Book Review: The True Secret of Writing

Natalie Goldberg has been assisting her students into a writing life for forty years. She has developed her own teaching series to do this, a teaching series captured in The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language. This is a peaceful book to read, a book that reminded me of the sanctity of the simplest routines.

Goldberg speaks of the struggle to develop practices, routines for the things that we wish to do but that are not always easy. Reading Goldberg’s book, I realized some of the practices I’ve developed: my walk in the morning, my tea in the afternoon, my knitting in the car while my husband drives. Goldberg uses examples from her own life and that of her students to inspire us to overcome our personal barriers to practice. She ushers us into peacefulness with poetry and reflections.

This is a book written with writers in mind, but if you’re in a hectic or troubled time of your life, it is possible to read this book slowly, absorbing its calmness in ten to fifteen minute periods of reading. I am contemplating mindfulness at work, and especially I am contemplating the instruction of mindfulness. I read a passage from the book to one of my patient groups and, in the anonymous survey returned after the group, the reading received positive reviews from the youth attending the group.

This book also has excellent notes and reading lists to open your mind. There is no index but The True Secret of Writing does not provide information in the manner of standard creative nonfiction. An index is not as crucial.

Finally, this book has provided me with the Loving Kindness Prayer. I am always so saddened by the fact that it is necessary to remind people over and over again to be kind to themselves. I do not know why this is so hard to learn, but I know it’s taking me a long time. I am going to copy out this meditation for you. I hope it helps you.

May I be happy
May I be peaceful
May I be free
May I have the ease of well-being
May I be safe
May I be healthy

(Note: The prayer comes from page 142 of the 2013 Atria Books edition of The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language)

The Curator

I am desperate to understand why I cannot keep my desk clear. It is as if the objects that accumulate there have a life of their own.

At Christmas, I took two weeks off. One snowy day in late December, I sorted through the piles of paper and organized the piles of books. By the end of a full day, I had reduced the pile of books to the one book I was currently reading and the paper to one two-inch pile.

It is now February. There are now six books on my desk. The pile of paper is now four inches high and there is a smaller pile of “urgent” paper beside it.

What is “urgent”? The Annual Report of my church for next week’s vestry meeting is “urgent”. The incorrect reservation for my trip to London, England in May Is clearly “urgent” since it must be changed. The details on how to set up a simple crystal meth lab using readily available household supplies are on the “urgent” pile because I need to check whether one of my patients could have done set up such a laboratory. I realize that this sounds far-fetched, but the situation is real and could be “urgent”. The “urgent” pile is every item that must be addressed quickly.

What is on the other four-inch pile of paper? The book review for a textbook that I’d like to buy, this month’s edition of my favourite literary magazine, and the newsletter for the Osler Library have all crept onto this pile and snuggled in between recipes, newspaper articles and Aunt Stella’s letter. The last item may need to be moved to the “urgent” pile to be answered in decent time.

There is also the pile of books, of course, but, since these are all library books, it seems to me that they don’t count as my pile.

I am a psychiatrist. I spend entire days helping others figure out why they behave as they do, but I am completely crippled by one small housekeeping task. I have read more self-help books and consulted more websites on the topic of office organization than I ever thought existed. There are so many books and websites on this topic that there are lists of the top websites and books about organization. Most of these lists rate the top ten books or websites on organization, but one poor reviewer couldn’t even declutter the list and so she has listed the “Top 15 Books on Organization”.

The problem with these references is that they consider all of my paper to be “clutter”. The references consider my papers and articles and objects to be unnecessary, even a hindrance, for productive living. All these experts look upon the elimination of these piles of paper and books on my desk as a housekeeping task. But, as I said at the beginning, the objects and paper have a life of their own. These lives begin in my imagination. They are the offspring of my wish for my life to be more than I can manage. I am not ready to eliminate some of the tasks I have assigned myself with these piles of paper so that I can “declutter”. I want to hold onto the people, events, or activities that each book or piece of paper or object represents.

Consider the life each of these items has. Consider my aunt’s letter. I know that when my aunt dies, the letters written in her hand, using the phrases she used, will bring her to mind more vividly than my memory alone can do. Recipes are often collected less for me than for my husband, or my children, or a friend. Knowing how to set up a crystal meth lab will illustrate to a young man with a bad drug habit that I am perfectly aware of how risky his life has become.

I consider each of these objects to be artifacts and I am a curator of sorts, acquiring in piles that must be sorted the items necessary for a retrospective, personal exhibit of this current era in my life. When I have time, and when my aunt is much in my mind and I feel like speaking with her, I will take the letter she has written and answer it. There must be time to consider what she has said and respond. Then I will save the letter in the correspondence file I have of all her letters to me. This file is truly alive and so it is no wonder that the pieces of the file insinuate their way onto a pile on my desk before they get to the place where they will finally live. They want my companionship.

Similarly, the recipes I save are eventually scanned, or found online and saved to an online recipe collection, ready to be the main dish in a family birthday celebration or a special treat for a friend. This collection has become so like an exhibit that my family and friends ask for regular access to the collection or for items from it.
Finally, such ephemera as the instructions for a crystal meth lab are meant to be temporary exhibits, to be used in the service of a single event or circumstance. If recorded at all for posterity, this research will be documented as a footnote in my patient’s electronic medical record.

Perhaps this vision of myself as a curator of small exhibits, shown only to a limited public or for personal enjoyment is too grandiose. Perhaps it is just my excuse for the fact that I never seem to be able to keep my desk uncluttered. But I know that I am not unique in this curatorial style. I am suspicious that the organizational experts with tidy desks cannot truly understand my wish to catalogue and deliberately acquire emotional artifacts. How do they organize their inner lives? Are they ever on exhibit?

Those of us who maintain these small collections of personal literary memorabilia, longing at times for clear work surfaces and tidy desks, are often also the chroniclers. Our artifacts are our inspiration – for letters, for reports, for speeches, for essays. Why else do we keep files of letters and notebooks of quotations? Who but us will leave the evidence of what daily life was like in our times? From pictographs in caves, to hieroglyphics in tombs, to the Dead Sea Scrolls, to illuminated manuscripts, to the Gutenberg Bible, to Penguin classics, to the Cloud, we have left our mark over the centuries. We have informed our descendants about the life of our times.

While historical figures of every period and nation have kept tidy desks and fashioned careful histories of the legacies they prefer, those of us whose only goal was to capture personal memories for private exhibits leave a very different legacy. Our recipes, letters and vestry reports left behind on untidy desks and in filing cabinets and on hard drives have lives of their own, our lives. We do not have time to organize everything into a well-shaped monument, or to order the possessions in our tombs. We will be found frozen in time, like the citizens of Pompeii, at the moment our lives stopped, still working on tidying our desks, still writing.

(Note: I’m sure you will notice that this essay is different from my usual posts. I wrote it for a writing course, where it drew such a positive response that I thought I would be brave enough to publish it here, on Christmas Day. This is the kind of writing I would love to have time for, although I don’t know what value it is. To anyone reading this, have the best holiday!)

Widow’s Weeds

At the end of June, I read two books about widows. One was fiction and the other was non-fiction, an account of a support group developed by an American journalist for widows. The novel, The Lost Husband by Katherine Center, also explores the nature of the support that helps widows. For those for whom stories are more healing, it may be the better choice. Saturday Night Widows by Becky Aikman, on the other hand, uses the account of developing a support group for widows to help the reader understand how six young widows moved beyond their grief.

For those who are wondering why I might have read two books on widowhood within a week or two, my own analysis is that June 29 is my mother’s birthday. My mother passed away last October and so this June 29 was the first birthday without her. My father passed away 46 years ago and my mother had lived most of her life as a widow. I have linked my interest in these two books to the anniversary of my mother’s birth this first birthday after her death and I believe that I am seeking in some way to understand the condition of widowhood which dominated so much of her life. But let me tell you about the books.

The Lost Husband is set in the Texas Hill Country and the first revelation for me was the farm life described in the book. I doubt that I’m alone in thinking of Texas as cattle ranch country, dominated by guns and pick-up trucks – the modern wild West, if you will. The setting, however, is a goat farm and all of the goats are named after famous women: Jane Austen and Harriet Tubman, for example. The goat’s milk is used to make chevre – really, who thinks of going to Texas to eat chevre? The main character, Libby, is a young woman who is forced to live with her mother after her husband’s death leaves her and her two children almost destitute. Her mother’s sister offers her an escape from life at her mother’s, which she accepts. The story of Libby’s renewal after grieving for her husband reminds us how important community and family are for widows and their children, especially the community and family supports that last long after all the casseroles and baking have disappeared. I read this book quickly, losing myself in the humour and pathos of Libby’s life on a Texas farm. I cannot say that this is an enduring classic novel but Ms. Center succeeds in conveying the emotions experienced by a woman “moving on” after the death of her husband and not every author accomplishes this. This is also a book that allows one to consider a difficult topic and family complexities at the same time as it is easily read.

Becky Aikman’s Saturday Night Widows: The Adventures of Six Friends Remaking Their Lives garnered critical acclaim for its account of the support group she developed when she could not find a widows’ support group to meet her needs after her husband died. New York City and its environs is the setting for this book and that locale does influence the culture of the narrative. The book is also useful in outlining steps in the development of a support group and especially selecting participants, as this is a closed group. (The website also has useful guidelines and I often provide it as a reference.) Aikman weaves her own story with those of her group’s coparticipants. It is a mark of the success of her group that the members’ real names and histories appear to be used. If you are wondering about the value of a support group of any kind, this book will convince you that it’s a good idea.

I am trying to decide whether it is worth publishing this essay or not and I realize that a great part of concern relates to the stigma of widowhood, which still exists even though we know it’s a problem and that we ought to do something about it. My mother was very much affected by this stigma and yet she never remarried. Because of the difference in incomes of women and men in that era, she made half my father’s wages even though she did the same job. As an adult, she told me that she never wanted any other man than my father to presume to comment on her children or their upbringing. The fact that she gave her children such primacy has always been an example for me, but I have often wondered where she got her support. These two books on widowhood have helped me to understand something of my mother’s life and I am grateful for it.

“Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love.”  (Earl Grollman)