True Secret of Writing



A DECADE AGO, when I initially came up with the title “The True Secret of Writing,” it was a bit tongue-in-cheek. I’ve used that phrase when a student has come late to class: “Oh, Sheila, I’m so sorry. You just missed it—a moment ago I told the students the true secret of writing. I am only able to utter it every five years or so.” I’m teasing, but it gets the point across—be on time. This is your moment. Don’t miss it.

Of course, no one possesses the one single true secret. If someone says he does, run for the hills. It’s a dangerous idea. Life is not a commodity and is not singular but full of diversity.

For the past twelve years I have held weeklong retreats at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos, New Mexico, titled “The True Secret,” where we practice sitting meditation, slow walking, and writing throughout the day. People come because they want to write, but over the years I’ve realized that it’s not just writing that they want. They want connection; a spiritual longing drives them, a groping for meaning. Maybe they once read a single book—Diary of Anne Frank, Leaving Cheyenne, The Brothers Karamazov—that shattered them and they can’t forget it. Or they desire to speak the truth to their fathers. They want this connection through language, through words on a page. Other methods exist—tai chi, yoga, Tibetan Buddhism, retreats in nature—but their yearning manifests through writing. It also encompasses something larger than writing—after all, they could have gone to a creative writing program that so many colleges and universities offer.

I’ve extended these retreats to other places, Omega Institute in New York, Hollyhock in Canada, Upaya Zen Center and Vallecitos Mountain Refuge in New Mexico—under different titles. But the ones at Mabel’s are the model, my base for experiment, my home lab.

Over these many continuous years a rhythm has been established at Mabel’s and, with this repetition, I have been able to study the mechanical bones that best make up the week. The structure is easily applicable in other situations: to one full day, an hour in a public school class, or an afternoon at home. Individuals or a group of even two or three people can use it. Ultimately, you want to internalize this structure, so you carry it inside you, as a way to sustain and connect with your life.

I have been a Zen practitioner for many years so I naturally modified and modeled the writing retreats from the basic structure of formal Zen retreats. The True Secret is backed by a two-thousand-year-old tradition of practice. It is not simply a creative idea that Natalie, an individual, came up with willy-nilly. It’s the practice of a Western woman in her time and culture meeting head-on the masterminds of ancient Eastern Zen wisdom. And voilà—something fresh, yet rooted, has evolved.

Make no mistake: the practice in this book is not limited to any sect or religion or creative urge. It’s for everyone, and it can feed and enrich whatever religion, occupation, bent of mind, or situation you find yourself in.

The one important element that I have added to a traditional meditation retreat is writing. Thus, sitting, walking, writing, are all moments of practice. The quietest, deepest sits I’ve experienced have included writing. The writing helps to empty and settle the mind. We then can sink into a quiet pool, into silence, out of which all of those tumultuous thoughts were created in the first place.

In True Secret retreats, we do timed writings as an equal practice to sitting and slow walking. The bell rings, we sit; another bell rings, we walk; a third bell, the students pull out their pens and notebooks from under their mats and accept their minds as it comes to them on the page. The bell rings again and they read aloud what they have written. Another bell, they do slow walking again.

The classroom is set up as a zendo (a place to sit) with cushions (or chairs) lined along the four walls and an altar in one corner. (You could use chairs in rows if there are a lot of students and, of course, an altar is not necessary.) But whatever the form, “structure” is the modus operandi. If you have a good structure, you make room for the mind to drop deeper, the breath deeper, the writing deeper.

“Anchor your mind with your breath,” I repeat to the students. Then, I ask, “And how do we anchor the mind in writing?”

“With pen on paper,” they answer. And then, they always ask the question: “What about computers?”

“Even though we can drive, we have to continue to remember how to walk.” I answer, “A computer is fine, only it’s a different physical activity. A slightly different bent of mind comes out. Not better or worse. Just different.”

Handwriting is the first physical way we learned to write. Hand connected to arm, to shoulder, to heart. A computer is a two-handed activity. A different structure. For many people now it is the main writing tool. That’s okay, but what if we grow poor and can’t afford a computer anymore? Or our electricity gets cut off? This retreat is a training to write and reflect under all circumstances. When we are not always reliant on outside tools, we have a flexibility and freedom.

The meditation retreats of the seventies and eighties did not include writing practice. As many of us sat still, we played out over and over in our minds an upcoming wedding, a lost love, economic worries, raging sexual desire, a recent death. These were true concerns, but we couldn’t stop the compulsive repetition of thoughts. Coming back to our breath as a way to return to the present moment was often inadequate and we sat consumed by emotional scenarios of grief, hunger, anger, desire, regret, and resentment. Even though the idea behind sitting is to finally let go of thoughts, to stop burning in hell, often the sitting only aroused and increased our internal aggression, with no relief. A few determined souls managed to rip through their thoughts, but a lot of us continued to boil. Others just checked out and fell asleep on the meditation cushion.

Oddly, I still have great respect for this method. It was a great opening, our first meeting with the ancient monastic life of China and Japan. Though I never attained eternal peace from thoughts (which actually would be a misunderstanding of mind), I learned to sit still (a huge accomplishment in our fast society) and through that to receive and listen deeply, not only to a movie or song but also to hear the trees grow and be enfolded in silence. I learned structure—of a room, of a day, of a week, of time, and of the mind. And I learned about an intimacy in moment-to-moment life, a love I never knew possible and a larger vision of human reality.

The sixties generation, my generation, was willing to drop out of society and live extreme lives until we tore through to some raw truth, some hope of saving ourselves—and all sentient beings. This determined willingness of our generation helped to plant the dharma, the ground of reality, in America. A few rounded a corner, became priests, and made Zen into a career. But many of us spent years on the cushion as lay students until we were finally tossed out into the world, wondering what we’d been doing and what we should do now. Many felt the anxiety and stress of simply figuring out how to earn a living.

Since then the life of practice has changed. People are no longer willing to be so extreme. They demand a more integrative approach that includes work in the world, family life, and the new understandings in mind science and psychology. Writing practice offers just that. Including writing practice in your daily life cuts through repetitious, obsessive thinking. Writing down those scenarios, pouring out your immediate thoughts on the page, either wipes them out—they’re said, done, expressed—or helps you to make sense of them, integrating them into your synapses and muscles.

Right after we write in retreat, we read aloud our pieces with no editing or comments. People are always allowed to take a pass on reading their writing, but as the engine of accepting the mind roars louder, almost no one passes. They feel too much exhilaration in the freedom from the critic or editor, or what I call monkey mind, that mind that jumps around and never lands.

“When we listen to each other read, we are studying mind. Not good or bad,” I say. We get to hear the burning, roving thoughts of the people we are sitting with. Reading and listening brings us out of ourselves and we feel relief. We are not crazy. Others have all these wild thoughts, too. Sharing opens compassion and alleviates isolation. I am not alone.

In these retreats a person is backed into a larger world. You enter a larger mind as you bend over your notebook. Backed into a connection with all things, a glimpse at love through sorrow, through a glint off a glass or a step on gravel.

I uphold a different form of writing—a priori writing—before novels, short stories, essays, memoir. Writing practice grows strong spines, a confidence in your experience, a belief that your life is valuable (and through that a recognition of all life), an understanding of the mind, a writer’s most potent tool, and also an understanding of practice—how one creates. Not only do we do a retreat schedule, but we also sign up for jobs: sweeping the porch, filling water pitchers, ringing bells, lighting candles for the three sessions a day. We ground ourselves in the physical care of our environment.

Did I mention the retreats are in silence? Ten years ago silence was quite a gnarly subject: people were aghast at the idea. Now it’s been around and talked about, if not practiced.

I tell the students, “Don’t throw it all away with yada yada—talk, talk, talk. Hold your stories in your belly. Pour them onto the page. Later you can talk. Don’t diffuse your energy.”

Four years ago, at dinner on the first night of a retreat, before we were to go into silence the next day, a student was laying out, scene by scene, a play he planned to write, to three other students sitting around him. I knew he hadn’t written a word of it yet. I could tell because if he had he wouldn’t have been expounding on it.

I leaned over, fork in hand, and said with a smile, “Matthew, shut up.”

He was an old student who’d been coming to Mabel’s from New Hampshire for years.

He was startled, then embarrassed, and then laughed.

“They are all going to steal your great idea.” I put some lettuce in my mouth.

After students have attended a silent retreat, they say they will never go back to the workshops where students speak the whole time.

In the True Secret Retreats, we are silent during meals and breaks and mornings and evenings. The exception is when we read our writing aloud or have book discussions. I always assign two or three books for the students to read before they arrive for the week, among them Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner; Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe; Heat, by Bill Buford; The Florist’s Daughter, by Patricia Hampl; The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman; Native Speaker, by Chang-Rae Lee; Brothers and Keepers, by John Edgar Wideman. I have them read books because I want our practice of awareness to meet the world.

Literature tells us something real about our lives and reveals an aspect of awake, alive mind. My Zen teacher, Katagiri Roshi, once said, “Literature can tell the truth about life, but it can’t tell you what to do about it.” Practice roots itself in our actual suffering, in the bones of our writing, expressing our genuine life force. It does not need to be a magic perfect island of formal bowing and Japanese decorum and aesthetics.

When the students read Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, by John Lewis, I asked them why we’d read it before this retreat.

Nathaniel from Massachusetts responded, “Because Lewis and the other civil rights activists are sitting and walking, like us. They give us an example of how to do it in the world.”


On one particular August retreat on the last afternoon, we carpooled, keeping silence (though one car out of the eight sang gospel as they drove), passing sunflowers bobbing their heads along the two-lane highway, passing Herb’s Lounge, making a left over the bridge, following a dirt road along the Hondo River where it meets the Rio Grande in the ancient pink-cliffed gorge. We went there to swim, running upstream along the bank, then floating on our backs down with the current.

Some had never been in a live river. Three students had learned to swim, nervously anticipating this trip. They were more reluctant at first in new bathing suits (one is English and called hers a bathing costume).

The day before, it had rained hard, a summer monsoon in late afternoon, and the river was now ice cold. But practice cut through resistance. We didn’t think. We dived in.

After days of silent practice we experience each other more deeply. No busy words block our connection in the river. We can feel the new swimmers’ glee and pride as they float feetfirst. And we take pleasure in their pleasure. Our minds are soft enough to include the high blue sky, the crisp rippling water, the swallows’ nests hanging under a rock ledge, and the cedars along the shore. At this point in the week, practice resonates throughout our bodies and makes room to receive what is around us.

Driving back I thought, No one else is doing this—so intricately interweaving the practice of sitting and walking with writing, with literature. Some teachers are now adding a few sessions of writing in meditation retreats but the writing is still considered a separate activity. Not integral to the practice.

I’ve dedicated my life to this writing practice. Looking back at the long line of cars driving on the crooked dirt road out of the gorge, I realized that I needed to share these retreats—and the next phrase came, “before I die.” I feel an urgency. How can I help, knowing impermanence is at my back? What trace of this wild and woolly life—before cell phones, text messaging, fax, iPhones, Facebook—can I leave?

The structure in this book extends the practice from ten-minute timed writings I have taught for years into all the time in which you also live outside the notebook. But that time in the notebook creates an enduring power. To find your writer’s voice is to find your spine; it is to connect your breath of inspiration with the world’s breath.

Sometimes, I admit, I am hesitant to share: I feel half begrudging—“let them sit long hours like I did”—and half “I am afraid of watering down the teachings,” of creating an easy American hit before students move on to something else. But I’ve found out that that isn’t a fair assessment. It has been twenty-five years since my first book, Writing Down the Bones, came out and people continue to persevere with writing practice. Frankly, it has surprised and impressed me. Twenty years after the first workshops, students tell me they’ve had writing groups going all this time.

My job has been to take the ancient teachings and make them relevant. I have not diluted them but put them in an applicable form for our current life by putting writing into the heart of the practice. It’s how I can best honor those years in the zendo in Minnesota with my Japanese teacher—and many weeks of practice I did in other lineages from Thailand, Vietnam, and Burma.

Something stays alive because it can adjust, flex with the times. It also stays alive if it touches something elemental, essential in our minds.

Really there is no Zen. I use Zen as an excuse, an angle, a good structure that helps to expose the human heart, that big body of an undefined country. We all have an innate intelligence. How can we uncover it? Believe in it? Care about something as ephemeral as peace and make it our goal? To settle into the bosom of the world and watch dark and light play out—and as my old teacher Katagiri Roshi used to say, “not be tossed away,” to record it all on the page.

This book is Zen and not Zen. It is lay Zen; sitting and then stepping out into the suffering of the world—of Auschwitz, the Congo, Native Americans, your friends and family. It is also catching a taste of the joy—and lucky fun—that are possible.

A recent letter from a student summarizes the effect of practicing sitting and walking in order to create a solid foundation for the writing: “Once in a while I remember wading into the cold water, then finally plunging all the way into the Rio Grande, and I am reminded to dive into my notebook and keep going—like with the current—and as in meditation—to get to that space in my writing beyond monkey mind. I know the important part is to keep showing up, not the ‘where’ I get to. To slow walk, to keep meditation practice. Most of all I am reminded to let go. To let go of self-judgment. All people have something of value to voice.” Sit. Walk. Write. That’s the true secret.