One of the many things I like about living in Iowa City is I get to attend fabulous events at Prairie Lights. Last night I heard Natalie Goldberg (of Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind fame). I’ve been a fan of hers for about 15 years. She was in town promoting her new book, Old Friend From Far Away, which is on writing memoir. The title essay began as a recording, and a friend told her that that piece was most like the experience of studying with her. So she expanded the idea into a book. Yesterday was the book’s official release date and how cool is it that she was here in Iowa City promoting it on its release? Of course, she arrived in what she called a “blizzard,” which I suppose if you’re living in Taos, New Mexico, yesterday morning’s weather may have appeared blizzardlike, but trust me. It wasn’t a blizzard. It was just snow. (Of which we have had entirely too much of this year!)

This was one of the biggest crowds I’ve seen at Prairie Lights. We were crammed in like sardines up there, but it was well worth it. Natalie read from her book (she has the calmest, most soothing voice…which given her zen Buddhist training is probably no great surprise) and answered questions.

Here are some of the things I wrote down from her talk:

Memoir gives us the opportunity to find out who we are. Unfortunately, you won’t know who you are after writing just ONE, so you’ll have to write another.

Memoir is very “American.” It used to be written by 70-year-olds, now it’s written by 20 and 30-year olds…which is great! Memoir is all about finding out what your life is like NOW. And that’s different at 20 and 40 and 70.

Memoir is NOT your whole life…memoir allows you to explore different aspects of your life. You might write a cooking memoir…or a “life as a writer” memoir…or anything else…

“Monkey mind” is that voice in your head that says, “don’t do it!” The voice that holds you back. Get rid of monkey mind!

Memoir is about waking up to our human life…

“The willingness to write is the willingness to be disturbed.” (love that!)

She recommends you write a “last letter” to someone…or to LOTS of people. The last thing you’d ever want to say to someone, whether it be a loved one, a friend, someone who has wronged you, anyone. Say what you need to say to that person. Don’t try to put a lid on it. Or a bow. Send it to them or don’t…just write it!

Somebody asked her if she’d ever write a book on writing memoir for kids…she said, “this one is!” She says her books are for everyone.

If you’ve read any of her other books, you know she talks about the importance of writing in longhand occasionally. The experience of writing in longhand is physically different from the experience of typing. (Not better or worse, just different.) “You may have a car, but you still need to know how to walk.” The same is true of writing in longhand vs. writing on the computer.

She mentioned her mother died recently (a month ago). Someone asked her if she’s been using writing as a way of working through that. She said, “yes, of course.” She has a notebook where she writes down everything she can remember about her mother. Every time she stops, she thinks she’s done. She’s written all she can remember. But then she remembers more. And she writes it down.

She also talked about “pleasing others” with her writing. When she turns in a manuscript to a publisher, she’s not trying to please anyone. She’s trying to find a “deep truth that penetrates.” Somebody else in the audience pointed out, “you’ll never get published if you don’t please SOMEONE,” but she didn’t really come back and address that. (I would’ve been curious to hear what she said about that.)

The subject of novels vs. memoir came up. She believes it’s much harder to write a novel than it is to write a memoir (which probably explains why she’s only written one — I didn’t even know she’d written one. I thought she only had these wonderful books on writing/life)…at least for her. She likes to study “how the mind moves.” That doesn’t work so well in a novel. She says you have to be an architect to write a novel. If you mention a brown hat in chapter 3, it must have meaning in chapter 34.

She is also a painter. She started painting about the same time she started writing (30 years ago). She believes writing and painting feed each other (I think my friend C. would agree with that!). Both are visual arts…a writer paints a picture for the reader.

She said she would like to add two words to the Declaration of Independence. She’d like this line to read: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness AND WRITING.”

“We can only drop bombs on another country when we make generalizations.” (Never thought about that, but she’s absolutely right!)

Writing is an “athletic activity.” Just like football. You have to practice it.

Teachers are afraid to really TEACH writing. Writers grow up believing that if they’re not writing War and Peace they may as well throw up their pens and quit. Not true. We “get down and get human” when we write.

“Talent means nothing.” Often those are are truly talented fail to realize themselves. She says in her workshops, it’s not the “star” who goes on to shine in years to come, it’s the “quiet nerd in the back.” The “talented” tend to quit…the “nerd” keeps going.

She talked a little bit about her book, The Great Failure. She says people are afraid of that book. Failure is such a frightening thing in our society. The first step toward moving away from failure is admitting it.

When asked about the difference between autobiography and memoir, she said autobiography is chronological whereas memoir follows the way we remember. (Is that still true? ARE autobiographies still written chronologically? I know that many BIOGRAPHIES aren’t…)

She teaches her students to continue writing under all circumstances. Write no matter what. She says she often gets students who have already been “broken” in Fine Arts programs. She would rather a writer come to her BEFORE they do the Fine Arts program, so they’ll keep going no matter what happens during the Fine Arts program. Too many people quit writing during/after a Fine Arts program.

If you want to write, shut up and write!

Her classes tend to be a matter of her giving an assignment, then saying, “Go! Ten minutes!” Though of course you don’t have to stop writing after ten minutes…keep going if you can.

When asked for a final piece of advice, she said, “Keep your hand moving!”

If you’re really interested, eventually this program will be available to listen to at

Live from Prairie Lights

19 thoughts on “Live from Prairie Lights

  • February 13, 2008 at 4:35 pm

    Hi there!

    This sounds like such a great reading. I knew about it but was teaching a class last night so had to miss it. Next time you go to a PL reading, will you let me know? I’d love to join you, if you don’t mind the company.


    • February 13, 2008 at 4:37 pm

      I’d love the company! I’ve actually gone to more of these by myself than I have with other people.

  • February 13, 2008 at 4:50 pm

    Great post!
    I wish I lived in Iowa. I miss so many things like this living overseas.

    My DD, who is graduating from BYU in April, wrote a 90 page memoir for her honor’s thesis. She focused on our 2 years in Brazil, used a theme and utilized film techniques in her writing.

    I think you are correct that Fine Arts programs can break students.
    Luckily, DD discovered she didn’t want to major in English with a … teacher her first semester. She loves writing. She majored in humanities, because the film department told her she’d be a better screenwriter if she majored in something else–yet even minoring in film–she is the professor’s go-to-student when they need a student–for anything.
    She plans to get a masters in English rhetoric.

    I’ll send DD (Kathys_shadow) to this post.

    • February 14, 2008 at 8:26 pm

      Oh, but you’ve GAINED so many things from living overseas, too! I’ll bet your daughter’s memoir is proof of that! I’m glad she’s coming out of college still loving to write!

      • February 14, 2008 at 8:43 pm

        We have gained a lot from living overseas. It’s been almost 6 years now–3 countries. And it looks like we’ll be in China for 4 years.
        Her memoir is compelling and intense.

        I almost feel like a foreigner when I come home.
        After China we will do a post/assignment in the US. We’ll need to get back–totally back–into the US culture for a few years before we head out for another series of countries. I doubt the State Department has any jobs available in Iowa…

        • February 19, 2008 at 7:56 pm

          I’ll bet you feel like a foreigner when you come home! Will you have some say in where you go when you get back here?

          • February 20, 2008 at 4:11 pm

            We have some say, but the 95% of the jobs are in DC.
            There aren’t many places for diplomats outside of capital cities.
            But–there is a visiting professor program. Just a few spots a year and always at different universities. I think that could be fun. And we could have a normal life–for one year.

      • February 16, 2008 at 4:46 am

        I came this way, as my mom promised! I loved your post–I absolutely love Goldberg’s book Writing Down the Bones (which we used in a class I took on memoirs) and am excited to now read her book on memoirs. Thanks for sharing your notes–they’re quite insightful.

        I think a difference between memoirs and autobiography is that even if autobiographies are written in a creative order (especially recently), often memoir purports to be NO more than memory, to almost be less reality-based, or at least less focused on the facts and creating a full, “ultimate guide” comprehensive character sketch, which autobiography often finds easiest to do chronologically. That’s my take.

        • February 19, 2008 at 7:55 pm

          You’re welcome…glad you liked it!

          You make a good point about memoir purporting to be no more than memory. And memory is not fact. If you ask three people to give an account of something that happened, you’ll likely get three different stories. But what is autobiography based on if not memory? Does the order or focus of a piece make it less factual? Still trying to wrap my brain around the difference between memoir and autobiography…

          • February 21, 2008 at 9:38 pm

            I think the real difference is that autobiography is a more traditional, more common form, reserved primarily for important people, and the sort of thing when you research Winston Churchill, then you assume his autobiography is just as factual as anything else. (Though it probably isn’t any more so than memoir actually is.)

            My guess is that the current prevalence of memoir stems from living in a postmodernist age in which we’re much less likely to accept any sort of writing as pure, undebatable fact. This led to the emergence of the memoir in the form we find it in today–we’re in a time period where we are more interested in hearing everyone’s stories, and we want to have a genre that allows us to admit that it is CREATIVE nonfiction. I would argue that all nonfiction is creative–someone constructed it in whatever form–memoir is just more open to admitting that.

          • February 22, 2008 at 12:52 pm

            That all makes sense. I haven’t written much nonfiction (though I AM toying with the idea of trying a memoir after hearing Natalie Goldberg), but I have a friend who reads and writes pretty much ALL nonfiction — she’d say exactly the same thing you just did.

  • February 13, 2008 at 6:10 pm

    Wow, that was fascinating! I totally want to write a memoir now. I think my parents would kill me though.

    • February 14, 2008 at 8:29 pm

      Ha! I know the feeling! (About parents killing me if I’d write a memoir!)

      Seriously…I went to the presentation with absolutely no interest/thoughts about writing memoir myself. I went because I like her other books and I wanted to get them signed. But I don’t know…she’s got me thinking about it now (even though my parents would kill me!). I’m going to at least read her new book…

  • February 13, 2008 at 6:12 pm

    Natalie Goldberg

    I loved WRITING DOWN THE BONES and WILD MIND. I also love LONG QUIET HIGHWAY (memoir), and LIVING COLOR (on art, and it includes lots of color prints of her work). But I’ve found the others less than satisfactory. There’s too much rehashing of old material. And the novel (BANANA ROSE) is not good.

    • February 14, 2008 at 8:32 pm

      Re: Natalie Goldberg

      ACK! I forgot about LIVING COLOR!!!! I have it…but I didn’t bring it to get it signed! I forgot that was hers! (Probably forgot because I haven’t actually read it…I think I found it at a library book sale. I don’t think that would’ve been obvious to her, though, so I could’ve brought it for an autograph. I’ll read it now, though.)

  • February 14, 2008 at 1:07 pm

    I only know Bones and Wild, and love both of those. Sounds like an interesting talk–thanks for sharing the highlights!

    Love: “We can only drop bombs on another country when we make generalizations.”

    Naomi Shihab Nye’s new collection, Honeybee, shows the same thing.

  • February 18, 2008 at 5:53 pm


    This is both interesting and timely. When I was in NYC last week for the SCBWI confernce, an agent said to me that she was looking for memoirs for teens. As in an author’s memoir of their teenage years, written as YA literature. Interesting that this coincides with it. I’ll have to look for this book! I know Kathi Appelt has one out, written (I think) in verse.


    • February 19, 2008 at 7:57 pm

      Re: memoirs

      Really?!?! Personally, I’d like to read authors’ memoirs of their teenage years, too. I really am toying with the idea of doing a memoir…it would be something different.


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