Three Books on Writing: Writing Down the Bones

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February 13, 2014 by carlywont

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Now that I’ve finished the beauty that is Writing Down the Bones, I’m kinda pissed at myself ages 18-25 for owning it and not reading it. It makes me think of all the other likely great, unread books I have sitting on my bookshelves at this very moment. (I’m lookin’ at you The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.)

This book is definitely not for everyone. If you’re searching for a hardcore, academic, withering approach to writing this is definitely not for you. BUT, if you’re like me, and you secretly harbor a good dose of liberal hippie blood in your veins, then Natalie Goldberg may just be the freethinking, creative, open-minded guru mama you’ve been looking for.

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^(kinda wanna eat whatever snack she’s got there)

That being said, I think Natalie Goldberg actually walked the fine line between healthy dreaminess and new age-y bullshit very well. While she was certainly a bit whimsical in her advice, overall she was quite levelheaded and serious. Personally, I loved how her deep Zen practice and longstanding friendship with her Zen master Katagiri Roshi influenced the book, her writing, and her advice.

Although I underlined a lot of great passages in Writing Down the Bones, I’ll only share three of my very favorite pieces of advice here—the ones that have stayed with me the two weeks or so since I finished the book.

1. “Sit down with the least expectation of yourself; say, ‘I am free to write the worst junk in the world.’ You have to give yourself the space to write a lot without a destination.”

In the introduction, Goldberg talks about how she always wanted to be a writer but was intimidated and worked as a cook instead. While at a bookstore, she opened up Erica Jong’s book of poetry Fruits and Vegetables and read a piece about cooking eggplant. She then realized you don’t need to begin writing with any intention other than the intention to simply write. I’ve been trying to internalize this mindset since so often my writer’s block is caused by a lack of profound themes or amazing plot ideas.

2. “Don’t be a Goody Two-shoes just to be a Goody Two-shoes. It is not based on any reality. Go into the cornfields. Go into your writing with your whole heart. Don’t set up a system—‘I have to write every day’—and then numbly do it.

Being a natural Goody Two-shoes, it’s easy for me to replace the writer with the editor. Letting go of the need to control and organize everything is essential to getting new pieces written though so I’ve gotta deal with that.

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3. “You don’t need to think that if you don’t whip something out of the bad poem in front of you, the writer will never write again.”

I have a tendency to beat everything I write into submission. But, as Goldberg points out, it’s OK to let bad pieces stay bad. I don’t need to cling onto everything I write for fear that I’ll never put anything down on paper again.

Pro tip: This book is not for someone looking for advice on editing. Most of the advice in Writing Down the Bones is how to get off your butt and put a pen to paper—which is exactly what I was looking for and is also what makes this book a great first book to read in a series on writing.

Maybe you’re wondering: Did I write as a result of reading this book? YES! I finished a few pieces that had been lingering in the back of my head for a while and also wrote some new, crappy stuff. But that’s the point of the book! Write all the whiny, no-good, pitiful shit you want and eventually it will start not to stink. And you know what? I think she’s right.

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