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Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

bonesI bought this pocket-sized book on the recommendation of one of Haven Kimmel’s fictional characters, if you believe it. That’s the most common cover at left; mine is pleasingly worn and small (see below), and I appreciated that about it. I carried it around off and on for about six weeks before I finished it, including on an overnight backpack in Colorado. It is an instructive work on writing, with chapters just a few pages long, so one doesn’t feel that she has to read it cover to cover or as one piece. I will be referring back to it. photo

Natalie Goldberg is foremost a poet, it seems to me, although she has written one novel and other how-to-write books as well; she teaches writing in various formats. She is also a Buddhist, and her meditation practice and study with a Zen master (I hope I’m saying that right) are quite central to her message here; she is big on letting go of the self, of self-criticisms, and letting the writing flow out of oneself; writing is, for her, a form of meditation. She is very serious about a writing “practice,” which I interpret in several ways: it is a practice like meditation or yoga is a practice; also one has to practice it in the way one practices anything to improve at it. She counsels a regular writing schedule, even just ten minutes a day – keep the hand moving for ten minutes, don’t cross anything out, don’t edit.

Her advice seems to be most aimed at creative writers, perhaps most of all at poets, but I think (and I think she thinks) it is also useful for any kind of writer. Partway through my reading, I recommended this book to a friend’s nephew who wants to be a sports journalist. On the face of it, sports journalism is pretty far from poetry, but I think Goldberg’s advice (immersion in the form; daily practice; exercises on set topics) would still serve.

One of the greatest gifts I feel that I’ve taken away from reading this little book is the message that I am a writer, already, and should own that and move forward in it. I’m not waiting to be a writer when I can do it full-time, or when I’m published, or anything silly like that. (Although those milestones will/would be nice!) I’m a writer, now; I just need to do more of it.

The message I take with greatest caution, on the other hand, is her exhortation to write by hand. She talks about the usefulness of a computer (or typewriter), but feels strongly about handwriting. She writes about what kind of pen, paper, notebook a person might should use. I wonder if her advice would be any different today – this book was originally published in 1986 – but I suspect not much. My problem is that I have done the bulk of my writing on a keyboard and am much, much faster at that than at handwriting! I’m of the generation that had a computer fairly young. For me, handwriting means slowing down, and it means cramps. On the other hand, I could write a book on a keyboard without much stress. If she’s preaching a fast, obstacle-free flow of words out of my head and onto the page (screen), shouldn’t I type? But then, perhaps the more mechanical relationship to those words is something that should be cultivated. (What about the cramps??)

Either way, I found this book inspirational and full of thought-provoking little tips, not to mention a few writing prompts I will need to follow. I am pleased. Not dated in the least (with the possible exception of the handwriting issue!), I find Writing Down the Bones to be a fine assistant to the aspiring writer.


Rating: 8 minutes.

4 Responses

  1. I’ve been looking at getting this book for a while. Thanks for the write up!

  2. Thanks for the review i thinks there is a lot to learn from this book.

  3. […] known of this book for some time – I first remember hearing of it in Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones – and recently yet another reference made me finally go looking for a copy of my own. […]

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