Every once in a while the right book comes along at the right time.
I’ve had Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones on my bookshelf in Houston for years.
I’ve seen it recommended many times, but I must admit to a certain weariness towards books about writing. For one thing, it’s the procrastinator’s MO to read books about writing instead of just, you know, writing. And many of the best-loved books about writing have bored the hell out of me. I liked Stephen King’s book, but can not stand Anne Lamott (sacrilege!), and most recently, I thought Big Magic was just a rehash of Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2009 TED talk.
Still, I picked up a copy of Writing Down the Bones several years ago at Half Price Books, and it’s been sitting patiently on my bookshelf ever since. I’m not sure why a recent mention on a writing forum was the comment that finally made me read it. All I can say is that my soul needed that book at this exact moment, and not a second sooner.
“This book is about writing. It is also about using writing as your practice, as a way to help you penetrate your life and become sane.”
Had I known that Goldberg was a Zen Buddhist I probably would have read the book a lot earlier. So much of what she says resonates with me from a yogic point of view.
The core of Goldberg’s teachings is what she calls “writing practice,” for which she lays out seven rules:
- Keep your hand moving.
- Lose control.
- Be specific.
- Don’t think.
- Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar.
- You are free to write the worst junk in the world.
- Go for the jugular.
She views writing as akin to meditation — that the goal of writing practice is to just Do The Work, and eventually your own voice, your own truth and stories, will float to the surface. Goldberg calls these truths “first thoughts’. Wanting to write well, she says, means confronting the ugly parts of your past — but that we each have a duty and right to tell our own story.
“There were stories only I knew about my family, about my first kiss, last haircut, the smell of sage on a mesa and my kinship with the flat plains of Nebraska… I don’t think everyone wants to create the great American novel, but we all have a dream of telling our stories — of realizing what we think, feel, and see before we die. Writing is a path to meet ourselves and become intimate.”
To be honest, I highlighted a good portion of the book. There are so many parallels to my yoga practice here. For one, practice is everything. Daily practice is the ONLY way to break through to the next level of clarity in both writing and in yoga. Eventually, through practice, you’ll come to a place where first thoughts, thoughts unencumbered by concern for looking good or “getting it right”, find their way onto the page. She refers to our attempts to censor our first thoughts as a need for our egos to control and make sense of the world, which is not possible.
Sitting with first thoughts is akin to learning to sit with discomfort in practice and life. By learning to sit with your first thoughts on the page, you peel away the mask of your ego and can be truly comfortable with your own self and the unique experiences that have made you who you are. “If you are not afraid of the voices inside you, you will not fear the critics outside you,” she says.
Writing practice is about learning to trust your voice and the process, and about living in the now, not the future or the past (though sometimes we will write about the future and the past). Writing practice is about doing the work NOW, and not expecting to be an amazing writer overnight. It’s about meeting yourself where you are on any given day. It’s not about passing judgment on yourself if you miss a day or if nothing but shit comes out or if the things that do come out are unhappy or unpleasant.
“You must be a great warrior when you contact first thoughts and write from them.”
What I loved most about the book is the idea that anyone can become a better with the right kind of work, and that what “becoming a better writer” really means is becoming the kind of writer who uncovers truths, who writes with honesty and vulnerability. Writing, especially writing practice, is egalitarian. Anyone, of any age, and any economic means, can do it.
For years I’ve been writing Morning Pages each day as prescribed by Julia Camerons’s book The Artist’s Way. With my move to Amsterdam, however, my routine had taken quite a beating. Writing Down the Bones has reignited my writing practice. I am so grateful to Goldberg for having written this book.