Writing Down the Bones (first published in 1986) – Natalie Goldberg

WDTB This was recommended to me by one of my NaNo buddies and it was the perfect book to read while trying to create my novel. November can be a stressful month – having to come up with fifty thousand words in thirty days can feel like a burden sometimes, so anything I can do to help me reach that goal is more than welcome.

Writing Down the Bones often takes a spiritual approach to writing. Natalie Goldberg makes parallels between meditation and writing, and they make sense. Writing is a lonely process, and so is meditation, but it’s not a book about meditation, or about running, it’s a book about writing (interesting how writers often compare running to writing – Murakami comes to mind).

She has an encouraging voice, she gives examples from personal life, she even gives some writing exercises that can be done in order to get creativity flowing. Her tips for getting down to work – making an appointment with a friend to discuss writing, rewarding herself with a cookie (or four), setting down time for writing, writing first thing in the morning, filling a notebook a month, and teaching a writing class, they all sound wonderful. As I read I began to tick off the ones I’ve tried and worked for me – the first is the best. The last I haven’t tried but it does sound like fun – learning while teaching. The cookies don’t work for me because I can have as many as I like and not feel guilty, and if I do feel guilty I eat them anyway. Too easy, too convenient. So is writing first thing in the morning and writing in that notebook (I do write sometimes when I’m out but since I only go out during weekends, that’s pretty limited). Trying to find a balance between being a slacker and having a schedule is the hardest thing.

Goldberg taught writing for years. She describes her experience during the classes, how she works with the students, and even shares samples from these courses and the poetry readings she has been to. I particularly liked this poem by Russell Edson because it’s funny and unexpected and I never would have thought writing about a toilet could produce such an interesting result:

With Sincerest Regrets

Like a white snail the toilet slides into the living room,
demanding to be loved.
It is impossible, and we tender our sincerest regrets.
In the book of the heart there is no mention made of plumbing.
And though we have spent our intimacy many times
with you, you belong to an unfortunate reference,
which we would rather not embrace…
The toilet slides out of the living room like a white snail,
flushing with grief….

This is a book I can see myself reading again and again. What Goldberg writes about may not be all new and if you’ve read any books about writing some things may even sound the same, but there are pages, passages, words, that strike a chord and I find myself going back and re-reading them.

Some favorite passages:

When we walk around Paris, my friend is afraid of being lost and she is very panicky. I don’t fear being lost. If I am lost, I am lost. That is all. I look on my map and find my way. I even like to wander the streets of Paris not particularly knowing where I am. In the same way I need to wander in the field of aloneness and learn to enjoy it, and when loneliness bites, take out a map and find my way out without panic, without jumping to the existential nothingness of the world, questioning everything – “Why should I be a writer?” – and pushing myself off the abyss.

When you accept writing as what you are supposed to do, after you’ve tried everything else – marriage, hippiedom, traveling, living in Minnesota or New York, teaching, spiritual practices – there’s finally no place else to go. So no matter how big the resistance, there is one day, there is the next day, and the writing work ahead. You can’t depend on its going smoothly day after day. It won’t be that way. You might have one day that is superb, productive, and the next time you write, you are ready to sign up on a ship headed for Saudi Arabia. There are no guarantees. You might think you have finally created a rhythm with three days running, and the next day the needle scratches the record and you squeak through it, teeth on edge.

Have you read any books on writing? Do you have any favorites?

*My rating: 5/5 stars
*Read in November 2014

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5 Responses to Writing Down the Bones (first published in 1986) – Natalie Goldberg

  1. Vishy says:

    Wonderful review, Delia. It is interesting that the book takes a spiritual approach to writing and compares writing to meditation. It makes me think of Julia Cameron’s ‘The Artist’s Way’. I read that Murakami book on running and writing 🙂 It is nice. I liked very much Natalie Goldberg’s tips for writing. I think rewarding myself with a cookie won’t work for me too – I will polish off the whole packet / jar! The teaching-a-creative-writing-class tip won’t work for me too – I love being in a student in a creative writing class though. I love the other two tips though – writing first thing in the morning and filling up a notebook a month. Nice to know that Goldberg shares her creative-writing-teaching experience in the book. That part of the book must be fascinating. That poem is interesting. I loved both the passages that you have quoted. The sentence where she describes about having tried everything in life before becoming a writer made me smile. The last lines where she talks about how after finding a rhythm for three days running and thinking that things are going to be smooth from now on and then finding them rocky again – that keeps happening to all of us, I think. Not just in writing.

    I can remember reading only a couple of books on writing – Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ and Francine Prose’s ‘Reading Like a Writer’. In her book, Francine Prose talks about her favourite books and how they helped her in becoming a better writer. She looks at words, sentences, passages, style and other things. If you have not read it, I will highly recommend it. I think you will like it. (My review of Prose’s books is here. I just checked it and found that you have already commented on it. So, you probably know about the book already :))

  2. Delia says:

    Hi Vishy,

    Thanks for reminding me of Francine Prose’s book, I completely forgot about it. I went back and read your review and I remembered why I wanted to read it. She seems to take a different approach from Golding, a more in-depth analysis of what works and what doesn’t in writing. Golding is a poet, and this was her first book, so her book feels more like an overview of the whole process, sprinkled with examples and personal experiences.
    It’s great to find so many great books that look at the process of writing from different perspectives. I will also look for Julia Cameron’s book. A trip to the bookstore is in order.

  3. This seems like such a good approach to writing.

    I really like parallels to meditation.

    The cookies are nice too 🙂

    • Delia says:

      Hi Brian,
      It’s a very open, spiritual approach but without being preachy. I really like it.
      The cookies are quite nice, I agree. I’ll have to bake some this month.

  4. Pingback: Best books of 2014 | Postcards from Asia

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