Old Friend from Far Away 

by Natalie Goldberg

I once worked at a school for wanna-be life coaches, where I was surrounded by hundreds of self-help and motivational books. The students I saw every day (mostly middle-aged divorced women) were constantly trying to convince me of the life-changing benefits of reading Dr. Phil and The Road Less Traveled. I was skeptical. I gave a few of these recommendations a shot, but they were a disappointing mixed bag. Nothing compared to the inspirational doozy I read in college creative writing class, Natalie Goldberg's 1986 classic Writing Down the Bones. Dr. Phil's got nothing on Goldberg.

While Bones concentrated on writing fiction, Goldberg's newest instructional book, Old Friend from Far Away, dives into the practice of penning memoirs. Filled with pithy and funny chunks of advice, Goldberg's just as rousing as I remember: "[Writing] is not a diet to become skinny, but a relaxation into the fat of our lives." Even if you have absolutely no desire to write a memoir, you'll walk away from Old Friend filled with the strangest need to document the wrinkles of your life. Goldberg makes you feel like an aching hole has existed in your life unless you step up and start writing.

Not much in the way of a front-to-cover book, Old Friend from Far Away is an engaging, practical means to an end. Goldberg's short chapters range from writing exercises ("What are you not willing to reveal? Go, 10 minutes.") to motivational stopgaps designed to get you off your creative ass. Like: "If you're 30 years old, stop everything [and start writing]. You already have too much to capture. If you're 60 and your memories are fading, seven images—your mother's face, a cake from Ebinger's bakery, the feel of a football, a street you remember, the smell of gunshot, the first movie you loved, one time of heartbreaking sex—should fill a book." It's the sort of kindly enthusiasm that ensures a permanent reference place on your writing desk.

This isn't the dried-up crust of a "how-to" book. Goldberg's book is filled with stories from her life, excerpts and examples of great memoirs from Steve Almond to Allen Ginsberg, and practical—yet passionate—advice. She's like your favorite mentor, giving you gem after valuable gem as you jump headlong into the never-before-considered world of memoir.

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