Writing Down the Bones
by Natalie Goldberg
By Valerie Comer
Copyright © 2009 by Valerie Comer, All Rights Reserved
Natalie Goldberg has been
teaching writing classes since the mid-1980s. This book is not truly a
'how to' book but a collection of essays that she uses in her teaching.
She's a big proponent of
timed writing exercises every day, likening the idea to that of
stretching before running -- or instead of it, some days. Just like in
physical fitness, you'll benefit from practicing every day whether or
not you're running a marathon, so don't allow yourself to avoid this
training. Trick yourself or treat yourself, whatever it takes to keep
What provides the best soil
for growing stories? Same as gardens: compost. Only in this instance,
the compost consists of all our experiences. Regular timed writing is
like turning over the compost; it aids the process of transforming the
eggshells and limp celery into fine black soil. Goldberg says, "We must
continue to work the compost pile, enriching it and making it fertile so
that something beautiful may bloom and so that our writing muscles are
in good shape to ride the universe when it moves through us."
Goldberg provides a list of
topics to start writing from while compiling your own list, including
permission to spend a session or two telling yourself all the reasons
you can't write, that you're too stupid or too illiterate or too
embarrassed. Just get it out!
She says, "Basically, if you
want to become a good writer, you need to do three things. Read a lot,
listen well and deeply, and write a lot. And don't think too much. Just
enter the heat of words and sounds and colored sensations and keep your
pen moving across the page."
Topics covered are varied,
relating to everything from self-esteem to precision in writing. She
believes in writing very randomly, mixing up sentences, and rearranging
words for the fun and freedom of it. She says that breaking open syntax
liberates you to find the truth in your words. Of course, for most of
your writing, you will use real sentences or understandable fragments.
She's only suggesting this as a way for the conscious mind to let go and
allow the muse to play.
When speaking of the
familiar writing adage: show don't tell, Goldberg says that writing
isn't psychology. Psychology is for putting names to feelings, such as
anger, in order to analyze them from without. We don't write about
anger, we write to bring the reader along into the emotion of it.
Goldberg reminds us that
we're writers even when we're not writing, and that we should look at
everything around us as prey. We need to remain alert, watching and
listening and living with everything in us, soaking it all in, so that
something can come out. She suggests all of that is like a cat stalking,
and the act of sitting down to write is like the cat finally pouncing.
Our writing may be correct
but rather complacent, and that is because we do not take risks as
people. She says that living dangerously in some way puts the excitement
in our writing. Go skydiving! Do something completely out of your normal
comfort zone. Give yourself a wide area to play in and wander in. It
will not only enrich your writing but your life.
When we as writers become
too scheduled in our writing, sometimes we are just putting in time.
While some may say to just write through it, Goldberg's advice is the
opposite. She believes that when there is no burning desire to write,
the words are flat. Take some time off to refresh yourself and gain
energy. Of course, this doesn't refer to the daily timed writing
exercises, but to pushing ourselves to create stories when we're off
If we allow a full life to
enrich our writing, Goldberg suggests that the path goes both ways. Not
only will writing teach us about life, but life will teach us about
writing. Anything we do fully is a journey for both.
Writers who are looking for
a straightforward 'how to write' book may want to give this a pass.
However, if you're looking for ways to put your soul into your prose,
you may find it of value.
Writing Down the
By Natalie Goldberg
Expanded edition December 6, 2005