Writing Down the Bones

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?

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5 responses to “Writing Down the Bones

  1. I read a book named “If You Want To Write” by Brenda Ueland. It was very inspiring, too. I also recommend to read “Outwitting Writer’s Block” by Jenna Glatzer.

  2. Sounds interesting. I might have to add it to my “to read” pile. The last book on writing I bought was How NOT to Write a Novel, and it was quite hilarious.

  3. I love Natalie Goldberg’s book. I read it for the first time this year. She reminded me of my first writing teacher who said that you need to write from your body, not your head.

    Also, you should bring your poems to Cringe night in Brooklyn and read them out loud. That. Would. Be. Awesome.

  4. Haha, love the coleslaw analogy.

    Also, an angst museum would be… interesting.

    I love ON WRITING by Stephen King and OPPOSITE OF FATE by Amy Tan. They’re both sort of memoir-slash-how-to’s.

  5. @ Sarah – Will have to check that one out.

    @ TD – Thanks. How NOT to Write a Novel sounds right up my alley.

    @ Rebecca – Haha, wonderful. OK, now I have another reason to get to NY.

    @ Kristan – I read On Writing, but will have to check out Opposite of Fate. I love the title.

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