Book Review: Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

I finished Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones which was most entertaining, educational as well as an inspirational read.  Her essays are like meandering down a winding trail with something new around each curve to observe and absorb, with new or common sense ideas to try out different approaches to writing as well as writing in different places and spaces.   

Synopsis:  With insight, humor, and practicality, Natalie Goldberg inspires writers and would-be writers to take the leap into writing skillfully and creatively. She offers suggestions, encouragement, and solid advice on many aspects of the writer’s craft: on writing from “first thoughts” (keep your hand moving, don’t cross out, just get it on paper), on listening (writing is ninety percent listening; the deeper you listen, the better you write), on using verbs (verbs provide the energy of the sentence), on overcoming doubts (doubt is torture; don’t listen to it)—even on choosing a restaurant in which to write.  Goldberg sees writing as a practice that helps writers comprehend the value of their lives. The advice in her book, provided in short, easy-to-read chapters with titles that reflect the author’s witty approach (“Writing Is Not a McDonald’s Hamburger,” “Man Eats Car,” “Be an Animal”), will inspire anyone who writes—or who longs to.

I'm more of a sporadic writer, writing daily for long periods of time, then maybe not at all for weeks or more.  There is always something percolating in the back of my mind but I don't always feel the need to get it down on paper.  After a while, ideas blend together to form an epiphany that gets me writing again.  I had been doing morning grumbles (morning pages), then started to laugh at myself for dwelling too long on things that I can not change and decided to go back to ignoring what Goldberg calls the monkey mind. 

We all have the mind of a monkey. This analogy, slightly humorous though it may be, is actually quite salient. Consider that we humans have around fifty thousand separate thoughts each day, many of them on the same topic. You might imagine that each thought is a branch, and you, or at least the attention of your conscious mind, is indeed a monkey, swinging from thought-branch to thought-branch all day long. ~ Pocket Mindfulness.

So when I came to the chapter The Goody Two Shoes Nature I realized I had been doing some of my writing out of duty rather than because I wanted to, which of course takes all the joy out of it.  

"Some people hear the rule "Write every day" and do it and don't improve.  They are just being dutiful.  That is the way of the Goody Two-Shoes.  It is a waster of energy because it takes tremendous effort to just follow the rules if your heart isn't in it.  If you find this is your basic attitude, then stop writing.  Stay away from it for a week or a year.  Wait until you are hungry to say something, until there is an aching in you to speak.  Then come back.
Writing can teach us the dignity of speaking the truth, and it spreads out from the page into all of our life, and it should. Otherwise, there is too much of a schism between who we are as writers and how we live our daily lives. That is the challenge: to let writing teach us about life and life about writing.  Let it flow back and forth." pg 168-169 

I was a Goody two shoes in all things growing up.  I thought I had gotten past that but discovered I was bringing that to my writing practice. So I did quit, for quite a long time.  So this spoke to my heart. 

Since I am in the process of rewriting my current WIP, her essay on Rereading and Rewriting is synchronous. I had been trying to decide how to approach it?  Do I edit electronically -  cutting, pasting and adding or do I work from the printed out version, making notes and filling in?   Neither method seemed to be working for me. I rewrite scenes all over again on a blank piece of paper, taking what I know about the story?  

Then I read:

See revision as 'envisioning again.'  If there are areas in your work where there is a blur or vagueness, you can simply see the picture again and add the details that will bring your work closer to your mind's picture.  You can sit down and time yourself and add to the original work that second, third or fourth time you wrote on something.  For instance, you are writing about pastrami.  Your first time writing is good, but you know you have more to say about the subject.  Over a day, two days, a week's time, do several more timed writings on pastrami.  Don't worry that you might repeat yourself.  
Reread them all and take the good parts of each one and combine them.  It is like a cut and paste job, where you cut out the strong writing of each timed writing and paste them together.  So even in rewriting you use the method and rules of timed writing.  This helps you to become reengaged in the work you wrote before.  Attempting to reconnect with first thoughts is much better than standing in the middle of your mosquito swarm trying to swat at your discursive thoughts before they suck blood.  It's a much more efficient way to rewrite and it bypasses the ego even in rewriting.
Given that God, the universe, or synchronicity, whatever you want to call it, has in the past few days thrown the idea at me from several avenues -  the prospect of a fresh start, keeping in mind what I've already written -  I think it's time to take that advice. 

I thoroughly enjoyed Writing Down the Bones and highly recommend it.  

1 comment:

  1. Robyn, I love your last paragraph. When that happens to me, I take it as a clear sign to that the highlighted path. Also, I've read this book before and might have mentioned it in an earlier comment. It was a good book for me as well.


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