Thursday Writing: Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones


The edition I have

On Saturday I began reading Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, which was recommended to me a couple of years ago by the leaders of a writing and meditation workshop. It’s the first writing book I’ve read since Stephen King’s On Writing, and had a similarly galvanizing effect. Goldberg’s advice resonates particularly because I’ve been taking a beginning mindfulness meditation class, and she’s a longtime practitioner of Zen meditation (and she writes a lot about it in her books). The two practices have so much in common, and they both help so much with untangling the threads of my life.

I loved the book from the first chapter, on what kind of pen and paper to use. As a lifelong stationery lover, I feel kinship with any other writer who agrees these tools are important! She says that on small-size pages you write small thoughts (which aren’t necessarily bad), and it strikes me that this is often true. I have different pens and notebooks that I prefer for different moods, and I have rituals when I write at my computer. Writing is physical; what we write with can influence what comes out on the page.

Goldberg describes herself as a former “goody-two-shoes,” and as a fellow member of that tribe, I appreciate her emphasis on taking risks in writing. I was raised to be a “good girl,” and that comes through in so much of what I do, whether it’s respecting the rules of grammar or coloring only within the lines. Although I take pride in my quirkiness, I worry too much about what others think, and I’m very uncomfortable with making mistakes. I know I have to get over this before I can make good art. Art needs to respect its own logic and no other, and an artist can’t create from her whole self if she’s always anxious about doing things wrong.

A related chapter, “Make Statements and Answer Questions,” is all about being more forceful and deliberate in our words. She cites a study in which women and minorities were found to use many indefinite modifiers in their speech — qualifiers like “maybe” or “somehow” — as well as reinforcement-seeking add-ons like “don’t you think?” This struck me because I know I do this in my own writing, even in my morning pages which are intended to be read by no one. “I guess this means x,” I’ll write, even when there’s really no “I guess” about it. I think we as women (and particularly women of color) often feel we need to soften ourselves and our words, to make ourselves less threatening or less presumptuous. I was struck at VONA by how many of us expressed a yearning to take up more space in the world and make our voices louder — these are things we’ve spent our whole lives shrinking from doing. Since reading this chapter, I’ve made a conscious effort to stop using qualifiers.

Just as in meditation, Goldberg recommends regular practice in writing. She compares writing to running; practice is necessary if you want to do it at all: “Runners don’t say, ‘Oh, I ran yesterday. I’m limber.’ Every day they warm up and stretch.”(p13) The practice is important, Goldberg explains, because we need time and consideration to process the stuff of our lives into meaningful writing:

We collect experience, and from the decomposition of the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat, and very fertile soil. Out of this fertile soil bloom our poems and stories. But this… takes time. Continue to turn over and over the organic details of your life until some of them fall through the garbage of discursive thoughts to the solid ground of black soil. (p14)

This is definitely one way that my morning pages and this blog can help me. But I still need to be practicing with other types of writing, particularly those that sift through my experience and don’t just turn a lens onto it. I’m thinking if I can do writing practice every day, then when I feel that what I’ve written might have meaning for others, those practice pages could become the new shape of this blog. My practice watercolors, practice writings — all those could go here. Not only will that be good impetus for me to practice, it’ll also be a great record of my development as an artist.

Goldberg echoes my meditation teacher, Charlie, in stating that the practice itself is the best teacher. She writes: “People often begin writing from a poverty mentality. They are empty and they run to teachers and classes to learn about writing. We learn writing by doing it. That simple. We don’t learn by going outside ourselves to authorities we think know about it… Stay with your original mind and write from it.”(p30-31) Not that I don’t need the books or the mentors, but there’s no magic route to learning writing; I can’t take in a few lectures and a reading list and then I’ll know how to do it. But this is good, because it means the learning is within my own control and I can do it my own way — as long as I commit to the practice.

To help with this, Goldberg suggests making a list of things to write about, for when I sit down and feel like I’m not sure what to write. After VONA I made a long list of things that resonate so strongly with me that I always have something to say about them, but these were mostly things that scared or upset me. Yesterday I dug that list out, added to it, and put it into my Writing folder for easy access.

Goldberg also adds that we don’t need a set-in-stone routine to have a writing practice. She describes a period of more than a year, when she had nothing to do but write:

I never could find a rhythm that worked for longer than four or five days. I tried writing from nine in the morning to one in the afternoon. That worked and then it didn’t. I tried two to six. That was good for a while. Then, whenever I wanted to write. That was okay, on and off. Each week I varied my schedule. I had the opportunity to try all times of the day and night. Nothing ever became perfect. The important thing was never to give up the relationship with writing.(p136)

I like this because it reminds me not to get too caught up in the hows, wheres, and whens of art-making. Those of you who read this blog regularly know that I can get obsessive about my work schedule, trying to cram in more hours than the day can comfortably hold, or beating myself up for not doing things according to plan. Goldberg’s anecdote reminds me that the important thing is that the art-making happens, and how or when or where don’t matter.

One last big piece of advice is to not force the big projects. I’ve been moving toward that conclusion independently. Having declared I am now going to write a major family history, I’ve had trouble starting — how does one sit down to write the great Asian American graphic novel? It’s too much to ponder, and it paralyzes me. So I should let go of it as The Big Project in my mind. It’s just something I’m working on. I’ll do the practice, and work on the history, and good things will come.