it and say you were here. Go ahead. You grew the wheat, now cut it down, make your own shadow line through the yellow stalks. Don't worry. The wheat is golden, waiting for this moment."
I read a review that said there wasn't enough "how-to" within these pages... not enough "technical stuff" on memoir writing. There isn't much technical and yet there is so much guidance beyond the technical... and I suppose there is a message there in writing your memoir. It isn't about the technical.
There are some pages which are only the prompt, not any additional verbage. (The "What will you miss" prompt is the only thing on the page.
What does that do for the reader/writer? Well, for me it opened up soooo much.
I might have lost it if it were words among other verbage.
Can you tell I am a huge fan?
I have to admit I wasn't so enamored with Natalie's last book (The Great Failure)... the review I wrote of that one was almost painful for me to write yet I understand, now, more of her reason for writing it and presenting it exactly as she did.
I have recommended this book to so many people, I have lost track. It only seems fitting to recommend it to readers on this page, as well.
My life is better because of Natalie Goldberg's presence at the page. My life is better because I have read (and worked through) Old Friend from Far Away.... I am grateful.
on July 9, 2008
This morning at 4:30 I turned on the light to read a few more pages of Old Friend From Far Away. I skipped toward the end and read about how at a celebration for the twentieth anniversary of Natalie's first book, a woman who took her writing class when she was a young student at an alternative school, stood up to speak. The woman told her story of how one Monday Natalie brought in a bushel of rich red apples she'd picked the day before at an orchard near the school. This was a family orchard where a month before the oldest son had been killed in a bizarre gun accident. The woman revealed that this young man had been her first love.
When I got to the part where the woman explained how Natalie's writing class gave her an avenue for expressing her suffering and grief, I found myself sobbing (in a good way) with recognition of the truth of her words.
After the woman finishes telling her story Natalie writes:
"It's a holy thing to be a writer. It is why you want to write your memoir: to remember all of it. The good and the bad. To trust your experience, to have confidence that your moments and the moments of others on this earth mattered... It is a great thing you are doing whatever it is you are remembering. You are saying that life--and its passing--have true value."
I hesitated to buy Old Friend From Far Away since I already have Natalie Goldberg's other enormously helpful writing books. But all the praise from other writers is well-deserved. Every page makes me want to click my heels with delight--even the pages that make me cry. I wholeheartedly recommend this book!
--Suza Francina, author, [...] and yoga books for people at midlife and older.
on February 20, 2010
Writing books fall into two broad categories: How-to and inspirational. Old Friend From Far Away is in the latter tradition and yet is ultimately highly practical, for it captures the essence of writing and the spirit of memoir. I think I tend to be kind of . . . straight-ahead, directed, event-driven in my writing approach, and this book showed me how important it can be to slow down, explore memories, and discover subject, theme, and narrative thread.
Natalie Goldberg manages to blend the essence of good writing--tactile, visual, specific, quirky--with related Zen principles and the theme of human mortality. In this she conveys that writing is, or can be, a path, a spiritual path, a way of being in the world, a way to grow and to reach out. I can see why she's so popular, for she empowers. What she's saying over and over is anyone can be a writer, an artist, which is true! Talent is common, actually. Just do it. This is an antidote to the feeling that one must have big Certified Success or why bother? How common but how narrow and narcissistic.
Writing can be part of being alive and a way to be more alive. Her way, that of the artist rather than someone who has a recipe for writing a bestseller, may seem somewhat artsy and touchy-feely to some (and as a guy who can be kinda macho I tend to resist) but has a core of steel in it: spirituality, craft and artistic determination. She's obviously a real artist herself, someone who tries to see and who tells the truth, and she tries to nurture and encourage and empower that part of others.
I respect her book and am reading it again. Long may she run.
Anything by Natalie Goldberg is always excellent and not something that can be reviewed and then put away. I have been using and learning from her book, Writing Down the Bones since I first got it many years ago. She is one of the most effective and successful teachers of writing today. I, too, am a writing teacher though I would never claim to be at her level. Nevertheless, I am teaching a class in this fall in Memoir Writing so I was delighted to find this new book filled with all kinds of helpful ideas which will make my job so much easier. If you write, if you want to write, if you teach writing, even if you just like to read, you need to become acquainted with Natalie Goldberg. You cannot go wrong with her practical .ideas and insight. I highly recommend this book and others by Natalie Goldberg.
on December 22, 2011
Another book I picked up because the author is beloved. Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones was the first book I read about writing that inspired me. I've read all her books since then (including one very disappointing novel) but nothing's clicked with me like Bones. This book was close; I felt a click here and there. Old Friend is fundamentally an expanded Bones. It has lots of fun exercises for those who are suffering from writer's block. I'd get my own copy (this is a library copy) and try more of the exercises.
on May 5, 2016
Great, inspirational book on writing memoir. I'm a long-time Natalie Goldberg fan, and there are many of the same tenets here as in her earlier books, but there's lots of new material as well, and the whole thing is fresh and chock full of great anecdotes and great writing and great things to think about, and, most of all, encouragement to be writing NOW.