Writer’s Dozen: Natalie Goldberg and Bones

Goldberg, pen, and cake

Permission, sincere belief, and urgency: those are what Natalie Goldberg gives to readers of Writing Down the Bones (Shambhala Publications, Boston: 1986). This post is the first of Writer’s Dozen, a series on 13 texts that have meant a lot to me as a writer.

When I first encountered this book, in the graduate-level Teaching Writing course at Simmons College in the spring of 2003, I wondered why Professor Lowry Pei had assigned it. I cringed reading the first chapter, “Beginner’s Mind, Pen and Paper,” and Goldberg’s hokey advice on choosing a “fast-writing pen because your thoughts are always much faster than your hand” and purchasing “a cheap spiral notebook” over a “fancy” one so that “you feel that you can fill it quickly and afford another.”

Let’s get to the point, I thought. The pen-and-paper suggestion seemed to be a detour and right at the beginning of the book when I was eager to get started. Clearly, this was for adults, and did they really need guidance in finding these most basic tools? If they do, they’re not going to get too far as writers. The snob in me was having her say in my internal dialogue.

Other chapters describe the timed “egoless” freewrite, writing as daily practice, distance of time, and some more fruitful topics. My position on Goldberg’s method started to soften, though, only when I read her command that we shouldn’t “identify too strongly with [our] work.” Words, when writing them, are “a great moment going through” the writer. Not being a Buddhist, as she is, I didn’t quite understand what she was getting at, but I found it a relief to think that I could write deeply and then move on to deeply writing something else, having left the old thing behind, done.

My initial resistance to Writing Down the Bones and the spiritual dimension to Goldberg’s approach had to do with my age (38), agnosticism, and experience writing and getting writing (for work and school) done. I didn’t think I necessarily needed anyone to tell me to write, write lots, write regularly. At first, I wondered if this book was intended purely for the beginner or the unsure, which I believed myself to be not at all.

But I quickly liked and was intrigued by the ideas of this writing professor, Lowry Pei, who has since become mentor, colleague, and friend, and I thought I’d go along with it and see how Goldberg fit into Pei’s approach. I was still keeping my emotional distance from Bones, not sure it applied to me.

Of course, it did apply to me. During all the years I had been making a living by writing (and researching and consulting), and before I got to grad school, I had been trying to get something going with my creative writing by following guidelines, taking classes, making attempts, and yet feeling as if all my activity was not coming together with any vision or substance.

It’s weird that Goldberg, who seems more deliberately meandering than directed, could help imbue anyone’s practice with purpose and pre-meditation. After all, this is the guru who says, in “Man Eats Car,” that you shouldn’t “make your mind do anything.” One must also “learn to trust the force of your own voice.” To me, there’s something squishy about her writing, and when I first read it I lumped Goldberg into the world of what I then saw as hocus pocus. And yet she is utterly sincere about her beliefs, her teaching, and especially her own writing habits. She’s always doing it, and she’ll do it anywhere. Even though she believes in the perfect pen, she is impatient with the idea that anyone has to sit in the right chair or right office or beloved cafe to get writing done.

Goldberg is generally interested in all creative writing and all creative writers, and yet she has specific advice on the regular practices and habits of mind that gets longer work done. For example, her insistence that a writer “Go further!” is a sharp and effective spur that I apply often. Here’s what she says:

Push yourself beyond when you think you are done with what you have to say. Go a little further. Sometimes when you think you are done, it is just the edge of the beginning. Probably that’s why we decide we’re done. It’s getting too scary. We are touching down onto something real. It is beyond the point when you think you are done that often something strong comes out.

I remember one student whose mother had died of cancer. She would write one side of a page about it — simple, good prose — and then she would quit. When she read those pieces in class, I always felt that there was more and told her so. She smiled and said, “Well, the ten minutes were up.” Write to the eleventh minute if you need to. I know it can be frightening and a real loss of control, but I promise you, you can go through to the other side and actually come out singing. You might cry a little before the singing, but that is okay. Just keep your hand moving as you are feeling. Often, as I write my best pieces, my heart is breaking.

[…] Go further than you think you can.

When I was writing my essay, “Tethered to the Body,” which as a draft was a huge, exploratory sprawl, I did this over many days, at two pages per day. Sometimes I would reach my quota and stop. Other times I would reach my quota, feel something stirring but undefined, and write one more sentence, usually something desperate like, “Oh, what do I even want to say?!” or “This sucks. This really, really sucks.” And I would keep going, and my desperate sentence would have signaled a kind of tipping point, the moment when thoughts would start to spill over the edge of the pot, and I would write into a mess that ended up yielding the theme of that essay and what I believe are its important truths.

In preparation for writing this post, I re-read Writing Down the Bones from start to finish over a couple of nights. It made me wince a little. It’s really too much, for me anyway, to read her all at once. There is the ‘ick’ factor. And yet there are so many good insights and reminders, like this handful:

Don’t Use Writing to Get Love. Although I like to think of myself as totally pragmatic, of course there is a corner of me that is as soft as a roasted marshmallow that wants my writing to *get* something on my behalf — honor, support, curiosity, and love — as though an essay or even post were a well-baited fish hook in a stocked pond. Goldberg reminds us that we are good people even without writing, and that although it’s okay to seek the care that we need from friends, not to use our writing to attract it.

Why Do I Write? Goldberg recommends asking oneself this from time to time, and make a list. (She is a maker of lists, like me. For that alone I must like her.) Interestingly, the reason for asking this question is to see that, over time, you will have given every response, from “I am neurotic” to “Because I have something to say.” And to have given every response means that you can exhaust justification, and write “just because you do it.”

Continue Under All Circumstances. This command is in the chapter called, “No Hindrances.” Goldberg says, “You can’t depend on its going smoothly day after day. It won’t be that way. You might have one day that is superb, productive, and the next time you write, you are ready to sign up on a ship headed for Saudi Arabia.”

Use Loneliness. This is the human condition. Don’t fear it, run away from it, fill it with television or distractions. “Taste the bitterness of isolation,” writes Goldberg, “Its ache creates urgency to reconnect with the world.”

Bones is mostly about writing, the generative kind, and not about rewriting or editing. There is some acknowledgement throughout the book that not everything we write is good and, in fact, most of it is junk, but Goldberg our guide is mostly about the activity that generates and accumulates those words on the page. Only at the end of the book does she discuss rereading your own work and rewriting it, but this is not what a writer will come to Bones for. You come for the push.

And, you know, it’s good that I’ve chosen this book as number one in this series, because her message is the very thing I need, now that it’s summer, as I am coming back to writing.

Second in the series: William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, a good foil to Bones: professional advice, cooler passion, yet with a liberating message, too.

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Image of Natalie Goldberg by dickinsonstateu and the one of a dock out into into water, called “Often,” by Sam Ilic, both on Flickr via a Creative Commons license.

3 thoughts on “Writer’s Dozen: Natalie Goldberg and Bones

  1. A wonderful start to your series. The “ick factor” line resonates with me. I remember feeling very excited as I read her books (I actually started with Wild Mind) about 20 years ago. She offers some really helpful advice for getting unstuck and keeping going, which for most writers are not small challenges.

  2. Yes, I’m really with you on the “ick” factor, too, one of the things I tend to “hate” about a lot of the holistically-based (read Buddhism, Yogic, New Age) schlock that comes out these days. It’s just soft in the head.

    However, like Jane, the thing I’ve always loved about her writing exercise books is that her suggestions on how to get going “work”, much as I can barely be restrained anyway….there will be those days when my heart and my brain need to get synched up as my pen lands on that thought and sails with it!

  3. I started writing in early 1990 when my wife was diagnosed w/ lung cancer and soon died shortly after.
    A former girlfriend gave me a copy of your book “writing down the bbones” and it sat there for 15 years, shamefully i admit until recently when I started writing again. I love your whimsy and especially all the anecdotal points of interest and quirky but totally honest means you employ to help your students levitate their writing skills. I’ve already written 4 poems which I had written in pencil in the pages of various chapters! very fun, very alive! Thank you so much for your hippie wisdom andwarmth of ancestral heritage, God Bless Shalom!

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