Three Ways To Use Natalie Goldberg’s Teaching in Essay Writing

I, Debbie Merion, wrote this post on a slim twin bed in an adobe building at the Upaya Zen Center, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. A full moon was peaking though my window at 4:40 AM. The light on the bed next to me sat on a threadbare, wooden, bark-covered box that barely deserved the label “nightstand.” I was happy. I was about to start Day 4 of a 5-day writing retreat with  Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones, a book on zen and writing that has sold two million copies.

Natalie is one of my writing mentors and someone I’ve studied with for fifteen years.  I pass along Natalie’s sage advice through Essay Coaching ( to help students. Here is some advice to write strong essays quickly:

  1. How to Write Fast and Strong

“Set the timer for 10 minutes,” I recommend to students writing a draft, as I’ve learned from Natalie. Keep the pen moving, don’t stop, don’t worry about spelling, punctuation and grammar. Feel free to write the worst junk in America. And try to be specific. Say Chevy, not car. Sycamore, not tree.

“If you don’t keep writing during writing practice, there is a gap. Monkey mind enters and you never come back.” –Natalie Goldberg

Monkey mind is that part of your brain that says: This is dumb. You’re not doing it well enough. Nobody is interested. Go back to looking at Instagram or folding your laundry and forget about it.

When I speak to groups, I act out monkey mind:

“Everyone has thoughts, right? It’s almost impossible not to. And your hands work. So what is writer’s block? Why can’t your thoughts come down through your hands and onto the page the way you want? That’s because everyone has an editor. Your editor is like a troll under a bridge, helpful at times but not at others. And your editor lives in your elbow. An editor is fabulous when you have words on the page. Your editor helps you delete, add, move words around. But not yet! Use fast writing to keep your editor away until it’s time to edit.”–Debbie MerionDebbie Merion Workshop

I’ve calculated I can write about 400 words in ten minutes without stopping. An average college essay is 650 words. That means in an hour’s worth of ten-minute writing sessions, you could have more than enough words to edit down to a first draft of a college application essay.

  1. Read Your Writing Out Loud

When I work one-on-one with clients—either students or adults, and there is a draft, we usually start with the writer reading out loud. “Thank you,” I’ll say at the end. “How did that feel? What did you notice?”   Sometimes they’ll mention sentences that are clumsy, parts that don’t work but they don’t know why. Good. That’s a start. Then we talk about what to do.

In the True Secret of Writing, Natalie describes why we read out loud:

“The idea is to hear your own, naked, unedited voice.”–Natalie Goldberg

In college application essays, admissions officers listen for the student’s voice. Reading out loud not only helps you hear your own voice, it also helps you hear what is working and what isn’t, and edit accordingly.

  1. How to give nonjudgmental feedback

Parents want to help their college-bound high-school kids. I know this deep in my bones.  That’s why I started Essay Coaching—I was a befuddled mom who wanted to help my anxious daughter applying to college.  I knew how to write, but didn’t know how to help. So I give advice to parents, as well as student writers.

Here are three ways to help. The concept is that most writers know what’s wrong.  They just need to read out loud to hear the issues.  After a student reads his or her essay out loud, try any or all of the advice  in this list:

  • Listen and say thank you.
  • Listen and repeat phrases you remember.
  • Give feedback about your experience as a listener: “I was drawn in from the first sentence,” “I got confused here,” “I lost interest here,” “I loved this part because…” Note that this is nonjudgmental because you’re describing your own experience, NOT making a judgement like, “That was great!” or “Is that the best you can do?” or “Why don’t you change the word “got” to “received.” Note—this third method I learned from my MFA training and in other writing groups and workshops.

This year I’ll be attending three more writing retreats in a series with Natalie Goldberg. Assisting Natalie is Rob Wilder, humorous and brilliant author of Daddy Needs a Drink.  I recommend Natalie’s latest book to hear one woman’s journey through cancer,  Let The Whole Thundering World Come Home. I found this book inspiring. If you read it, look for a mention of a student from Ann Arbor.  That’s me. 🙂 I’m  grateful to have studied with Natalie since 2003.

More advice for parents. 

Need more assistance with writing your college application essay?  Would you like to work with an award-winning writer who helps businesses, authors and students tell their story in a compelling, meaningful way?  Write Debbie Merion: