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Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir

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In her first book to focus solely on writing since her classic work Writing Down the Bones, Goldberg reaffirms her status as one of the foremost teachers by redefining the practice of writing memoir.

309 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2002

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About the author

Natalie Goldberg

47 books1,064 followers
Natalie Goldberg lived in Brooklyn until she was six, when her family moved out to Farmingdale, Long Island, where her father owned the bar the Aero Tavern. From a young age, Goldberg was mad for books and reading, and especially loved Carson McCullers's The Ballad of the Sad Cafe , which she read in ninth grade. She thinks that single book led her eventually to put pen to paper when she was twenty-four years old. She received a BA in English literature from George Washington University and an MA in humanities from St. John's University.

Goldberg has painted for as long as she has written, and her paintings can be seen in Living Color: A Writer Paints Her World and Top of My Lungs: Poems and Paintings. They can also be viewed at the Ernesto Mayans Gallery on Canyon Road in Sante Fe.

A dedicated teacher, Goldberg has taught writing and literature for the last thirty-five years. She also leads national workshops and retreats, and her schedule can be accessed via her website: nataliegoldberg.com

In 2006, she completed with the filmmaker Mary Feidt a one-hour documentary, Tangled Up in Bob, about Bob Dylan's childhood on the Iron Range in Northern Minnesota. The film can be obtained on Amazon or the website tangledupinbob.com.

Goldberg has been a serious Zen practitioner since 1974 and studied with Katagiri Roshi from 1978 to 1984.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 182 reviews
Profile Image for Emma Sea.
2,185 reviews1,065 followers
May 16, 2016
I’ve been doing Julia Cameron’s morning pages since November last year. The idea is that you freewrite three pages: anything - everything - that comes to mind. In February I felt I was ready to move on to some morning writing that was a bit more structured, and use some prompts.

I love Natalie Goldberg’s books on writing. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language, and Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life have been important books for me. So I ordered Old Friend From Far Away in paperback, to use each exercise as a prompt for writing every morning. The book layout is perfect for this. The exercises are thoughtful. Some are a single line. Some are a couple of pages. They delve into simple domestic actions like washing dishes, that speak so much. All of them made me depressed.

I didn’t realize this until I’d been using the book for two weeks and found myself in that familiar mental space where my daily word counts get lower and lower and I start to wonder why I do anything at all because the world would be a better place if I just stayed in bed all day. Or maybe lay down under a tree for a few years until the roots grew through me.

It’s because so many of the exercises are designed to take you back to your time as a child. And even if they weren’t designed that way, for me, they just did.

I mean, memoir. It covers your whole life, including childhood. It’s obvious, right? I guess I just hadn’t thought enough about it. What was I expecting?

I’m still recovering from my childhood. I know that’s something I have in common with a lot of people. I have a forest of pain writhing just under the my skin. If you scratch me only a tiny bit the tendrils burst out and wrap around everything.

My mom got pregnant when she was in high school. She ran away to be with my dad, but he drove her back home and dropped her off in front of her house. She’d believed all the lines about “I love you. Of course we’ll always be together.” I didn’t meet him until I was in my 30s. I’d had a tumor removed from my breast in my 20s and I was worried about not knowing all of my family medical history, so I looked him up in the phone book and emailed him. I wish I hadn’t. There was nothing healing about the experience. He’s a dick.

When I was born my grandparents wanted to send me to an orphanage (remember when orphanages were a thing?) but my mom refused to sign the papers. So my grandparents “took us in.” My grandmother made sure I knew both of these facts growing up. It was made very clear to me that the people I lived with weren't the people I belonged with. They weren’t my family. I was there because life threw you shitty stuff like illegitimate bastard grandchildren, and you just had to cope with that as best you could.

I’ve written about my grandmother before. We have a very complex relationship. I have five cousins, but I’m the only one who pays for her residential care home, her brandy, her coffee, her Red Door perfume, the one who takes her shopping, the one who the nurses phone when she falls and needs to get an X-ray. Because it’s just an acknowledged fact within the family that she took me in, so I need to repay her for putting a roof over my head, clothes on my back, and meals in my belly for all those years. And wow, they were beautiful clothes, I gotta admit. She showered me with clothes. She’d pick outfits from the department store where she worked and bring them home for me. It was very important I was dressed better than the other children in the neighborhood, because I was naturally less than, so I needed to try harder if I was to be almost as good.

And she needed me to be almost as good. Needed it like water. Because life is a wheel that can’t be halted. She’d been illegitimate too. Her mother ran away to Australia with her father while he was married to someone else. Only when his wife died could they come home to New Zealand, although her father’s family still disowned them. They arrived as the Great Depression hit. They lived in a two-room shack with another family. She had to leave school at 14 and get a job. She got pregnant to a visiting air force cadet. They got married. He ditched his new bride at his family’s remote farm and went back to training. She had no electricity, no money, and her new mother-in-law for company: the mother-in-law who had not been informed about the wedding until her new pregnant daughter-in-law arrived.

It took twenty years for my grandmother to claw her way out and into a life she could stand. I’ve never met a stronger willed woman. And then the wheel turned and my mom got pregnant. God, the pain that must have caused my grandmother...

The truth is she did take us in. She could have walked away from my mom and me. No one would have blamed her at the time. It cost her greatly, in all ways; monetarily, personally, and socially. She did her best to hide from the world that I was of less value than other people.

I just kind of wish she’d tried to hide it from me, too.

I accept that I’m permanently broken, the pieces held together with a laquer made of degrees, paper, and words. And it works, you know? Broken isn’t valueless; broken is beautiful.

I walk around and get stuff done. I successfully raised a child better than I had been raised. I take my depression meds. Most days I do not cry. I practice Stoicism. I accept loss and do not fear it. I choose the future over the past, action over remembrance. I choose to mindfully create the life I want through small but consistent acts every day.

But waking up in the morning and reading prompts like “Where is home for you? Go. Ten minutes” (p. 24)… welp, it does not help me achieve my goals. It’s like the words are picking at the joins in my sense of self with rusty dentists’ tools, whispering my darkest thoughts to me. This book made me begin my days with misery and self-loathing, and this is not the way I choose to live my life.

I literally tossed the book in the garbage. It has already been collected and pulped.

This is an amazing book… for people with happy childhoods. I recommend it if you’d like to delve into the recesses of your memories and pull out meaning. But some people should not try to write memoir, even for ten minutes. I’m one of those people, and I’m more than okay with that.
Profile Image for Joel Friedlander.
Author 25 books481 followers
October 21, 2011
It took me 6 months to "read" this book. How come? Almost every page is an exercise in reconstructing your own memories of your life and the people you've met along the way.

I decided to work through all the exercises and it turned into a truly transformative experience. I think if you're interested in memoir, in telling your own story but you need help getting started, or if your writing seems to "lack juice" this book is for you.

Through writing exercises and memory-enhancing writing prompts, Natalie leads you gently into your own past to reveal the truths you haven't even realized yet.

Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Rachel.
252 reviews36 followers
February 10, 2017
Natalie Goldberg saved my writing life. Stuck in the depths of writing block despair - the longest and bleakest I had ever experienced - I grabbed this off the shelf at my local bookstore. Two pages in, I felt a ray of light break through the thunderhead surrounding me. I ran out and bought a new notebook. I sat down and wrote five pages without stopping.

Writer's block DEMOLISHED.

Been writing well and without blockages ever since.

I love Natalie method of "zen writing". It's easy to identify with and the prompts and advice she provides in this book are a fantastic way to not only get the ball rolling on a memoir, but also to help you delve into the core of what you are truly trying to get out of yourself.

I adored this book. /end gushing.
8 reviews4 followers
January 27, 2009
I have finished the exercises for the first two sections of Old Friend, which I'm using as a text in my class, Writing Practice, Memory, and Memoir. I'm keeping a separate notebook for this work, although most of the topics have lead me back to the book I'm writing--but with angles and insights I wouldn't have otherwise reached. I actually conceived this class so I'd do the exercises in Old Friend, because I didn't have the discipline to do them on my own. Nothing like accountability to get you moving your pen across the page. I told students not to worry if they didn't get to every topic by the time of our next class, but that they should tackle those topics they had the most resistance to. One student began a write by whining about the topic, "I remember," which is the backbone of the book. After venting for several lines, she landed in the most remarkable material from her childhood.

So far I like teaching from this book. I'll update this review when we're done.

Profile Image for Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance.
5,831 reviews284 followers
February 22, 2023
Another book I picked up because the author is beloved. Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones was the first book I read about writing that inspired me. I’ve read all her books since then (including one very disappointing novel) but nothing’s clicked with me like Bones. This book was close; I felt a click here and there. Old Friend is fundamentally an expanded Bones. It has lots of fun exercises for those who are suffering from writer’s block. I’d like to keep it a little longer and try more of the exercises.

Second Read:
I'm taking a memoir writing class this semester, and this book is perfect for the class. Happily, I now have this book on my Kindle.
Profile Image for Inder.
511 reviews72 followers
April 25, 2008
I just finished reading this book this morning. Now that I've read it, I need to work through it. Which I am very much looking forward to, because, oh, what a lovely little guide! Some of the best writing I encounter is actually writing about writing. Which makes sense if you think about it - why would you follow advice from a badly written book about writing?

Natalie Goldberg does not disappoint - she is as funny, down to earth, succinct, and harsh, as ever. This book is inspiring in the best way - makes you wish you weren't on BART reading, but were, instead, in a cafe with a notebook - makes you want to pick up a pen and go. Shut up and write, just like she says.
Profile Image for Heidi.
90 reviews5 followers
July 26, 2008
The same, old, stuff from Natalie Goldberg. Wordy personal narrative disguised as less than inspiring ten-minute writing exercises. I think of something Amy Hempel said in Paris Review a few years ago - that being "writerly" can overshadow what you are trying to say. "Sometimes, the door is just "open", she said.

"Write everything you can think of about the Fourth of July" just doesn't excite me. I'm passing this on.
Profile Image for Janet.
2,041 reviews19 followers
September 19, 2008
Great book. I'm going to buy it. I never buy books. It's out in paperback 3/10/09. I can wait.
Profile Image for Aaron West.
169 reviews2 followers
July 14, 2022
Natalie Goldberg immediately caught my attention with her refreshing tone and artistic clarity in this book about writing memoir.

I recommend the book for anyone attempting to find prompts to write about their lives and fully lean in to experiencing life to the fullest as a writer. I’ve already bought this book for three others.

Go forth and write!
Profile Image for Angel .
1,360 reviews46 followers
August 23, 2010
I liked this book, but as I was reading it through, it was not easy to handle. The reason is that this is a book meant to be read, and for people to do the writing exercises. I constantly wanted to stop and do some writing, but since I was borrowing the book (from my library), I could not stop. I would definitely buy a copy of this book for myself at some point. I remarked in one of the updates that I still liked Writing Down the Bones better, and I can say that statement is still accurate. That other book seemed more primal; this one is good, but it seems a bit more refined, which is not necessarily a bad thing. For aspiring writers, and I think even for veteran writers, there are a lot of good writing exercises and ideas. The book's focus is on writing memoir, but it is still applicable to other forms of writing. I think the only reason I did not give it five stars is that some of the illustrative passages (like an excerpt from this or that) seemed either a bit long or not as engaging (to me at least), but that is a minor thing. Overall, if you want to get writing, and you want to do so with minimal nonsense or fluff, then this is a good book for that. If you have read the author before, you know what you are getting. If not, this is a good place to start. Now, go read it, and then go grab pen and paper (or your keyboard), and write.
Profile Image for Kristin Mooney.
45 reviews5 followers
May 5, 2023
If you read this and don't want to write, get a doctor.

Reading this book made me want to write. It made me want to read. It made me want to live. To write a book about writing, you must love living. Understand and celebrate all of its textures. Goldberg clearly does that. I love that she wrote this at 60 because it reads like a 20-year old who cares about everything and nothing. The words cackle with energy.

Even if you don't want to write a memoir, read this book. Goldberg is the John Madden of writing coaches, but instead of dropping and giving 50 push-ups, you will want to stop, grab a pen, and write like your hair is on fire.

My only critique is the cover. You read this book, flip it over, and expect to see bombs exploding or passionate kissing. Instead, it is a lonely woman walking down a winter-kissed street. But perhaps Goldberg would say that is the point. All lives are filled with war and love. It might look different, but memoir shares the same general truths that make up the human experience. Maybe a lonely walk in the winter is just as titilating as an illicit love letter.
Profile Image for Taylor Church.
Author 4 books16 followers
May 31, 2016
I just love this author, so I'm going through her bibliography book by book. Each one talks about writing, creativity, and life. But they don't seem redundant to me. Her voice is so real and humorous that I would read anything she writes.

This book does however focus on writing about your own life in the form of memoir. Being a memoirist myself I find her words inspirational and helpful. She lives and dies by her "writing practice" which I'm finally (4 books later) starting to implement into my own routines.

Don't start with this book. But if you read Natalie's other books about writing, don't be shy about starting this one.
474 reviews9 followers
May 27, 2009
"This revolution in personal narrative that has unrolled across the American landscape in the last two and a half decades is the expression of a uniquely American energy: a desire to understand in the heat of living, while life is fresh . . ."

au contraire --- it is because we are a country of self-absorbed, egotistical narcissists.

Ms. Goldberg has not only jumped on the bandwagon, she's now driving it.
Profile Image for Annalisa.
124 reviews28 followers
January 6, 2020
La Goldberg intrattiene anche quando scrive di niente. Me lo son letta in inglese, scorrevolissimo ed interessante.
Profile Image for Elise.
857 reviews64 followers
May 21, 2022
I guess the fact that I have used this book for years to teach memoir writing speaks for itself. Great writing prompts!
Profile Image for Emily Crow.
1,103 reviews62 followers
December 12, 2015
I like Goldberg's friendly and inviting approach to writing, but I already have Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind, and this book contains mostly the same advice. Worth a read but glad I got it from the library. If it's your first book by Goldberg, though, you'd probably get a lot more out of it.
Profile Image for Uglyoldwitch.
59 reviews4 followers
April 25, 2010
I am using this along with Christina Baldwin's "Life's Companion" as a teaching tool for two of my memoir writing classes. I love Natalie Goldberg's style, the way she can go from hysterical to dead-ass serious in a single sentence...
Profile Image for Diana.
Author 3 books29 followers
November 4, 2019
This book is an absolute delight! Rich in content and humor, and filled with writing prompts and useful reading recommemdations. A must-read for any aspiring memoir writer; fiction writers and poets may benefit from it too.
Profile Image for Brent Jones.
Author 11 books16 followers
January 17, 2019
Natalie Goldberg said of her book “Old Friend From Far Away”: “The experience I’ve had with writing this book has deepened over the months. Continually accessing my own storehouse of memories, I’ve found that the things usually lost in the busyness of day to day life have instead become part of my life now, enriching me tremendously. The practice itself has become the end, the reason for doing it.”

The book offers new perspective on memoir suggesting that it doesn’t have to be confined to one place, or series of events, but can be organized around themes in your life, challenges you have faced, and recurring patterns. Rather than teaching how to write a memoir it shows how to recover your memory through the practice of writing.

Goldberg tells us that to “write memoir, we must first know how to remember. Through timed, associative, and meditative exercises, the book guides you to the attentive state of thought in which you discover and open forgotten doors of memory.”  

She uses writing to explain how we can learn to connect with our senses in order to find the detail and truth in our memories.  We not only learn to find the truth but how to free ourselves from our past and change the way we think of ourselves and our lives. Thirty plus years ago her book “Writing Down The Bones” sold over one million copies and broke ground writing about with its view of writing as a Zen practice and this book still holds that view.

This is not a how to book but a book about who we are that is well worth reading. For more on this book and this author see https://connectedeventsmatter.com/blo...
Profile Image for Michelle Monet.
Author 10 books32 followers
January 1, 2018
I love Natalie Goldberg! I have read her other books 'Wild Mind' and 'Writing down the bones'. I'd say this one was similar but not as resonate as the other two. Still, I always get the jolt of inspiration and creative zest after reading all of her books! I especially love her thoughts on rule breaking. Writers must do this! Thanks Natalie for the shot in the arm today as I write my memoir.
Profile Image for Sara.
611 reviews
August 11, 2016
This is not what I expected, but I really enjoyed it. Goldberg is a very good writer and writing teacher, so her thoughts on memoir writing are gold. The book is almost entirely made up of writing prompts, which are excellent, but I wish she had included more of her thoughts about memoir as a genre.

I'd highly recommend this to anyone interested in memoir writing, but beware that this is not a "sit down and read" book - it's meant to be used as a guide to remember and WRITE your own material over time (it'd take at least a few months to go through this properly).
Profile Image for Bryan Whitehead.
448 reviews4 followers
April 26, 2020
I greatly enjoy Natalie Goldberg’s books about writing. Though she can be a little “non-linear” at times, her meditative approach to the craft and excellent writing prompts provide consistently good inspiration. In this text she takes on the subject of memoir. Though this isn’t a style of writing I personally want to pursue, I nonetheless found her suggestions thought-provoking.
Profile Image for Tiina Mahlamäki.
774 reviews22 followers
July 25, 2019
Natalie Goldberg on yksi tunnetuimmista luovan kirjoittajien ohjaajista. Hän on kirjoittanut lukuisia kirjoitusoppaita, joita luetaan ympäri maailmaa ja on käännetty useille kielille. Oppaissa on useimmiten muutamat samat periaatteet, samankaltaisia tarinoita sekä kirjoitusharjoituksia.
Goldberg asuu Uudessa Meksikossa, joten hevoset ja vuoret kuuluvat itsestäänselvästi osaksi hänen kirjoittamistaan. Lisäksi hän on vuosikymmeniä harjoittanut zen-meditaatiota, ja hänen mielestään kirjoittaminen on yksi meditaation muoto. Hän järjestää myös kursseja ja on kirjoittanut meditoinnin ja kirjoittamisen toisiaan täydentävistä puolista.

Goldbergin keskeiset opit ovat: treenikirjoittaminen, kirjoittajatreffit, apinamieli ja yksityiskohtien huomioiminen. Treenikirjoittamisella hän tarkoittaa vapaan kirjoittamisen harjoituksia eli ajastettuja – useimmiten 10 tai 3 minuutin mittaisia – kirjoitusrupeamia, joissa keskitytään johonkin yhteen teemaan tai aloitetaan ”Minä muistan” -tyyppisellä, hyvin vapaalla aloituksella, ja jatketaan siitä kirjoittaen mitä mieleen tulee.
Kirjoitustreffeillä Goldberg korostaa sitä, että kirjoittamisen on oltava jatkuvaa ja säännönmukaista. Siihen on myös sitouduttava. Kalenteriin merkitään ajankohdat, jotka varataan kirjoittamiselle, ja sovitusta pidetään kiinni. Hän kehottaa myös sopimaan kirjoitustapaamisia ystävän kanssa. Ensin kumpikin kirjoittaa ja sen jälkeen lukee toisen kirjoittaman tekstin.

Apinamieli on Goldbergin mukaan meidän sisäinen kriitikkomme, joka yrittää lannistaa meidät tai saada meidän kokonaan lopettamaan kirjoittamisen. Se kiljuu olkapäällämme, että emme osaa kirjoittaa, olemme aivan tyhmiä, kukaan ei koskaan halua lukea mitään kirjoittamaamme, meistä ei koskaan tule mitään. Tuttua juttua varmaan suunnilleen jokaiselle. Meidän pitää Goldbergin mukaan oppia elämään sen kanssa, oppia kääntämään sen kritiikki voitoksemme ja pitää ohjakset käsissämme: apinamieli ei ole oikeassa.

Yksityiskohtien huomioiminen on itse kirjoittamisessa tärkeää. Älä kirjoita lintu, kirjoita ruskeankirjava, hiekassa kylpevä varpunen. Kirjoittaessa pitää huomioida kaikki aistit. Näön ja kuulon lisäksi pitää ottaa huomioon maku-, tuoksu- ja tuntoaistit. Tapahtumat tapahtuvat aina jossain ajassa ja paikassa, jota ei voi jättää huomioimatta. On myös aina jonkinlainen säätila – ja tunnetila. Yksityiskohdat tekevät tekstistä elävän ja tapahtuneesta ja koetusta tunnistettavan. Mutta ei saa koskaan kuvata asioita ylimalkaisesti.

Hyvä kaukainen ystävä -teoksen alaotsikko kuuluu: Kuinka kirjoittaa elämäntarina. Se siis keskittyy muistelmien ja omaelämäkerran kirjoittamiseen. Se rohkaisee esimerkkien ja harjoitusten avulla herättämään muistin ja nostamaan menneisyydestä esiin jo unohtuneita yksityiskohtia.

Se houkuttaa muistamaan triviaalejakin asioita. Harjoituksissa kehotetaan kirjoittamaan vaikkapa kahvista, tiskaamisesta, polkupyörällä ajamisesta, toisen luokan opettajasta, omenista, itsenäisyyspäivästä ja pannukakusta. Yksityiskohtiin paneutuminen, yksittäisiin muistoihin palaaminen avaa jotain suurempaa, voi toimia väylänä laajempien kokonaisuuksien ja teemojen hahmottamiseen.
Mutta Goldberg kehottaa myös kirjoittamaan vaikeista asioista: häpeästä, erosta, kuolemasta, jäähyväisistä, lihavuudesta, köyhyydestä, erehdyksistä ja seksistä sekä siitä, mistä ei voi kirjoittaa. Kaikkea ei tarvitse kirjoittaa muiden luettavaksi, mutta on heittäydyttävä kirjoittamaan myös vaikeista asioista, jotta muistelmista tulee totta.
Harjoitusten lisäksi Goldberg pohtii teoksessaan muistelmien rakennetta, teemaa, juonta ja tarkoitusta sekä muita kokonaisuuden kannalta merkittäviä puolia. Harjoitukset ovat kiehtovia, vaikka ei juuri nyt olisikaan kirjoittamassa muistelmiaan.
Profile Image for Joanne Mcleod.
235 reviews2 followers
September 2, 2020
This book presented itself to me at exactly the right time. I had been contemplating writing a book, especially a memoir, for some time. Never seeing myself as one to write fiction. But then again, up until a couple of years ago, I never believed I could write poetry. Proven wrong once again at least in my own mind.
Then came an “Old Fiend from Far Away”. This old friend showed me through the practices laid out the necessary skills and focus to get some of my many thoughts onto the page. I had been journaling for many years but Natalie’s book showed me how to take journal entries and form them into chapters connected by that “thin red line”.
Although the ‘final product’ is actually a novel, it is the memoir of a fictional woman who is a composite of myself. Even to arrive at this format I very much needed and benefitted from the author’s skilled and wise guidance. But in numerous instances throughout her book she managed to turn work into play.
Thank you, Natalie, for the reintroduction to my old friend!
November 21, 2021
I read this book as a workbook. It was a great experience remembering, writing and looking in. It's so easy to read, honest and inspiring. It offers diverse perspectives and life stories that show roads and suggest ways of finding our writing paths. Some of the prompts talked to me, others I adapted to my culture and circumstances; still others seemed far like the moon, but there were a far many more where I could find something to connect. In others it was the writing tips that got me writing in my notebook.

My greatest gain from this book was freewriting. I had known about freewriting, but it was Goldberg who from afar showed me how it's done and moved me to do so, expressing feelings
and experiences and getting unexpected results.

This is a great book for any writer wanting to use their memories as a trampoline or those who want to use writing as a way to have new perspectives about their past.

This book was my company for most of the year and it's an experience I want to have again. What book will it be next year? We shall see.
Profile Image for Isabel.
484 reviews12 followers
May 29, 2019
I've had this book previously and my opinion hasn't changed any at all, why would I have thought it would. I saw a class was offering online and since I can't make that commitment just now, and my library doesn't have Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within , and why not? I settled for this instead. I wish I could compare the content between the two title. This one feels like she threw together a lot of journal prompts without all that much content between them, as if she was rushing to meet a contractual deadline. Hard words perhaps for someone with the outstanding reputation that this author does. Really who am I to judge in this way. Until I can actually compare the two books, I really won't know.
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