Here in the desert-and-mountain southwest, spring bursts out with intense mid-day sun by the end of January. The cold rapidly returns, with ice and snow, but the little owl and the mourning doves have taken up their early calls and even the return of freezing temperatures will not silence them.
It’s particularly appropriate that spring—or this fair imitation—brings a return to Santa Fe of Natalie Goldberg as teacher. Her famous book, Writing Down the Bones, will soon celebrate its twenty-fifth birthday party. This book was followed by many others, all plotting a particular path. I plan to attend the party to honor the teacher who more than anyone else has opened the previously guarded gates of writing to thousands of women.
This onslaught aroused mixed feelings in me, at first: my precious kingdom, on whose edge I precariously perched, was now open to all, or nearly all, aspirants—and probably they would not even call themselves aspirants. For Natalie teaches not the grim old discipline of le mot juste*—which no one cares about now anyway—but writing as revelation of the individual’s mind, and so always right and always justified.
So as the celery stumps in my composter push up pale octopus arms, Natalie comes to the zendo, not with the lines from my college T.S. Eliot
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire
but with the firmness of hope that her long training in Zen Buddhism seems to have built in her. She gives us exact instructions about how and when to sit, when to rise and slow walk, when to sit again, open our notebooks and write as inspired by “prompts”: little what-ifs and if-thens that bring writing down to the level of the concrete, the real.
Since I will be teaching a writing workshop next month, I wonder whether I can borrow some of Natallie’s techniques, but I lack her training, and her background. I will stick closer to the old model, the this-word-not-that-word, preferring verbs and the active tense of verbs over more internal forms of expression, ruthlessly rooting out cliches. And it will work. And it will be fine. But I’m not certain my method will create a first sentence like the one that sprang, lion-like, at me during Natalie’s class Friday morning (I won’t tell you what it is since it is the first sentence of my next book) or a last sentence like the one a student choked out over sobs, “She loved him between beatings.”
What a long way we have come, all of us who have been writing now for decades, published and unpublished, read and unread. And this is largely due to the opening of the gates; you can hear them creaking in critics’ laments about the overabundance of memoir.
My writing seemed dreadfully out of phase when I published my first novel because it concerned almost exclusively the private, personal world of women. Who cared? And wasn’t that subject squishy and inconsequential, like a wet moldy washrag left on the edge of the sink?
Probably some readers still think this but would hardly dare to say it out loud and meanwhile women’s voices reach and spread across all subjects and in all tones. I could never have imagined that during my college years when the New Criticism reigned, its lead apostle T.S. Eliot and the somber professors who lectured to large drab halls of Harvard students (among whom I was hidden). Eliot’s poems are full of poison—they are also beautiful—and I swallowed that poison with an inner wince and never dared to question its source: perhaps it was male brilliance itself? Many years later, when research began to reveal the private life of our old gods—Pound’s vicious anti-Semitism, Eliot’s mistreatment of his wife—I saw that the literary poison ran in the same channels that carried all the other forms of cruelty and discrimination. Beautiful language dispersed but did not disguise it.
To write, we had to soldier in a man’s world, grab the hammer and the saw and have at it, as some did with notable success, like Mary McCarthy, bearding the New York literary lions. But many others, perhaps most others, subsided into silence, crushed first by male teachers—one, Freshman year, regularly reduced me to tears—then by the scathing remarks of agents editors and critics.
But we have come through—those of us who survived the onslaught of criticism and rejection—and it’s possible we even learned something along the way, but nothing of the value we learn now, sitting on our round navy blue cushions in Natalie’s presence.
* The word or phrase that is exactly right in a particular situation.