Writing Down the Bones
Natalie Goldberg on the Basics of Writing Practice
Many years ago, when I first had the courage to try writing, I came across the wonderful Natalie Goldberg’s book, ‘Writing Down the Bones’. Until then I’d always thought my writing had to be perfect, with impeccable grammar, sentence structure, and so on. But no – according to Natalie, the secret of writing is to just let yourself go, forget rules and regulations, and silence the censor in your head.
After having written one novel and started another, I still have trouble turning off the critic. It’s a lifelong habit of those of us whose school compositions were judged on form rather than content. But Natalie gave me these liberating strategies for creative writing, and they may help you too. Here are some edited extracts from ‘Writing Down the Bones’:
‘The aim is to burn through to first thoughts, to the place where energy is unobstructed by social politeness or 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. You must be a great warrior when you contact on first thoughts and write from them. Especially at the beginning you may feel great emotions and energy that will sweep you away, but you don’t stop writing. Your internal editor might be saying: “You are a jerk, whoever said you could write, I hate your work, you suck, I’m embarrassed, you have nothing valuable to say, and besides you can’t spell…” Sound familiar? The more clearly you know the editor, the better you can ignore it. Don’t be abstract. Write the real stuff. Be honest and detailed.’
Here are some of Natalie’s strategies:
- Keep your hand moving. (Don’t pause to reread the line you have just written. That’s stalling and trying to get control of what you’re saying.)
- Don’t cross out. (That is editing as you write. Even if you write something you didn’t mean to write, leave it.)
- Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. (Don’t even care about staying within the margins and lines on the page.)
- Lose control.
- Don’t Think. Don’t get logical.
- Go for the jugular. (If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.)
List of ideas when you’re stuck:
- Begin with “I remember.” Write lots of small memories. If you fall into one large memory write that. Just keep going. Don’t be concerned if the memory happened five seconds ago or five years ago. Everything that isn’t in this moment is memory coming alive again as you write. If you get stuck, just repeat the phrase “I remember” again and keep going.
- Who are the people you have loved?
- Write about the streets in your city.
- Describe a grandparent.
- Write about:
- the stars
- the most frightened you’ve ever been
- green places
- how you learned about sex
- your first sexual experience
- the closest you ever felt to God or nature
- reading and books that have changed your life
- physical endurance
- a teacher you hadFinally Natalie urges us:‘The ability to put something down – to tell how you feel about an old husband, an old shoe, or the memory of a cheese sandwich on a gray morning in Miami – that moment you can finally align how you feel inside with the words you write; at that moment you are free because you are not fighting those things inside. You have accepted them, become one with them. 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 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.’