While fleshing out my craft of writing shelves last year, I ordered a used copy of Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life. It was an add-on, an afterthought, really. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Writing Down the Bones. But how many more Buddhist-inspired writing vignettes do I need in my life? Let alone on an already crowded shelf, nestled between King’s sentimental On Writing, and Pressfield’s barking The War of Art*. I’m not even entirely clear on why I keep reading books on writing, since they’re all say essentially the same thing I already know (spoiler: writers write).
Nonetheless, the book arrived media mail from some shipper’s New Jersey warehouse, and when I opened the padded envelope, this is what I discovered:
Delicately inscribed on the inside cover, of all generic names, was John Miller. He’d stuffed the book full of post-it notes, scribbled in margins, and highlighted verses throughout. At first I was put off by the markings. But as I started reading Goldberg’s zen tales, along with John’s reactions, I became aware that he was another character I was responding to—wondering what he was writing about, why he chose certain passages to set apart, what he was hoping to accomplish with his careful annotations.
I could tell that he’d started skeptically, a lone post-it and a flag marking the exercises in the first few pages. Chapters One through Ten he was warming to, first with some sparse highlights. Warm up, he noted. Stay specific, he liked. You are safe, in yellow. He avoids Goldberg’s references to sex and the body, but writes, Be sensual, on a post-it as a reminder, as though he needs the reminder, truly.
It’s not until chapter 14 that a fire is lit—five yellow stickies and notes—The writing is the dance on the Sacred Ground, he declares. I realize John’s a deeply religious man and his notes liken free-writing to worship, musing that a well-written story has an inherent healing power in both the writing and telling.
There’s a woman in his life named Ann, and the very profound parts, he notes to read to her. I imagine them together on a porch swing together on a late spring evening. He tells her Goldberg’s story about how being immersed in your craft is inherently lonely, but that loneliness doesn’t have to equal despair. Ann misses him when he obsesses over his keyboard, but she grants him a thin smile, because she loves him. On Goldberg’s chapter on pleasure, Miller writes in the margins, solace, next to a highlighted sentence, “It’s good to begin from this place, for us to notice what brings us true pleasure.” He doesn’t mention Ann again in his notes, but at the top of Chapter 43, scribbles, Success is not love.
John’s own successes in writing have been a poor compensation, he notes in scrawling blue ink along the gutter, for the recognition he never received from his own parents—dead since he was a young man (...though we never had a chance to really know each other...). He could neither please them, or let go of his need for their approval. Yet he continued to write. He highlights Goldberg’s words, “Being a writer in our society is making a choice … outside the norm.”
If you’ve read Writing Down the Bones, there’s not a lot of new material in this one. Goldberg rehashes much of the same stuff in her same signature style. But this particular copy is precious to me. It was a guided journey through John Miller’s own Wild Mind. When I’m looking for inspiration and advice on craft, I find myself pulling it off the shelf, wondering what John found useful, what he found beautiful from Goldberg’s wisdom, and what that says about me.