Goldberg is a long-time Zen practitioner, and her unique contribution is to blend Buddhist principles and practices with the writing life. The retreats she leads combining meditation and writing form the backbone of the book.
Goldberg’s expressed reason for writing this book is to record her retreat practices so others can use them, and this she does. In Part One: Basic Essentials, she describes her methods and the philosophy behind them: writing is for everyone, writing is a practice, writing retreats can be mostly silent and succeed. In Part Two: True Secret Retreat Essentials, she describes daily schedules and more details. (Reading lists and sign-up sheets for routine jobs shared, Zen-style, by students can be found in appendices.)
Part Three: Elaborations, tells retreat stories and provides some sample writing prompts for the reader. In Part Four: Encounters and Teachers, Goldberg describes more of her personal experiences and talks about teachers, authors, students. As the text progresses, more memoir appears.
In the introduction, Goldberg explains that the title “The True Secret of Writing” stems from a joke. Sometimes if a student is late, she will say, “I just gave the true secret of writing, and you missed it.” The joke is that there is no true secret; there is only the practice. And this Goldberg is willing to share in abundance.
Through her stories, Goldberg expresses truth as she understands it. “What is true? Maybe tomorrow I can sift down closer. What is essential? This practitioner’s life. Not to act and react, but to notice, to come close to ourselves--and others--close to all things. And also accept our mind where it is and meet it there.” (p. 160)
Goldberg sometimes comes off in her stories as the crazy Zen master. Spontaneously at a retreat she might say, let’s go walk outside in our bare feet (even in winter). Or she might jump and wave her arms while reading her favorite Zen poems. This is her training. If it’s not what you want in a writing teacher, best not attend her retreats. That doesn’t mean you won’t find her book interesting.
What Natalie Goldberg has done is present her retreat practice for anyone who wishes a sample it. I now feel like I have spent some time at a New Mexico retreat as an observer. I’m sure her methods and views are not for everyone, but I am also convinced anyone can learn something from her life’s journey and accumulated wisdom.