This is the title of a book by Natalie Goldberg that I recently picked up at the libary, attracted by the title, and thinking it would be full of inspirational tales along the lines of Edison, who produced 10,000 crappy light bulbs before inventing the one that worked.
Natalie Goldberg is at her best as a teacher of both writing and zen and of writing as a spiritual discipline and practice. I first encountered her books around 20 years ago. Writing Down the Bones was all the rage in writing groups and of course, being contrary, I avoided it for a few years and then read both that one and Wild Mind (basically a re-run of Bones, but enjoyable). I found them invigorating, and loved the spiritual aspect, though her favourite methods didn’t work for me.
The Great Failure, however, isn’t about writing nor is it about failure as a path to success. It’s a memoir about the two important men in her life and their failure to maintain appropriate boundaries, resulting in abuse of their positions, one as father, the other as teacher. It’s a divided book, not only in its subject matter, but in the success of the portraits.
Her portrait of her father is nuanced and vivid. He was, as one would say in Yiddish, “a grober yung,” a boor (literally “a gross boy”). He had little boyhood himself, and was little cared for. As a man he was crass and oblivious to his crassness. He commented on his pubescent daughter’s body, he held her too tight, he made her uncomfortable enough to avoid being alone with him. A bartender, he had no understanding of his adult daughter’s career as a Buddhist teacher, but he was earthy and without pretension.
During a visit to her home in the southwest, he sat outside to watch the sunrise at her command. When she asked him what he thought of it, he was nonplussed; it was a sunrise, it happens every morning. On another occasion she tried to teach her parents to meditate. After ten minutes of silence, she asked him if he’d noticed how busy the mind was, how many thoughts flit through it. He said he hadn’t thought at all, not a single thought. What was it like for him, she asked. It was like it always is when nobody is talking or doing anything, he said.
He was loud, he was busy, he was vigorous, he was insulting, a grober yung who loved his daughter with all his heart. His simplicity, his complexity, and her forgiveness for all of it comes through vividly.
It stays with me. And I envy her this possibility of forgiveness because, although her father failed in many ways it was out of ignorance, not intention, and there is all the difference in that.
Her portrayal of her teacher, Katagiri Roshi, a zen master and founding abbot of the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, while sincere lacks the vibrancy and understanding she has for her father. Katagiri’s motivations and feelings in carrying on secret affairs with students are unknowns that Goldberg tries to fill in with guesswork. Her guesses are sometimes plausible and sometimes, for me, dubious. And the situation is different in another way; he was her teacher not ever her lover. The wounds are wounds of disillusion, and as disappointing as the disillusion is, it is a surface wound compared to what she experienced as a daughter.
Perhaps better writing comes out of deeper wounds. I wonder what, as a teacher herself, she would say about that.