Philip Goldberg answers the question:
What is the nicest thing a non-family member has ever done for you?
Well, Phil, I knew you would ask and so I actually spent more time than I should have thinking about this. And I kept thinking of incredibly generous things people have done and they seemed beyond the word “nice.” And then the other day someone was asking me how it was I came to start writing professionally. And I told a story and I realized there were two very nice things that people did for me that led directly to my writing professionally. So I'm going to tell you those, okay?
It was the early seventies and I was in New England teaching transcendental meditation. I had spent a few years in my twenties teaching TM and working for that organization at the sort of height [of its popularity], post-Beatles going to India and learning to meditate and all that. It was a sense of mission that I had, and it was incredibly satisfying. And I felt privileged to do it, but I also knew it wasn't what I was going to do forever.
And I didn't know what else to do or how to earn a living. But in the back of my mind was always... I wrote well. I was always interested in a million things, moving around, changing majors and fantasies about careers. But the one consistent thing was, I would always get complimented on my writing — and there was a part of me, because I love books that thought, really, maybe I could be a writer. But it was not a conscious career choice, I probably at the time thought it was a fantasy or maybe something I'd eventually do. But it was haunting me and I kept thinking one of these days I have to really put some effort into being a writer.
And one day, I had taught a couple... a husband and wife in Massachusetts to meditate, and I'd gotten to know them. The wife was a well-known psychiatrist. The husband was a famous writer, a playwright. All right. I might as well mention it. He was William Gibson, who wrote The Miracle Worker among other things. And I got to know them and they were very warm and friendly. And I had written a short story for a class that I took in creative writing a year or two earlier. And I had the thought, I should get Bill to read my story... tell me whether I have any talent, maybe give me some feedback.
So one day I started dropping hints, because I was afraid to ask him to do it. But I must have been so obvious with my hints and telling him, “Oh, I like to write,” and all this stuff. And he suddenly stopped and said, blew my mind, he said, "I'm not going to read your story." And I pretended that it was the furthest thing from my mind. I had no idea how he knew I wanted that, but I must've been very obvious.
But he knew I was lying and he said, "Let me tell you why I'm not going to read your story." He said, "Because everybody has a story in there. And people take writing classes and they write something, a vignette from their past and think it's a good story. And I'm asked to read these things all the time. I think it's possible that you have writing talent. Because I've heard you give public talks and you have a way with words. But I can't take you seriously with one story. And I don't want to waste my time or yours. If you have four stories or five, then I'll read it, because then I'll know you have more than a way with words, you have a predilection, you have an inclination to actually write. Because there's a big difference between somebody who can write well and write coherently, and someone who is a writer. If you want to be a professional writer, then you have to be able to sit” — in those days, pre-computer — "sit at a typewriter for long periods of time, during which you may pass many minutes or hours writing nothing, but just making notes, making little edits, maybe moving one thing, one sentence, one paragraph from one place to another. And you have to be able to do that in draft after draft after draft, and like it and find it fulfilling. Otherwise you can't be a professional writer. So when I know you have that in you as evidenced by more than one story, then I'll read it, and I'll give you all the time you need, and I'll coach you and I'll do anything I can to help you because I'll know you could be a real writer."
And I walked away from that meeting flabbergasted and terrified, because it was like, Oh my God, what if I can't do that? What if I don't have what it takes? Maybe someday I'll find out and I have to find a way to write more than that one story. But it stuck with me and in retrospect it was one of the nicest things anybody ever did for me. Because in my mind the nice thing for him to have done would have been to read my story, but he did something even nicer. He told me what it would take to be a professional writer. And I never forgot it.
A couple of years later I was still teaching meditation and I found myself in the TM center in Cambridge, where I used to hang out, speaking to a guy who was sort of the supervisor for the East Coast. And he was opening his mail, and in the mail was a letter from an editor at a now-defunct publisher called Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. And that editor had in mind a book about transcendental meditation, which had been getting publicity at the time. And so she asked that, my friend, Charlie, if he had any people who knew the subject well and could write. He gave me that letter and said, “You should follow up on this, if you feel like you could write a book.” And I did.
And I always credit Charlie for doing a very nice thing for me because I followed up and I met with the editor, and I ended up with a tiny book contract to write what turned out to be my first book. It was one of the early books on TM. And I was incredibly grateful for the opportunity. Because suddenly I was under contract to write a book, and I remembered Bill Gibson and what he said, and I thought, My God, this isn't four short stories. It's a couple hundred pages I have to turn out. Can I do it? I panicked and I was nervous and I thought of backing out, but I didn't. I signed the contract and I got my little advance, and I sit down to write the book. And lo and behold, I was able to do all those things that Bill Gibson had told me a professional writer had to do. I was primed. I didn't know if I could do it, but I knew what had to be done.
And the critical thing was I remembered what he said, that you have to be able to do these things and essentially not find it agonizing, but find it in some way fulfilling, to do those things that are required to write a book, or write whatever you write professionally. And I did, and it was published, it sold about 10 copies, but at least I had done it. I sent a signed copy to Bill Gibson, and I said, "This is not four short stories, but I hope it suffices."
So those two nice things made it possible. I mean, who knows what might have happened if those two people had not done those nice things, I probably would have ended up writing anyway. But it launched my career at that time.
But I have to do the writer thing and tell you the punchline. After that book was published and didn't sell very much, I wanted to continue being a writer. I had another book idea, and I had a proposal, and I got an agent, and she was trying to sell it, and nobody was buying, and I was totally broke, and I didn't know what to do.
And I had confidence somebody would buy that book, but it wasn't happening, I had no money. And I had to resort to selling TV guide subscriptions as a telemarketer. So one day, because in those days, long-distance calls cost money, I called Bill Gibson long distance from where I was in Pennsylvania. And I told him my dilemma, I wanted advice. I said, “What should I do, Bill?” He said, “Well, you obviously have talent and you have what it takes to be a writer. You have to stick it out. And he told me that he was in his forties by the time he had a hit play. And in the meantime, he had two children, which I didn't have. So he said, "There's precedent for these struggles, but stick it out, and maybe you'll have a success like I did, but it came late." And I said, "Thank you, Bill, that's very nice. But what do I do in the meantime?"
And he said, “Do what I did,” and I can, to this day, remember reaching for a pen, because I was about to get the word from a real professional writer. I said, "What did you do, Bill?" And he said, "Marry a doctor." And that wasn't a nice thing to say. But the other advice was. And 40 years later, my wife went back to school and became a doctor of Chinese Medicine. And unfortunately, I could never tell Bill because he had passed by then. That's my story, Phil. Those were nice things that were done for me. I will never forget them and I'm always grateful for it.
Philip Goldberg is the author or co-author of numerous books; a public speaker and workshop leader; a spiritual counselor, meditation teacher, and ordained Interfaith Minister. He lives in Los Angeles, cohosts the Spirit Matters podcast, leads American Veda Tours, and blogs regularly for Elephant Journal and Spirituality & Health.
His award-winning book, American Veda, explores how India’s spiritual wisdom seeped into America’s cultural bloodstream. Click here to read brief excerpts from American Veda regarding the distinction between traditional philosophy and spirituality.
Philip’s biography of Paramahansa Yogananda, The Life of Yogananda: The Story of the Yogi Who Became the First Modern Guru, is now available in paperback. Click here to order your copy. His latest book, Spiritual Practice for Crazy Times, will be published in August.
Click here to visit Philip’s website.