Natalie Goldberg’s book Writing Down the Bones is about how writing and life are intertwined. The book is relatively short, but it’s packed full of helpful hints, advice, and glimpses of Goldberg’s story. Each chapter is only about two or three pages, making it an easy read. Goldberg believes that learning to write is not linear and that there is no A-B-C method to becoming a writer. The style of her book reflects that with each chapter focusing on a different idea and allowing the reader to skip around between chapters.
If I were to choose a theme from the book it would be connectedness. She writes that, “We are all connected.” Goldberg is a Buddhist and practices meditation, which shows in the style of this book. She says that, “Writing is everything, unconditional. There is no separation between writing, life, and mind.” She frequently quotes Katagiri Roshi, one of her Zen teachers, as well as several others and applies their teachings to her writing. Goldberg encourages using writing as your practice and says that sometimes you reach a place where, “You disappear: you are simply recording the thoughts that are streaming through you.”
There were several ideas that stood out to me, beneath that of connectedness. The first was the idea of composting. Goldberg says that as we go through life we collect all of our experiences, everything we learn, and all of our inner thoughts. As we continue through life all of those things stay in our minds. She says, “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.” We have this inner source of ideas that we continue adding to and mixing up and eventually things will come through as solid and interesting ideas.
The second idea is that of obsessions. Goldberg writes, “They probably take over your life whether you want them to or not, so you ought to get them to work for you.” She suggested that we periodically list our obsessions and use them in our writing. There’s a good chance that some of them change, and we’ll have new obsessions to write about. The act of writing about them may help move us out of our obsession, or at least give us an outlet for them.
Goldberg believes that a writer is always a writer, even when they’re not writing. Sometimes it’s ok to take a break from writing, to pull back for a time and think. It’s important to go back to writing, but sometimes having a bit of space can be helpful. In talking about obsessions, writing itself could be an obsession. Goldberg says, “I often wonder if all the writers who are alcoholics drink a lot because they aren’t writing or are having trouble writing. It is not because they are writers that they are drinking, but because they are writers who aren’t writing.”
Another idea that Goldberg discusses is that of first thoughts. She says that these are pure, rugged, and energetic, but most importantly, uncensored. We spend our lives editing ourselves in writing and in speaking, but first thoughts are our initial, pure, unedited thoughts and beliefs. These are the most important in your writing because they are the most alive. She has six rules to help breakthrough to first thoughts. The first is to keep your hand moving. Don’t stop to think. Just keep writing. There are many more thoughts and pieces of advice in her book, but she sums everything up by saying, “Basically, if you want to become a good writer, you need to do three things. Read a lot, listen well and deeply, and write a lot.”
This book was different than others I’ve read on writing. The format was unique with short chapters each discussing a separate idea. To me, the book was more a philosophical discussion of writing than a practical hands-on guide, but it certainly made me look at writing in a different way. There were some chapters I didn’t relate to, but others that I did. I think it would be the same for everyone, and if I read the book again in five or ten years, I would probably relate to different chapters than I do today. There were many sections that showed the trials and difficulties of writing, but there were also inspirational and encouraging sections. I’ll end on one last quote, “A writer’s job is to make the ordinary come alive, to awaken ourselves to the specialness of simply being.”
Rating: 3 ½ Stars
I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to any writer, but it would not be the first one I chose to share.
By Melissa Blakely