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Book Review:

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 moving.

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 kilter.

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 Bones

By Natalie Goldberg

Publisher: Shambhala

Publication Date: Expanded edition December 6, 2005

ISBN: 1590302613