I read Natalie Goldberg’s work like a she-wolf burrowing into a still-warm carcass, gnawing at grainy marrow from the broken-open bones of her words. And Goldberg’s latest book, Thunder and Lightning, is a thick feast.
Natalie Goldberg has been studying Zen and cracking open the writer’s craft with her words for almost thirty years. She writes, indicating true north on her compass needle pen, meeting her own fear and discouragement on the path and yet admonishing writer and reader alike to “ride the ruddy edge of your truth” and continue working under all circumstances.
What I like about Goldberg’s latest book is that she is not sentimental about writing or about danger at the ruddy edge. She expects blunt honesty from her readers and fellow writers, and, although she whines and stalls a bit as she dangles her toes in the bracing ice water of her craft, she also jumps in.
Thunder and Lightning begins with the author’s terse warning that she has not seen writing lead to happiness in her friends’ lives. Nevertheless, the next 200-plus pages of her book are fearlessly dedicated to manifesting a “study of the mind through writing.” Organized into three clear sections—“Structure,” “Reading,” and “Reining in Your Wild Horses”—Goldberg investigates fresh terrain not fully explored in her earlier books on writing, Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind. How do you structure your time and your manuscript as you write, what about revision, how do you deal with criticism and rejection, and what is there to learn from reading other authors? These are some of the questions she takes up in her new book.
“Deep in the matrix of the human mind is a desire to ﬁnd out what is going to happen, what the meaning is,” writes Goldberg, and in order to enter this matrix some structure is necessary. Like a sudden storm over the Costa Rican cloud forest, structure manifests from nothing, changes everything, and then is gone. “Rest in the structure,” says this Zen student, “but step into the void.”
Like each of Natalie Goldberg’s books, Thunder and Lightning is a practice manual. The writer’s craft depends on steady practice: daily writing, sitting, slow walking, deep reading and showing up are how she gets her work done. And yet she never lets the reader and writer forget that, as author Jamaica Kincaid has observed, “I’m not writing for anyone at all. I’m writing out of desperation . . . so I don’t end up as a set of slogans and clichés.”
What helps? Here the author is ﬁercely present. “Read other writers,” she urges us, and the appendix includes a rich list of books that Goldberg loves and knows as her own body. “Build a tolerance for intimacy,” she encourages us, and write for the gap, for those who aren’t listening. Practice slow walking and train for the “zone” that opens up when eﬀort and concentration take hold of your body and mind. “Be hungry,” she whispers, and speak out. “Step over the line and expect to be heard.”
In the last section of her book, the author shows us her own awkward mistakes on the way to publication. Is nothing sacred? Let’s hope not, and especially not with Natalie Goldberg. “Writing practice lets out all your wild horses,” she conﬁdes to the reader. But eventually it is time to “bridle the stampede, pick up the reins, and slowly take control of that power.”
Whether or not you are a writer or a student of meditation, please read Thunder and Lightning. This book is alive and slightly feral at the same time, encouraging and unsettling at once. Pick it up. Stand in the ﬂash storm, and follow the ruddy edge of your truth.