Natalie Goldberg on the zen of writing, Minnesota haunts, and cookie meditations


Former Minnesota resident Natalie Goldberg shot to bestseller status 30 years ago with Writing Down the Bones, a book that combines writing instruction with concepts of Zen practice. Two of Goldberg’s subsequent books, Long Quiet Highway and The Great Failure, delved into her studies with Minnesota Zen Center founding abbot and Soto Zen roshi Dainin Katagiri; the former was an homage following his death while the latter revealed the secret life and extramarital affairs he had with female students.

Natalie Goldberg

Grace Trinity Community Church

Goldberg’s latest book, The Great Spring, is a wise and tender collection of awakenings throughout the author’s life, many of them involving experiences in, and the landscape of, Minnesota. Aside from her legacy as an author, the New York native has been a tireless teacher and mentor to thousands of writers throughout the world as well as a longtime painter.

Goldberg now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She answered our questions via email from Germany in anticipation of two readings in Minneapolis this week.

City Pages: In The Great Spring, you have a chapter about meeting Larry McMurtry, an author you admire. You also have a chapter about filming a documentary on Bob Dylan’s roots in Hibbing. What did those experiences teach you about idolization?

Natalie Golderg: That sometimes it’s enjoyable, it’s an experience of reaching, but ultimately it’s all a projection. Sometimes, though, I think it gets you going. It got me to Hibbing and to Archer City, places I wouldn’t have gone otherwise.

CP: What is your relationship now to the Minnesota Zen Center, especially considering the revelations about the community in your book The Great Failure? Do you anticipate visiting there while in the Twin Cities for your upcoming readings?

NG: No, I won’t go to the Minnesota Zen Center. I never heard from anyone after The Great Failure came out — that silence was essentially their disapproval. But the truth is when I think about it, I never received any support for Writing Down the Bones or Long Quiet Highway either. It was painful, but it’s when I received my own authority as a writer — from myself.

CP: If you could speak to Katagiri now, what would you say to him?

NG: “Thank you, thank you, thank you. Even your mistakes helped me to grow.”

CP: You write that “The Midwest gives you that illusion of home, especially when you’re lost and looking in the wrong places.” You’ve lived in many states. Where do you consider “home”? Or do you feel as if you have multiple homes?

NG: I have many homes in my heart — Minnesota, New Mexico, parts of California, Paris, Kyoto — but I also know that we are all essentially homeless. [There is] no solid ground we can cling to forever.

CP: When you lived in Minnesota, did you find that winter weather was conducive to writing because it kept you cooped up and limited distractions?

NG: Hmm, not so much. It penetrates any idea you have of cold. I have never forgotten that experience of living through Minnesota winters, and I can’t seem to stop writing about them. Even in the introduction to The Great Spring, I talk about winter here.

CP: Did you, your personality, or your writing voice ever feel constricted by “Minnesota Nice” culture?

NG: Not really, though I saw it all around me and felt sorry for that constriction. Luckily, when I won the Bush Fellowship in l982, my judges were from outside the Midwest: Tess Gallagher, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Robert Haas. I always felt I could never win a contest judged by Minnesota judges. I used too many four-letter words. But at the same time, I want to tell of the gratitude I feel for the state. I learned to write there — and where else could I be employed as a poet!

Also, in a house across from Lake Calhoun, I met Katagiri Roshi, who I call my “great writing teacher” though he only taught me Zen. Through Zen I learned to write — not well-being, but the ground of being. The Loft, the classes I took there, and the writers I met also gave me tremendous direction.

CP: You’ve written about a chocolate chip cookie meditation you did regularly at Bread & Chocolate in St. Paul. What other restaurants or foods in the Twin Cities do you feel are worthy of such rituals?

NG: Any place can be worthy of slowing down and noticing what you eat. That was a unique time for me in St. Paul, when I was breaking out of strict Zen and realizing it everywhere. I do love your cafes, they're so spacious and sprawling with time, as long as you want to hang out. Not every place has them like you do.

CP: What is the longest period you’ve gone without writing? Without meditating? Did those pauses serve a purpose?

NG: Six months probably is the longest. It served me to realize I better get back to my practice, that I’m a little crazy without it, especially writing, which seems to massage and give shape to my brain. But those times of non-doing I’m sure helped, allowed me to receive the world and reality rather than create it.

CP: Are there are any particular locations in Minnesota that you are eager to paint?

NG: Yes, I love to paint old houses, dilapidated ones in Minneapolis. I walk around looking for them, and garages, and trees. Maybe I’ll try a lake.


Natalie Goldberg, The Great Spring

7 p.m. Tuesday, June 14

Grace Trinity Church


All ages

7 p.m. Wednesday, June 15

The Loft Literary Center

$9-$10 *Tickets are sold out, but a wait list is available on the Loft's website.

All ages