So I was recently browsing at my new favorite bookstore, the aptly titled Last Bookstore on Main and Fourth in downtown LA, and I ran into an old friend from middle school.
Writing Down the Bones was perhaps my first, and really only writing guide I have taken seriously. I first read it in seventh grade writing class (I went to a very progressive Montessori school that offered electives like that in middle school). Author Natalie Goldberg’s voice captivated me, and still does. I have parsed other “how to write fiction” books, but never got into them. Either the author offered too much advice, or none at all.
I’ll give you an example of how great this book was. In the introduction, Goldberg writes “the book can be read consecutively and that may be good the first time through. You may also open to any chapter and read it…And don’t just read it. Write. Trust yourself. Learn your own needs. Use this book.” She offers me the freedom to find what I need from the book, and she doesn’t dictate the “do this, then you’ll be able to do that” approach, either. Writing is about finding one’s voice, one’s own way, and she understands that.
And the book is filled with gems. She describes an automatic writing exercise to get the juices flowing: “the aim is to burn through to first thoughts, to the place where energy is unobstructed by social politeness or the internal censor, to the place where you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel…Like grating a carrot, give the paper the colorful coleslaw of your consciousness.”
Look, I know it sounds like a hippie energy awareness exercise, but it works. As a writer, there are so many internal processes that your mind has to ignore to get to the truth of the writing. If writing is about honesty, then first thoughts are truth serum.
I remember so enjoying the class (and the books) that I sort of became compulsive in seventh grade about writing at least a page a day. I still have these poems, but I can’t really make sense of them. You talk about adolescent angst, this is super-angst. It should go into an angst museum somewhere.
But I’m glad I wrote them, because they helped me sort out some of my problems and think about my life a bit more analytically than simply letting the tension build. It worked (and works) as an outlet.
And that’s another of Goldberg’s lessons: writing isn’t about being famous, it’s not even about finishing some magnum opus, it’s about writing. And if you can find a way to fit writing into your life, then that’s a gift, and one you should hold onto.
What are your favorite books on writing? What else in the genre would you recommend?