Review: Writing Down the Bones – Natalie Goldberg

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg is a collection of short reflections on writing designed to help you become a better writer. The advice and inspiration is rooted in the practice of Zen but you don’t need to know anything about Buddhism to benefit from it.

There are many similarities between writing and meditation. This book explores how meditation can help you to write and how to use writing as a practice to look deeply into your life and find out who you are. The inspiration for this approach came from Natalie’s Zen teacher, Dainin Katagiri Roshi, who asked her:

“Why do you come to sit meditation? Why don’t you make writing your practice? If you go deep enough in writing, it will take you every place.”

She encourages you to experiment and try different techniques, but mainly to just write. To tell the truth and use details, but not too many. You can write about anything – nothing is too mundane or boring. The foundation of this writing practice is to keep your hand moving. Write for a set amount of time and just write. Here are the rules:

  1. Keep your hand moving. Don’t pause to re-read the line you’ve just written. That’s stalling and trying to get control of what you’re saying.
  2. Don’t cross out. That’s editing as you write. Even if you write something you didn’t mean to write, leave it.
  3. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. Don’t even care about staying within the margins and lines on the page.
  4. Lose control.
  5. Don’t think. Don’t get logical.
  6. Go for the jugular. If something comes up in your writing that’s scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.

This is similar to Julia Cameron’s practice of writing Morning Pages but it can be done at any time and in any place. You just need a pen and paper, or you can do it on your computer (or phone, I guess). The idea is to get what Natalie calls your First Thoughts down without censorship.

In Zen practice, this is called Beginner’s Mind which is about recognising that you don’t know anything, but that doesn’t mean your mind is totally blank. Normally your ego will police your thoughts and decide what’s acceptable and what isn’t. But that can restrict your creativity or lead you to write the same stuff over and over.

When you practice free writing like First Thoughts, it’s more like capturing the first flash of inspiration for a new idea. It’s about being present with what is in the moment and not imposing limits on what you think you should be saying. This isn’t easy to do and takes a bit of practice – hence this book! The reason for the difficulty is that writing can make you self-conscious so you need to find ways around it and back to your beginner’s mind. As you practice, you learn to trust your deeper Self more and your writing will improve too.

Writing Down the Bones can be picked up and dipped into whenever you need a boost of inspiration. Or you can read it from cover to cover and follow the exercises and suggestions as they come up. This book sits on my desk, close at hand, and never fails to help when I get stuck, inspiring me to get back to my writing practice. It’s also one of the inspirations behind my own book on how to free your mind as a writer.

To close, here’s an extract to give you a taste of her style, from the chapter:

We Are Not the Poem

“The problem is we think we exist. We think our words are permanent and solid and stamp us forever. That’s not true. We write in the moment. Sometimes when I read poems at a reading to strangers, I realise they think those poems are me. They are not me, even if I speak in the ‘I’ person. They were my thoughts and my hand and the space and the emotions at that time of writing. Watch yourself. Every minute we change. It is a great opportunity. At any point, we can step out of our frozen selves and our ideas and begin fresh. That is how writing is. Instead of freezing us, it frees us.

“The ability to put something down – to tell how you feel about an old husband, an old shoe, or the memory of a cheese sandwich on a grey morning in Miami – that moment you can finally align how you feel inside with the words you write; at that moment you are free because you are not fighting those things inside. You have accepted them, become one with them. I have a poem entitled ‘No Hope’ – it’s a long poem. I always think of it as joyous because in my ability to write of desperation and emptiness I felt alive again and unafraid. However, when I read it, people comment, ‘How sad.’ I try to explain, but no one listens.

“It is important to remember we are not the poem. People will react however they want; and if you write poetry, get used to no reaction at all. But that’s okay. The power is always in the act of writing. Come back to that again and again and again. Don’t get caught in the admiration for your poems. It’s fun. But then the public makes you read their favourites over and over until you get sick of those poems. Write good poems and let go of them. Publish them, read them, go on writing. …

“It is very painful to become frozen with your poems, to gain too much recognition for a certain set of poems. The real life is in writing, not in reading the same ones over and over again for years. We constantly need new insights, visions. We don’t exist in any solid form. There is no permanent truth you can corner in a poem that will satisfy you forever. Don’t identify too strongly with your work. Stay fluid behind those black-and-white words. They are not you. They were a great moment going through you. A moment you were awake enough to write down and capture.”

Start your own writing practice using these writing prompts

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