Books on writing fall into three main categories. There are books to get you writing – filled with exercises, writing prompts, and motivational insights. There are books on technique -”how-to” develop character, devise a plot, get from point A to point B. And there are books about what it really is to be a writer. Natalie Goldberg’s latest book on writing, “Old Friend from Far Away: The Practiceof Writing Memoir” brings all three of these themes to one table. It’s a smorgasbord, with a hint of the pot luck; the kind where you want to sample every dish and if you go away unsatisfied you have no one to blame but yourself.
Goldberg is the guru of timed writing exercises. Writing practice. Writing as spiritual practice. Her first book on writing, “Writing Down the Bones,” introduced the concept of timed writing – 10 minutes, 20 minutes, an hour, whatever you could commit to – to millions of readers. Keep your hand moving, don’t edit, don’t think. Just write. Write junk, write “I can’t think of anything to write about.” Just keep writing. Eventually, you get to the root, the heart, the good stuff. The scary stuff. In “Old Friend,” Goldberg focuses the use of this technique in writing memoir. “Ten minutes of continuous writing is much more expedient than ten years of musing and getting nowhere,” she tells us. If you look to memoir as a way of learning who you are, and why you are, rather than simply a means of self-expression, this book can help you on that path.
So yes, you get the exercises, the writing prompts, lots of them. “Tell me about your mother’s hands. Go. Ten minutes. Three minutes on a time you were freezing in July.” I can do that one! “Tell me about how a relationship ended.” Do they ever end? Or just morph into something different, something lesser, or greater, than what you thought you wanted. And you get technique – verb choice, structure, how to come at your memoir sideways instead of head on. Goldberg hops from exercise to technique and back again, barely pausing for breath.
But when she does pause, it is for my favorite parts of the book. The stories of how she, and other famous writers, did it, or said it, or lived it. James Baldwin, Allen Ginsberg, Zora Neale Hurston and many more. Goldberg tells their story, or lets them tell it, and then says – now you, reader – it is your turn. Ten minutes. Go.