Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer's Craft

Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer's Craft

by Natalie Goldberg


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August 2000

On the advice of writing instructors and books like Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind, scores of writers like you have unleashed their minds in writing exercises, free writings, and character sketches. You've filled countless journals with words and gotten in touch with your creative muse -- in fact, you've harnessed her just enough to put pen to paper. But what happens now? How do you transform your raw writings into something that connects with an audience, perhaps even gets published?

In the long-awaited sequel to her acclaimed writing primers, Natalie Goldberg tackles this next step. Fifteen years ago, as a young writer and student of Zen, she urged would-be writers to "grab their notebooks and write their asses off." Now, using examples from her own life and work, Goldberg offers illuminating advice on how to make the leap from words to novels, poems, stories, and memoirs. Eschewing the usual admonitions to "write what you know" -- "the truth is," she confides, "what we know matters less than how we tell it" -- Goldberg explodes the myth of writing as a romantic profession and discusses the difficulties with structure, criticism, and rejection with which all writers grapple.

Goldberg has been there, done that -- and is still doing it. In Thunder and Lightning, she shares wonderful stories of her own about the journey to publication (including one "Lunch with the Editor" story that's as illuminating as it is funny) and sage advice. Goldberg counsels you on how to deal with the fear -- always present, sometimes overwhelming -- of rejection and failure, which can at times paralyze the pen; how to get the most from writing workshops and working with an editor; and how to "get out of the way" and allow your fictional characters to find their own lives. In addition, by providing a helpful and provocative recommended reading list, she never forgets that reading accomplished authors can only help hone your craft.

Through her work with Zen meditation, in Thunder and Lightning Goldberg advances the concept of an "awake mind" in transforming flashes of inspiration into a polished piece of work. She celebrates writing itself -- not just as the means to a published end, but as a path to living a deeper, more fully awake life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780553095289
Publisher: Bantam Books
Publication date: 08/01/2000
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.89(w) x 8.58(h) x 0.83(d)

About the Author

Natalie Goldberg lives in northern New Mexico and is the author of Writing Down the Bones, Wild Mind, Long Quiet Highway, Banana Rose, and Living Color, a book about her work as a painter. She teaches writing in workshops nationwide.

Read an Excerpt

Meeting the Mind

Back in ninth-grade biology class when Mr. Albert Tint announced that we would study the involuntary organs — the heart and lungs — he forgot to mention the mind. My guess is he didn’t know about it, but in truth it’s as though the brain were an automatic thought-producing machine — I don’t like this dress. I’m hungry. I miss New York. How did I get so old? I wonder where I put my keys? Did I mail that letter? I need to cut my nails. Next time I’m going to buy a car with automatic transmission. I hope I didn’t bounce my last check. Maybe I should try acupuncture — just like the popcorn machine in the movie theatre lobby that explodes kernel after kernel.

What’s remarkable is that before I sat meditation and tried to focus on my breath when I was twenty-six years old, I didn’t know this about my mind: that I couldn’t stop it from thinking. I was full of arrogance in my twenties. I thought there was nothing I couldn’t do. And then I discovered I wasn’t in control.

The first morning of my first retreat I woke early — it was still dark — dressed quickly and went to the meditation kiva, a small mud room, on the side of Lama Mountain, seventeen miles north of Taos, New Mexico. The bell rang — we were to sit still and focus our attention on the breath. What breath? I couldn’t find it. Instead I was plunged into a constant yammering. Rushes of thought ran through me. Endless commentary, opinions, ideas, stories. The bell rang a half hour later to signal the end of the period. Wow! I opened my eyes. Who was that wild animalinside me?

It was my own human mind. I needed to understand it. Why? It’s the writer’s landscape. Imagine that a painter has that wild animal to capture on canvas: arresting its fangs, the raging color of its eyes, the blue of its hump, the flash of its hoofs, the rugged shadow that it casts. We writers have that beast inside us: how we feel, think, hope, dream, perceive. Where do words come from, sentences, ideas? They manifest from our minds. Yikes! Suddenly we’re blasted into a vast jungle, with no maps, no guidelines, no clues. How do we manifest a landscape so full of robust life? What do we say? When there’s so much — it’s boundless — we usually close down, disconnect, shut up.

That’s how I was anyway: confused. I knew my teachers in public school were trying to teach me something — mainly, they were good, earnest people. But I couldn’t figure out, not even a hint, how a writer wrote. I managed to squeeze out dry little compositions; nothing burst into flame. Carson McCullers, Steinbeck, Joyce — the writers we studied were a million miles away from me. How did they do it? They might as well have been nuclear scientists. Yet they possessed the same things I did: pen, paper, English language, mind.

My teachers couldn’t teach me because they hadn’t connected with writing’s essential ingredient: the mind and how it functions. Instead, they taught me how to organize what was outside and around the pulsing lifeblood. I learned to make an outline, but that skeletal plan was built exterior to the heat of creation. Why was this? Western intelligence, preoccupied with thinking, avoided examining the mechanism of thought. Only saints or the insane traveled that interior territory. And what was the result? They cut off their ears, shot themselves, or were burned at the stake. Better not go there. We looked suspiciously on the inner world. It wasn’t productive: it could lead only to suffering or turning nutty as a fruitcake. We in the West were better at developing athletes. We knew about bodies.

But then suddenly in the sixties large numbers of young Americans ingested psychedelics, which blasted us inward. Wanting to understand what we experienced with these “mind altering” drugs, we turned to Eastern religions to find answers.

What the East gave the West was a safe, structured way to explore the mind. Those of us who sought meditation were taught a fundamental, disciplined posture. The directions were specific: cross legs, sit at the edge of a hard round cushion, hands on knees or held just below the navel, chest open, crown of the head a little higher than the forehead, eyes cast down and unfocused. When the bell rings, do not move. Go! And where did we go? Noplace, at least externally. The instruction was to pay attention to our breath, but as soon as we tried we found instead hurricanes of thoughts and emotions — rebellion, desire, restlessness, agitation.

It was all I could do to sit still. Suddenly I wanted to sob at the memory of my grandmother and the feel of her thin skin; I recalled why my tenth-grade boyfriend had dropped me ten years earlier, and how it felt when the novocaine on my first root canal ran out while Dr. Glassman was still drilling. No wonder our schoolteachers stayed away from the meat of writing. To have us contact our raw minds in class would have incited immediate chaos: hordes of teenagers bolting from their neat rows of wooden desks and dashing for the water fountains as though the roots of their hair were on fire.

But with meditation we found a steady tool to enter this wild space and explore it. The sitting bell rang again, marking the end of the period. We uncurled our legs and looked around. The earth was still patiently beneath us, and we had had a small opening — say, thirty minutes — to taste our minds. Zen was smart: it did not just lower us into the hot water and leave us there to boil. We were dipped in and out. We went under and then came back up to sip green tea and munch cookies. In this way we slowly cooked and digested ourselves.

There was another reason some of us were drawn to Zen meditation. It told us what to do: wear black in the zendo, bow to your cushion, don’t make any noise, be on your seat five minutes before the beginning of a sitting session. After an initial rebellious tantrum where I walked out of the instruction class, I loved it. I longed for order. My guess is others in my generation craved that, too. I had had a laissez-faire upbringing. As a child I lounged around the kitchen eating boxes of Oreo cookies. My mother simply walked by, patted me on the head, and commented, “That’s nice, dear.” I missed at least one day of school a week. “I just don’t feel like going,” I’d tell my mother, looking up from under the bedsheets. She nodded, endlessly understanding, turned around in her housecoat and left the room. “Natli doesn’t learn that much there anyway,” I could hear her thinking. I sat in front of the TV all weekend in my pajamas. No rules, no requirements. On my own I decided it might be a good idea to brush my teeth and wash my face once a day.

When my friends hear this they feel envy: “Why, it’s ideal for raising a writer.” Not true. Life was staggering. I needed organization. And the sixties didn’t help. Those years only made me more confused instead of free. In Zen there were precepts: Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Don’t create suffering through sexuality. That one I read over and over. I wasn’t sure what it meant, but at least there was a scent of guidance, an intimation of direction.

So when I tried to figure out how to write — living in a small adobe in New Mexico, the clear Western skies out my window, the land spotted by sage, bare yellow dirt everywhere and three horses in a corral — I looked to the Eastern world for hints. I copied the structure of meditation. Sitting had a time limit — OK, writing would, too. At the beginning I wrote for rounds of ten minutes, eventually increasing them to twenty and thirty. I kept my hand consistently moving — as in meditation we couldn’t move — for the full time. I told myself if the atom bomb dropped eight minutes after I began, I’d go out writing. (In recent years I have softened: I concede to my writing students, “Well, if you’re writing with your best friend when the bomb drops, you might pause a moment to say good-bye. But then get going again — you don’t have much time.”)

Writing became a practice. I wrote under all circumstances, and once I started, I continued until the time was up. Especially in the early days, like Zen students who sit together, I wrote with others, not alone. I let Zen inform my writing practice because I needed writing to be rooted — not Natalie’s creative idea. I wanted writing practice to be backed by two thousand years of watching the mind. Enough of my free-wheeling childhood. I was serious.

Years later at the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center where I studied with Dainin Katagiri Roshi, we chanted the lineage of teachers all the way back to Buddha. I learned that one Zen master lost his mother at nine; one was the son of a whore. My own teacher was the youngest of six children; they lived over a small noodle shop owned by his father. Nobody in the lineage began as someone special. I saw that the only way to elbow my way into the lineage of writers was by sincere effort. The fact that my father owned a bar, that my grandmother had plucked chickens in a poultry market, did not deter me. I understood that it was no more helpful to have a parent who was a well-known writer than to be the child of an army general. Actually I might be luckier with the general — then I wouldn’t be working in my famous parent’s shadow, my path darkened by my mother’s successful novels. But no matter what, it was up to me.

I never gained control of my mind — how do you dominate an ocean? — but I began to form a real relationship with it. Through writing and meditation I identified monkey mind, that constant critic, commentator, editor, general slug and pain-in-the-ass, the voice that says, “I can’t do this, I’m bored, I hate myself, I’m no good, I can’t sit still, who do I think I am?” I saw that most of my life had been spent following that voice as though it were God, telling me the real meaning of life — “Natalie, you can’t write shit” — when, in fact, it was a mechanical contraption that all human minds contain. Yes, even people with terrific, supportive parents are inhabited by this blabbing, resistant mouthpiece. But as I wrote longer, went deeper, I realized its true purpose: monkey mind is the guardian at the gate. We have to prove our mettle, our determination, stand up to its nagging, shrewish cry, before it surrenders the hidden jewels. And what are those jewels? Our own human core and heart, of course.

I’ve seen it over and over. The nearer I get to expressing my essence, the louder, more zealous that belittling voice becomes. It has been helpful to understand it not as a diminishing parent but as something universal, impersonal, a kind of spiritual test. Then I don’t have to wither or sneak away from censoring dad, carping mom, or severe schoolteacher with sunken chest when I hear that onerous yell. Instead, it is my signal to persevere and plow through. Charge! I scream with pen unlanced.

But this intimacy with my mind did not come quickly and I never gained the upper hand. Instead I’ve learned to maneuver in the territory. It is something like when I first got my driver’s license at eighteen. My father’s big blue Buick convertible felt massive; it was like propelling Jell-O through the streets. If I smelled sulfur from a factory, or autumn leaves burning by the curb, I panicked and stomped on the brake, certain the car was on fire and about to blow up. Other than putting the key in the ignition, steering around corners, and turning on the lights and radio, I had no idea what to do with this enormous moving animal. Later, with the sprouting of feminism, I learned to change a tire, the oil, a filter. These things — plus I had more driving experience — gave me a closer relationship with this entity called an automobile.

In the same way in my late twenties as I continued to fill spiral notebooks in cafes all over Taos and to sit zazen in friends’ early-morning gardens and in my thick-walled adobe, I developed a connection with my mind. But like a juniper’s unhurried growth in the dry Southwest, the relationship matured slowly through the turning of many seasons.

Hallucinating Emeralds

In the late spring of 1978, as the green leaves finally broke through the heavy Midwest winter, I moved to Minneapolis to marry. I felt a new force in and around me. I walked the well-organized streets and city blocks and a desire woke: I wanted to record the writing odyssey I had been on and share with the world what I understood of practice and the mind. I was entrusting myself to marriage, why not commit my inner journey to the page? I would write a book!

I woke early and kissed my new husband good-bye. He was off to work. The morning sun splashed in the bedroom. I looked out the window: the street in front of our duplex was crowded with cars. Everyone had a job to go to — and suddenly I did, too! I rushed down to the Cedar-Riverside area of town and purchased a ream of white paper and a batch of fast-writing pens. Then I returned home and sat down behind a small wooden desk in front of a window in our living room to begin.

I wrote “when” in the upper left-hand corner of my page. Naa, I said to myself, you can’t start a book with that. I sighed and crossed “when” out. I stared out the window. Deep maples lined the street. A short woman walked by with a dachshund on a leash. He barked and in a flash the word “while” came to me. I grabbed my pen and jotted it down. I paused, nothing else came. I heaved a deep breath and struck “while” out.

C’mon, Nat, I coached myself, start with the most proletarian word you can think of. I wrote “the” below the two other scratched-out words. Ahh, now I have something, I thought.

Then I looked out the window again. I hallucinated emeralds in the trees. I stared down the marigolds in my neighbor’s yard and I cleaned my index fingernail with the cap of my pen. My eyes watered. The shadows shifted in the room. I was thirty years old, bored out of my skull. Two hours passed. A column of eight crossed-out words decorated a single page of paper. A day of writing was finished. I drifted over to the kitchen and made a shrimp-in-wine-sauce quiche for my new husband. This I liked. I had purpose; I felt alive again.

Copyright 2000 by Natalie Goldberg

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Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer's Craft 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
While this book is essentially a memoir of Natalie's life as a writer, there are tangible, useful clues plus decent and practical advice about how to move your writing to a higher level. True fans should appreciate this book as it represents a deep meditation of an honest and hardworking writer's mind. Like her earlier books on writing, this one again delivers in a series of essays, divided into three distinct sections. Considering the wide territory she attempts to cover, the chapters end up forming a more cohesive story than before. Believe it or not, Natalie is on to something here. To find the roadmap that is the promise of this book, you have to read carefully and not skim the pages looking for them. I recommend highlighting or bookmarking these passages so you can go back to them. Just 'Like Writing Down the Bones' and 'Wild Mind,' the ultimate lesson here is to take her advice and carve your own path. What I liked best about 'Thunder & Lightning' is how Natalie walks us through her journey as a writer. Like me, she started with no idea on how to write and made many attempts that lead nowhere. Although she occasionally covers old territory, there's a terrific and inspiring lesson here about what it takes to be a writer delivered the way only Natalie can. She also reveals her internal dialogue in dealing with her editors and bravely shows us the editorial revisions to original sentences from her various manuscripts. This should give anyone struggling with the writing process some measure of hope and consolation. I was a bit stymied when she advises *two* full years of regular writing practice to break through instead of the year she suggests in her second book. I wished she had explained why she's upped the ante.
TheBentley on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Outstanding as always. Goldberg is tremendously inspiring as a writing coach. I took one of her workshops years ago, and I still remember it well. It was definitely time for her to write a book about what to do with all that writing practice and how to turn it into something marketable. If you're a fan of Wild Mind (her best book, by far), you should try Thunder and Lightning. It isn't quite as leap-off-the-page inspirational, but it is much more practical and makes a nice companion book to Wild Mind.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Scarletfeather is a white shecat with black spots randomly o her body. She has violet eyes. A fluffy tail. She is kind loving shy loyal and hopes to have a mate someday (though not desperate) she loves kits and her favorite prey is sparrow. No crush obviously no mate or kits. Meet her to find out more
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
&bull;&bull;&bull;&bull;&bull; Blackdot &bull;&bull;&bull;&bull;&bull; <br> <br> ~ Age ; 15 moons. <br> &bull; Rank ; Young warrior. <br> ~ Decription ; A pure white shecat withone single black spot on her side with playful hazel eyes. <br> &bull; Personality ; Sweet , outgoing , adventurious , overpertective , caring , loving , kind - hearted , loyal. <br> ~ Mate / Crush / Kits ; None , but looking. / Just got here. / None , but wants some one day. <br> &bull; Signiture ; &#10023 Blackdot &#10023
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Is a bright happy somtimes dumd and can walk into trees shes always up for something that involes payback she has a strang lepord/tiger print on her her light gray fur and black stripes look odd with her amber eyes and short tail
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
&bull;&bull;&bull; Lightningstar &bull;&bull;&bull; <p> ~ Age: ... <br> ~ Rank: Leader <br> ~ Description: Handsome dark grey tom with a white/orange/yellow lightningbolt marking on his front right paw. Peircing but friendly blue eyes. <br> ~ Personality: Brave, Loyal, Kind, Gentle, Caring, Feirce in battle, Protective <br> ~ Mate/Crush/Kits: None, looking/ --- / None <br> ~ Signature: &starf Lightningstar &starf <p> &bull;&bull;&bull; Shadowclaw &bull;&bull;&bull; <p> ~ Rank: Warrior <br> ~ Desc: Handsome jet black tom with blazong green eyes. <br> ~ Personality: Meet me! <br> ~ Mate/Crush/Kits: None, wants/ --- / None <br> ~ Signature: &male Shadowclaw &male
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Name: Silverlife. Age: 13 moons. Looks: long soft feathery silver fur and leaf green eyes.