Golden Goldberg

Natalie Goldberg, for those of you who are unfamiliar, is an extraordinary woman who paints, writes and guides others in their writing practice.  When I was twenty, I discovered her book “Writing Down the Bones” and devoured it.  The experience was delectable.  Her pages were full of wisdom, ideas and permission. While enticing me to write down the bones, she crawled under my skin.  Natalie has written many wonderful books since then, but it was that book that remained with me for years, until I was lucky enough to participate in one of her workshops in Taos, New Mexico in 2010.

The workshop consisted of yoga sessions, writing sessions and enforced silences.  I say ‘enforced’ because while I crave it often, silence does not always come easily to me.  I fill up my space with sound. I love my music. I talk to Lilly (my dog). I bore my husband with daily minutia. I like to chit chat on the phone. I ask my kids too many questions when I pick them up from school. I even talk to myself. All that commotion before anyone else has managed to join the bonanza.

We’ve all heard the saying ‘Silence is Golden’, meaning precious. Sought after. Seductive. Valuable. I’m not sure I fully understood quite how golden silence can be until Natalie Goldberg forced it upon me. Gently. With understanding. She encouraged us to ‘sit’ in silence for luxurious lengths of time.  She instructed us to eat in silence, even if we were feasting next to our best friend (which I was). Instead of filling up the air with words, my tastes buds had a conversation with my food. It was a delightful exchange. She suggested that we walk slowly around the world in silence, and pay close attention to  everything we encountered along the way. And I did.

But silence, like most things shiny, has a darker side. It can be lonely. Frightening. Silence can leave you feeling disconnected. Caught on a broken treadmill endlessly running over unproductive thoughts.  That sort of silence is ‘noisy’.  Tarnished.  The golden glow long since forgotten.

Our task, as writers, as human beings, as learners, is to pay attention to both states. Pay attention to when life gets too fast, too loud. Pay attention to the times we could benefit from pressing mute in order to listen to our breath and not our voices.  Equally, pay attention to when we become locked. Stifled. In need of our volume being turned up.  In need of being heard. Too many of us operate on extremes, missing opportunities to create a more harmonious balance.

I have plenty of lasting memories from that week in Taos, but there is one that stands out from the rest. I was walking back to my bedroom on the first deliciously dark night. Somewhere over Taos mountain there was an electrical storm.  The entire landscape was alive with light — frenetic, neon bolts cracking into the atmosphere, scratching silver zig zags through the blackness. Natalie was walking next to me. Silent. I assumed she would remain wrapped in the meditative moment.  It seemed possible to me that she was the kind of women who could slow walk calmly through Mardi Gras. But then she surprised me, like the best writers do.  She glanced up and caught sight of the spectacular sideshow, and in her broad New York accent, she sliced through the silence with a gloriously, life affirming query.

“What the FUCK is that?” 

I remember smiling. It was that line that leaps out at you from the page of a book when you’re quietly reading at midnight.  It catapults off the page and cartwheels around your brain, reminding you why you love to read. Reminding you why the author is so brilliant.

Golden Goldberg.

And now to you! What is your relationship to silence? Do you want more of it or less? Do you need silence to work or are you more productive with noise around you? Do you have ‘loud’ memories from your childhood or ‘quiet’ ones? Or both?
I won’t talk for a little while… I’ll sit and wait for your words to arrive. I’m ready to listen…

4 Responses to “Golden Goldberg”

  1. Adam Lasky
    February 23, 2012 at 8:01 pm #

    I used to read/study with some sort of "noise" in the background. I never just sat there and worked. I don't know if it's because I'm getting older or what but I find that I need silence to write and create. I need the silence so I can talk out loud to myself, the book case, the kitchen table, and pillows. I talk and pace around. It's my flow. It's interesting because I am an outgoing type of guy and love talking to people. But when the creative juices start flowing, I need that silence. My wife is the exact opposite. She is a natural introvert but when she works on her art she needs music or something going on in the background.Thanks for the insights as always, Rory!!! And thanks for the resource. I never read that book but I am definitely going to check it out of the library!

  2. Rory Green
    February 23, 2012 at 8:43 pm #

    You are so welcome, Adam! Thank you for jumping in and sharing your thoughts. I too prefer silence when I am writing… but these days it is hard to come by! Natalie has many wonderful books on writing, so have a browse of her later ones as well. You are in for a treat!

  3. Frahnseen
    February 23, 2012 at 11:38 pm #

    True silence is a rarity in my everyday life. My home is silent as far as no music or TV a good part of the time but there my mind is usually so noisy that it isn’t true silence. I find I have to leave home to find true silence. The kind that loudly envelops me like the looming blank page when no words will come. It is daunting at first wondering what thoughts I should think into this wide open space of mine. It’s not the absence of sound, but it’s a large looming presence which I think is my soul; the essence of my true being. I attended a silent writing retreat with Natalie more out of curiosity than anything else. I had been to her yoga/writing retreat earlier that year and the idea of a silent retreat intrigued me. Not sure why since I am a bit of a talker but a seed was planted. I had no idea how I would respond to five days of silence. Not even allowed to talk to your roommate after dinner the evening of our arrival. I found I fit right into the silence. I was comfortable, maybe even more so than at talking retreats. All of the “getting to know each other” chit chat was gone. I could just be. I had no fear of not being included in something since without conversation, groups didn’t form and if I wanted to go off by myself and write no one would classify me as standoffish or be talking about me. I’ve always been insecure in group settings and now all the rules of acceptance were repealed. Absolutely freeing in a way. Eating in silence made me more conscious of what I was eating and how it tasted although the food at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House was so fabulous it would be pretty hard not to take notice. Do you ever watch TV and eat popcorn and then look down and the bowl is empty and you don’t even really remember eating it all? Seems a waste of food. Forced silence brings everything into the present moment and my heightens my senses. Tastes, sounds, textures are all richer and more vibrant. The retreat was blessed. Absolute bliss. It was very difficult to not say good morning to my roommate upon awakening. That I did several times by mistake. The intention of silence made the retreat so much more a writing retreat. The previous retreat was so incredibly special and I met many friends some of whom I still stay in contact with. It was one of those perfect mixes of people and personalities that it couldn’t be improved upon and no matter how many times I revisited would never come close. But it was loud. I remember the din of the dining room at meal time and at times I retreated to the outside to find a little quiet. Not until the silent retreat did I realize that the people and conversations overshadowed the writing aspect of the retreat. In a talking retreat thoughts come out in conversation before they even have a chance to be written. With intentioned silence there is no other place for thoughts or ideas or emotions to go except on the written page. It did take a little getting used to. I had to let myself find the stillness and stop worrying about writing at first. As the week went on I found my mind was fired and the words started picking up speed. Poetry and prose and haiku. It just started spilling forth.The only other times I have forced silence are when I travel alone on vacation. For a week I hardly say a word to another person unless I need to ask a question of someone. I should do it more often to reconnect with who I am inside all the trappings of my busy life. It’s no wonder I seem to be drifting at times with no apparent purpose since I rarely stop and intently listen. Except when something goes bump in the night, and then I hear the hum of the refrigerator or the air conditioner or the neighbors dogs barking but then that’s a whole other story…….maybe a writing promptshhhhhbe quietlistenturn off the musicclose your eyessit stilljust a little longercan you hear it now?the inner voice of guidance?can feel it? your essence? your soul?can you sense its need for love and acceptance? you are the only one who can give it what it needsLove and Accept Yourself.

  4. Rory Green
    February 26, 2012 at 2:10 am #

    Frahnseen- Thank you for sharing your experience of your time with Natalie and your relationship to silence. "With intentioned silence there is no other place for thoughts or ideas or emotions to go except on the written page." I think that sums up the benefits of quieting down…we access different areas of ourselves.

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