Writing in a time 'beyond understanding'

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Somos has presented digital readings throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

N atalie Goldberg is the author of 15 books, including "Writing Down the Bones," which has sold over one million copies and started a revolution in the way we practice writing in this country.

In her memoir, "Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home," she shares her experience with cancer - grounded in her practice of Zen and writing. Her latest work, "Three Simple Lines: A Writer's Pilgrimage to the Heart and Homeland of Haiku," is due out in February 2021.

Barbara Mode Courtney enjoyed careers as a registered nurse and a small business owner before she turned her attention to writing. She is a student of Natalie Goldberg, from whom she learned writing practice.

The winner of the 2020 Porch Prize for creative nonfiction, her essay "Unplanned" will be published in The Nashville Review. The mother of three and the grandmother of a 1-year-old named Nettie, Courtney lives and writes on Martha's Vineyard.

Goldberg and Courtney will be reading on Zoom as a fundraiser for the Society of the Muse of the Southwest on Saturday (June 13), at 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 for SOMOS members, $15 for nonmembers at somostaos.org/calendar/#events. After registration, a Zoom link will be forwarded to participants.

Jan Smith, executive director of SOMOS, said, "Natalie Goldberg, formerly a Taos resident for many years and now living in Santa Fe, has been a loyal supporter of SOMOS for over three decades. Each year she volunteers to read from her recently published writing as a fundraiser for SOMOS. She has influenced a large number of writers in the Taos area who have become well-known authors in their genres. She is an invaluable resource for both beginning and advanced writers."

We spoke with both Goldberg and Courtney and asked them some questions.

How has quarantine affected your life and work? Have new themes emerged in your writing?

Goldberg: Right now I feel I'm writing to stay sane. I write almost every day, go, two sides of two pages. It has really helped. I'm not teaching now and I keep thinking, oh, so this is why the students love writing practice so much. It goes wherever you need it. Right now I need it to stay in touch with my mind and to stay sane. The writing theme is probably repetitious: I can't believe this is happening -- and it keeps getting worse.

Courtney: I was in Taos and then traveling in New Mexico until mid-March. I self-quarantined for 14 days when I returned to Martha's Vineyard and have been sheltering in place since then. The idea of having 14 days to read and write sounded so great. And then I found that I was completely unable to focus on either of those things.

Martha's Vineyard is an island whose economy depends on tourism. The pandemic has had a huge impact. So in the beginning, my writing was a way to process things. To work out business solutions. To write about the best- and worst-case scenarios and see how they felt. From quarantine, I've learned that writing practice is a tool that can be used in every situation that you're presented with in life. That having the page to come back to, and offering it whatever you have, is a great gift.

How have you been passing the time?

Goldberg: Gardening, a little painting, writing. I meet a small group in a park and do tai chi, hiking -- a lot of hiking. Talking with friends. Walking around the house in a daze. It's a little like when I had cancer -- this time is beyond understanding, we are just all in it. May we take care of each other and stay healthy and heal the great suffering of this country and what is happening because of injustice and racism.

Courtney: My days begin with a walk on the beach. I'm usually there around 6 a.m. and there's a group of five of us who show up around the same time. We don't walk together, but we greet each other and we've formed what feels like a kind of community. I look forward to seeing these women every morning and sometimes they're the only people I'll see all day. We check in.

Have you done Zoom readings before? How are you preparing for it?

Goldberg: I haven't done Zoom readings, but I have given Zoom talks and they feel extraterrestrial, I'm here but no one else is and when it's done I'm sitting in my house and never moved. I miss the physicality of feeling humans listening but it's better now than nothing at all.

Courtney: I did a short Zoom reading for an event where the winner of the contest was announced. This will be my first time reading this essay on Zoom or anywhere else. I stand in front of my bathroom mirror and read aloud to myself. Fortunately, I live alone in the middle of the woods!

Anything you'd like to share about your co-reader?

Goldberg: I'm excited to read with Barbara. She just won a big prize for an essay and I think she will read the essay and I look forward to that.

Courtney: Without sounding too dramatic, I will say that Natalie's work has the ability to transform lives if you're willing to let that happen. That when she talks about "cracking open" that's a real thing that I experienced.

And finally, anything you'd like Tempo readers to know about you?

Goldberg: I miss coming up to Taos, visiting friends, playing ping pong with Tania Casselle and Sean Murphy, going to some of your great restaurants.

Courtney: It feels like coming full circle to have learned about writing practice in Taos and now to come back (virtually at least) to read something that came from that practice. On the day when I sat in a circle of women in Taos and put my pen to page for the first time, I never would have imagined this. I'm grateful to SOMOS for this opportunity. Natalie reminds me to feel the joy in success and then to use that to continue. I'm writing more than I ever have. I have a new energy about it now.

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