The Bookshelf: “Writing on Empty”

Natalie Goldberg’s new book finds structure in emptiness

Our next guest needs no introduction—if you’re a writer or reader in Santa Fe, I’m willing to bet you’re already familiar with Natalie Goldberg and her 1986 classic, Writing Down the Bones. What you might not know, though? She’s got a new book coming out this month.

Writing On Empty (July 9, St. Martin’s Essentials) looks back on the creative paralysis that seized Goldberg at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when lockdowns and isolation left her wellspring of inspiration dry. It examines how she found her own way out of that torpor, and offers a roadmap for other writers to do the same.

Writing Down the Bones emphasizes the importance of a dedicated writing practice, and the methods she writes about worked for Goldberg herself for decades. But when the onset of the pandemic tore away the structure of everyday life and exposed the dysfunction of larger societal structures, Goldberg was left to reckon with what structure really means in a creative practice.

During lockdown, none of the writers, poets, painters or musicians in Goldberg’s circle could create, and she was no different.

“It was like everything I knew was out the window,”Goldberg tells SFR, “and I had to start from zero to find my way again.”

Feeling stifled by the closure of the cafés and libraries she had relied upon in which to write, Goldberg clung to whatever structure she could find, meeting weekly with a friend at the Water History Park on Upper Canyon Road to talk about their lives and childhoods. But when her friend suffered a serious bike accident, even that vestige was gone.

Left reeling, Goldberg knew she needed to make a change and decided to follow through on a residency in Port Townsend, Washington, where she’d been invited before the pandemic began. There, she’d be given a cabin to live and write in—even though she no longer felt like a writer and had no idea what she would be writing. She and her girlfriend decided to drive to Port Townsend rather than fly and, on the way, made a pilgrimage to Ernest Hemingway’s grave in Idaho, which Goldberg had always wanted to visit. Sitting beside his grave, Goldberg told Hemingway all about her crisis of faith. And when she was finished, she knew what she had to do: Write anyway.

That graveside epiphany became Writing On Empty, Goldberg’s 16th book, and a sprawling self-examination that addresses isolation, loss of faith, apathy, fear, confusion and, of course, emptiness—all of which the pandemic brought into stark focus. She still honors the idea of structure and practice, but not as rigidly. For example, Goldberg looks back on the intensity of the 12 years she spent training with Sōtō Zen priest and teacher Jikai Dainin Katagiri: As a young person grasping for direction, rigid discipline served her; now, at 76, a new phase of life has changed her attitude.

“I still have a practice, I still sit, I still write,” Goldberg says. “But maybe the real practice is realizing you’re groundless and learning to tolerate the void.”

She hadn’t yet fully confronted this in her Zen practice, Goldberg says, adding that she instead wrapped a writing practice around it. Clearly, this resonated—Writing Down the Bones has sold more than a million copies, and its runaway success was practically an accident, Goldberg says.

“I was terrified when I was in my 30s and that book came out,” she explains. “I really just wrote what I saw and felt; I didn’t know that it was going to take off.”

Still, the techniques she shared in that book—which Goldberg calls writing practice and topics, though many call them free writes and prompts—are now integral to millions of people’s writing routines.

“Society was ready for it,” Goldberg posits.

But COVID-19 altered society, and Goldberg needed to see that change reflected in the nature of her own practice. At the end of Writing On Empty, she offers a roadmap for other writers to trace her steps out of creative paralysis, no matter its source. While not all of us have the privilege of retreating to a solitary cabin or an iconic author’s gravesite—or even what Goldberg calls “empty time”—she offers topics to reflect on, and Writing On Empty speaks not only to the impetus to continue creating through a personal crisis, but to continue creating in the face of overwhelming global upheaval and loss.

“I think every writer has to face the feeling that what you are doing is a waste of time, that you should be out helping people—every writer faces that, no matter how successful,” Goldberg says. “We have a larger self that writes, and then we have a monkey mind that criticizes and tears us apart. It takes great faith to just keep going.”

Goldberg will celebrate Writing on Empty’s release with a reading at Collected Works Bookstore.

Natalie Goldberg: Writing On Empty: A Guide to Finding Your Voice: 6pm Tuesday, July 9. Free. Collected Works Bookstore & Coffeehouse, 202 Galisteo St, Santa Fe, (505) 988-4226

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