Wild Mind

I started reading a new book over the weekend – Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life, by Natalie Goldberg.

It’s funny, because I wouldn’t say that I identify as a writer – I didn’t pick it up looking for a writer’s guide. It was the title that caught me – wild mind. It stuck to me like burdock burrs when I the words on the spine, and so I picked it off the shelf and packed it into the cardboard box without even grazing a little to see if I liked the flavour. It is one of several dozen that C and I recently were gifted out of the retiring library of her step-grand-dad, who now lives in a retirement home, and whose lifetime of books is seeking new owners before the remnants are entombed in my father-in-law’s basement. At first I was a bit choosy and particular about the books I selected  – I’ve almost entirely given up on reading fiction these days (I don’t need any help telling stories and derailing into flights of fantasy, thankyouverymuch!) so I was feeling cautious about bringing too many home. But then I realized – hey, free books! How could that not be a wonderful thing? If it turns out some are not a good fit for me then I will pass them along to others. I love that about books: Unlike lots of other goods, books don’t diminish in use value with age and prior use. Providing that they haven’t been used and abused into disrepair, second hand books just kind of get better and better.

So, this book. Wild Mind.

I don’t know which I feel more keenly — the moaning longing to have a wild mind of my own, or the terror that my mind might be already too wild to play well with others. Either way – I feel like Natalie would know what I mean. There is a paragraph in the introduction that describes the breakdown between teachings and practice, that made me gasp aloud with that kind of laugh-cry “Ah-ha” expression that happens when you see your own experience mirrored in someone else’s words:

We can take a class from a writer but it is not enough. In class, we don’t see how a writer organizes her day, or dreams up writing ideas. We sit in a class and learn what narrative is but we can’t figure out how to do it. A does not lead to B. We can’t make that kamikaze leap. So writing is always over there in the novels on the shelves or discussed on class blackboards and we are over here in our seats. I know many people who are aching to be writers and have no idea how to begin. There is a great gap like an open wound.

She’s talking about writing, being a writer, but I read her words and understand them to be about any practice, and I feel them for myself, this re-learning that I’m doing about how to just be human. Many people have told me, “Oh, you’re an artist whether you make your living from art or not”, but I wonder. Am I an artist if I don’t make art? A friend told me once that I would be an artist whether or not I ever made a single piece of work again, that it is about perspective. What does that mean? All I know is that I know that gap that Natalie is talking about, that open wound.

So I’m taking her advice, for now. I went to the corner store yesterday and bought myself a cheap lined notebook for $1.45 to use for writing practice. I figure, whether I identify as a writer or not, I do write – particularly I write here, for you. I was moved by your comments on my last post. Thank you for taking the time to say “I”m listening”. You’ve inspired me to risk sharing more of my naked thoughts here. I’ve always thought this blog writing could be more than it has been, and I’ve wondered why I couldn’t seem to drum up the kind of responsiveness I’ve craved – a sparkling dialogue of mutual discovery and honesty. But I realized after reading your comments that it’s not you – it’s me. I’ve been so guarded here. How could I lie to you and expect honesty in return? I’ve been so tight and contrived, squeezing with all my might, trying to turn all this charcoal into a shiny diamond, hoping no one will notice that blackness inside it. It’s so false! I’ve been trying to be just one more blog in the sea of Perfect Shiny My Life is Wonderful websites out there (which I should say, a part of me loves, actually, and I subscribe to several hundred) – but rarely do you see the unmade bed or the empty fridge, the truancy or the fights with loved ones, or the heartache and doubt that everything is steeped in. Ah ha! It’s a giddy kind of liberation to have decided to experiment with writing more freely here. I’m not quite sure I believe whole-heartedly yet that it’s a wise thing to do. I mean, my Professional Reputation might be affected, mighten’t it? Well shit. I guess I’d rather be known as an honest artist than a sane one, if I have to choose.

The foundations of the writing practice that Natalie suggests are regular, 10 minute timed writing exercises, and a few rules:

1. Keep your hand moving.

2. Lose control.

3. Be specific.

4. Don’t think.

5. Don’t worry about punctuation, spelling, or grammar.

6. You are free to write the worst junk on earth.

7. Go for the jugular.

It’s advice that could be about anything, the spirit of it cuts away hesitation and conditioning and urges me to just be, just do, in a way I’d like to learn to carry into my whole life – numbers 2, 4, 6 & 7, specifically. Yeah, so I’ve got some lofty goals… maybe it’s a lot to ask from a simple writing practice, you say? Maybe… but I figure it’s all related, right? The writing bone is connected to the heart bone?

I’ve liked the writing sessions so far because they’ve opened a little door again into the flow, that magical state of mind I could sometimes reach when painting, where I couldn’t be sure of what was happening at all, where the painting would paint itself, and I’d feel washed out and rinsed clean afterwards. I’ve missed visiting that brain wave this summer. It’s also a lot like sitting meditation — except rather than trying to dismiss thoughts and stay with  my breath, I can drain them out my arm onto the page. I have no idea what I’ve written so far – I’ve not reread any of it yet. It doesn’t even matter! The writing itself feels good.

Have any of you read Natalie Goldberg? Do you write? What are your practices?




7 Responses

  1. I like this. A lot. No great reflections, just being washed over in a pleasant sort of way. Thank you! I am going to find this book and think not only about my students when I read it, but myself too…wild indeed 🙂

  2. Anna! Welcome home! I just did a little happy dance in my mind when I saw you pop up in my Google Reader. 😉

    This post makes me SO EXCITED for you. Seriously–I have tons to say, but I’ll try to make it brief here so as not to run away with your comments section. But first of all–yes, Natalie Goldberg is a classic. You should also check out _Writing Down the Bones_, which I’d guess is her most popular book. But she’s written a lot of other stuff, including a memoir I really like, called _Long Quiet Highway_.

    Second: Oh…practice is a subject near and dear to my heart. I’m not always great at maintaining my writing practice on a super regular basis, but I know for certain that when I do, it changes *everything*. Really. I don’t think anything is too much to ask of a simple writing practice, as long as you do the work to keep it going. I’m also endlessly fascinated by the parallels between creative practice and spiritual practice–as, obviously, is Natalie Goldberg. They are absolutely connected and intertwined for me–in theoretical ways, but also, I find some very concrete and important ways that, for me, creative practice and the practice of Judaism are connected (which is also not to say that I’m such a super observant Jew, but again, I know that when I’m maintaining a regular spiritual/Jewish practice, the world shifts for me).

    Also, I think you’re still an artist if you don’t make art, but I think you maybe won’t be such a happy one. Once you’ve begun any sort of practice, and once you’ve begun to understand on a visceral level the difference it makes in your life, I think there are real consequences to abandoning the practice for too long. Which is why I think it’s actually vital NOT to connect the practice and the making a living part too closely in your mind. That’s NOT to say that you can’t make a living at it–not at all–it’s just that the practice is its very own, sacred thing, and I think it’s probably a hard thing to maintain in a way that will feed your soul if you’re shining too bright a light on it and forcing it to dance for you.

    And finally (but I’m sure it’s not all I have to say!), I don’t think you need to worry about revealing too much here. You’ll find your way as you go–there’s no need to open wide in a way that doesn’t feel comfortable, but I’m betting that as you open a little, and then a little more, and a little more, you’ll start to find that your boundaries are shifting, and what once seemed like a *hugely* big deal suddenly seems like nothing at all. In fact, I’ve been thinking about this recently. I posted a self portrait the other day that I would *never* have posted even 6 month ago. And 6 months ago, when I first took it, it was an unbelievable boundary push for me. And then rather quickly, that boundary was far behind me in the rear-view mirror–and the liberation factor is enormous.

    Just keep writing–that’s the important part. You can always edit things before you post. If your experience turns out to be anything like my own, the writing will create a path for you as you go, and you’ll probably be surprised to see where it’s going exactly. And delighted. Because it absolutely knows which way to take you, even when you have no idea.

    (What was that about not taking over your comments section? Yikes! Well, you did request dialogue…I can’t guarantee it’s sparkling, but here you go….)

  3. i wonder what it would look like to 2. lose control and 3. be specific? do you think that means to specifically lose control? i can’t imagine trying to rein in the specifics whilst losing control…

    i agree whole heartedly with the person who said that you can still be an artist even when you’re not making art (or making a living from your art, for that matter). especially when it comes to you, specifically, i don’t think you could shake your artist skin off if you tried. because you approach so many of the corners of your life, your heart and your mind with care, consideration, love, mindfulness, creativity, you can’t help being an artist! your food is your art. your home is your art. your whole life is your art. and really, you could replace “art” with “practice” or “yoga” and i think you end up with the same wonderful scenario!

    bring on the coals, bring on the blacked diamonds in the rough…lose control and be specific. we’re listening and it’s just awesome!

  4. Wild Mind was given to me years ago when I was working on a project within a government bureaucracy. A visiting consultant handed it over with the comment that he thought I might need some reassurance and affirmation … a lovely gesture. I used both Wild Mind and Writing Down the Bones in my teaching … always with wonderful success. People of all ages soaked up the writing practices … which really interested me. That type of writing is like heading out with a camera … all the details that you don’t notice every day snap into focus once you put a frame around them.
    I don’t write every day … I write sometimes, when a story just feels like it needs to be told. Writing is hard work. Really hard work. Maybe I’m lazy, maybe other things that are also really hard work are more compelling right now … like drawing and painting and making prints. Maybe, after reading your blog entries, I’ll decide I miss it and I’ll start writing more … already I’m feeling like it would be a good idea if that happens … so thank you …and good luck.

  5. i, too, am loving the exposed coal lumps – who needs diamonds!?

    re: jordan’s question on being specific and losing control. having not done this exercise myself, i think about these as instructions for wading into (sometimes scary) dream space. i interpret lose control more as a reminder to just float through the experience and quiet the naming and judging voices, whereas be specific is maybe just about noticing details, more about a way of seeing, paying attention, rather than trying to rein the specifics in.

    re: amy’s comments on practice. I have to agree. the few times that i feel i have showed discipline to do something – anything – regularly and regardless of circumstance, it has given me something. i forget who said it now, but i’m thinking of a quotation that is something like, “just the work, and nothing but the work.” for me this means that it almost doesn’t matter *what* the work is (as long as it doesn’t harm yourself or others), it’s just about continuing to show up again and again.

  6. Your Mom wrote many letters to herself, to be opened 10, 20 and 30 years after they were written. She has shared them with me – who came into her life after and as some of them were written. I can see that it is a very interesting exercise to write to yourself, and to read letters written to yourself. I remember the girl who wrote those letters, and the letters capture her very well. Your writing, photos and painting capture the Anna of now. The Anna of the future (and your family) will love to read them.

    Make sure you save your writing. It is as priceless as photos and will become a family heirloom in the future. I suggest even printing it out so you have a backup in case something catastrophic happens to your computer.

    Lots of Love


  7. .Free writing also called stream-of-consciousness writing is a technique in which a person writes continuously for a set period of time without regard to spelling grammar or topic. Some use the technique to collect initial thoughts and ideas on a topic often as a preliminary to formal writing. Free writing is not the same as ..Unlike where ideas are simply listed in freewriting one writes sentences to form a paragraph about whatever comes to mind……

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