August 28, 2018 § 4 Comments
by Kelly Kautz
I discovered Natalie Goldberg’s book Writing Down the Bones at a bookstore when I was thirteen years old. I already considered myself a writer. As a child, I filled countless notebooks with stories of princesses and talking kittens. But by middle school, I found those stories meaningless. I didn’t yet have the words for the new narratives taking shape inside me. The book’s cover promised to “Free the Writer Within.” I shelled out my allowance and took it home
Goldberg’s writing rules were a stark contrast to the stuff I’d learned in school. Writing Down the Bones urged me to keep my hand moving, go for the jugular, don’t cross out.
Later I purchased Goldberg’s second writing book, Wild Mind. There I discovered that her writing rules applied to almost everything: tennis, sex, even daily life. Her memoir about Zen Buddhism, Long Quiet Highway, exposed me to a new spiritual practice. Thunder and Lightning taught me about the publishing process. Old Friend from Far Away helped me draft a memoir.
This June, Goldberg released her fourteenth book: Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home. It’s a cancer memoir, though Goldberg writes in the introduction that she never planned it that way. Friends discouraged it, fearing she’d spark a recurrence. But “the things we avoid have energy. If I ignored my suffering, the life of my writing would die.”
After a decade of lingering health issues, Goldberg is diagnosed with a rare and potentially fatal form of blood cancer: chronic lymphocytic leukemia, or CLL. The illness forces her to cancel a writing workshop in Europe. She asks two long-time students to teach in her place, then types a letter to attendees: “This is about practice. You signed up. Be there to sit, walk, and write. I will be there with you.”
While her students study writing and sip herbal tea, Goldberg begins infusion treatments at the Santa Fe Cancer Center. A longtime Zen practitioner, she finds the world of doctors and hospitals strange.
“I trusted acupuncture, homeopathy, naturopathy,” she writes. “These made sense to me, but cancer made no sense. I was out of my league. I had to drop all of my opinions, my likes and dislikes, and fiercely go into the belly of the beast, the white-coated medical world.”
Goldberg brings readers with her, giving a clear-eyed view of not just her own cancer but that of her partner, Yu-kwan, who discovers a lump in her breast the same time Goldberg is receiving infusions. The double diagnosis strains their relationship. Goldberg wonders, “Who’s going to take care of me?” But as Yu-kwan undergoes a mastectomy, Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home grows from a cancer memoir into a love story. With their mortality on the line, Goldberg realizes the true depths of her love: for her partner, for her writing, for the world.
Throughout the book, Goldberg pays homage to the long-deceased writers who inspire her work. She reflects on travels to Paris, where she placed a penny on the grave of Simone de Beauvoir. She visits Rome and the tombstones of Shelley and Keats. She wonders about William Faulkner: “Whatever he wrote, whatever agony he lived, whatever prize he won, he too is gone. Sure we remember him, but where is William Faulkner?”
Goldberg never receives an answer. After rounds of agonizing treatments and a bone marrow biopsy, she tries a new drug, ibrutinib, that sends the cancer into remission. To celebrate, she and Yu-kwan take a hiking trip they cancelled the year before. They visit the home of the Bronte sisters. Of them, only Charlotte Bronte lived to old age. Tuberculosis took the others: Anne at twenty-nine, Emily at thirty.
“The local Haworth public schools did not read their famous authors, the Bronte sisters,” Goldberg writes. “We don’t recognize the greatness in front of us. We all long for another story, another place. I was sixty-seven years old. That’s a lot more years than the Brontes live. Sixty-seven is a long time. How lucky I was.”
It would be easy to call Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home a reflection on mortality. But all of Goldberg’s books are reflections on mortality. We write to preserve fleeting moments. We write to grant our thoughts and experiences a life beyond our lives.
Goldberg’s books have been my constant companions for the past twenty years. They’ve guided me from a confused adolescence to a spiritual awakening, and through the practicalities of publishing and writing memoir. All the while, they reinforced this simple truth: “A writer gets to live twice. First we live, and then we write about what we have lived … Often the second time is the real life for a writer. It is then we get to claim our existence.”
As a longtime student of Goldberg’s work, I hope she has many more lifetimes to share before she joins the ranks of de Beauvoir, the Brontes, Faulkner. But it’s never too early to place a stone or a penny. To pay homage. To let them know, in Goldberg’s words, “in this tough world, that what they did mattered.”
Kelly Kautz is a writer and the manager of content at JPL. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Forbes, Salon, and other publications. She is at work on her first book, a memoir about dark family secrets. Follow her blog, The Skeleton Club, or find her on Twitter @kellykautz.