Writing Down the Bones:
Freeing the Writer Within

by Natalie Goldberg


Shambhala, 2006. ISBN 1590303164.
Reviewed by Mary Ann Moore
Posted on 03/30/2006

Nonfiction: Creative Life

Twenty years ago when I recommended a book to others, it was Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. When people who knew I was a writer recommended a book to me, it was the same book. I became a member of a group of writers who met weekly to do timed writing. We followed Goldberg's guidelines to keep our hands moving for the allotted time (10 or 15 minutes), and we didn't cross out or worry about spelling or punctuation as we used our fast-writing pens.

The aim of Goldberg's rules is to "burn through to first thoughts." When she teaches a class (and that's a lot of classes in 20 years), she wants students to be "writing down the bones, the essential awake speed of their minds."

Last year (2005), an expanded Writing Down the Bones was published that includes a new preface and afterword by the author. The afterword was adapted from an interview with Tami Simon of Sounds True where many of Goldberg's books have become audio resources. Among the resources, not in book form, is "Old Friend from Far Away: How to Write Memoir." (My review of it is elsewhere on this site.)

Each chapter in Writing Down the Bones is short and complete in itself, so you can open the book anywhere to read a chapter of inspiration. Goldberg has been doing sitting meditation for over thirty years now and studied Zen formally with Dainin Katagiri Roshi in Minneapolis. She brings her Zen practice to her writing and teaching and her writing to her sitting meditation. In Zen meditation, you sit, watching your breath. No matter what you feel, you continue to sit. The same is true of writing. Goldberg says, "You must be a great warrior when you contact first thoughts and write from them."

Real, necessary, possible, accessible, alive are words that come to my mind when I read Natalie Goldberg. She followed Writing Down the Bones (the 1986 edition which has sold over one million copies and has been translated into 12 languages) with Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life. Long Quiet Highway: A Memoir on Zen in America and the Writing Life was followed by a novel, Banana Rose. Thunder and Lighning: Cracking Open the Writer's Craft; Top of My Lungs: Poems and Paintings; Living Color: A Writer Paints Her World; and The Great Failure: My Unexpected Path to Truth are among Goldberg's other books. She continues to teach writing around the country, especially in New Mexico where she lives.

Writing practice is something Goldberg recommends doing even when you're working on a novel or another writing project. It's what keeps you in tune. "It's our wild forest where we gather energy before going to prune our garden, write our fine books and novels. It's a continual practice." With practice we get better at it, but Goldberg advises sitting down with the least expectation to fill up notebooks. (One a month is her goal.)

Goldberg offers writing prompts as well as "tricks" she has used to nudge herself along... Meeting a writing friend to share writing, teaching a class and doing the assignment yourself, going to your desk in the morning before you do anything else. As for the prompts, whatever is in front of you is a good beginning.

Goldberg was the writer who turned me on to writing in restaurants. It gets you away from household chores and tunes you in to the very ordinary things in front of you. It's this attention to the ordinary and the names of those things that connect us to the earth. Getting specific - naming the flower, for instance - "penetrates more deeply with the beingness of that flower."

"A writer must say yes to life," Goldberg advises in her chapter on "The Power of Detail." That means our task is to say "a holy yes to the real things of our life as they exist." "You don't think. You accept what is and put down its truth."

When we tell people we're writers, they often ask where we've been published. But as Goldberg advises, "it is not as important for the world to claim it as it is to claim it for ourselves. That is the essential step. That will make us content. We are good, and when our work is good, it is good. We should acknowledge it and stand behind it." Whether you are just beginning to write or have been writing for a long time, Natalie Goldberg lets you know "there are many truths. To do writing practice means to deal ultimately with your whole life."

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