“In college I was in love with literature. I mean wild about it. I typed poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins over and over again so I could memorize them. I read John Milton, Shelley, Keats aloud and then swooned on my narrow bed in the dormitory. In college in the late sixties, I read almost exclusively male writers, usually dead, from England and the rest of Europe. They were very far removed from my daily life, and though I loved them, none of them reflected my experience. I must have subconsciously surmised that writing was not within my ken. It never occurred to me to write, though I secretly wanted to marry a poet.”
Informed by long experience as a writing teacher and a mindful Zen philosophy, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within is one of those classic treatises on writing: It’s essentially a collection of insights and advice on how to discover one’s own writing practice. I was particularly struck by the passage above, from her introduction, that resonates with my own thoughts on writing and literature: the concept of not seeing oneself as part of a community because one does not fit its apparent demographics. (In this case, writers are old, dead, white men.) As for myself, I owe my ability to articulate said thoughts to Chimamanda Adichie’s 2009 TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.” My own experience is more concerned with interest and subject matter than identity–at the least, perhaps that is so, though I could certainly explore the latter as well–yet the same general theme emerges. Thus, I find myself drawn to the work.
After the introduction, the book takes a turn toward what I might call very conventional attitudes toward writing, offering (sound, if standard) advice on the order of “make yourself write freely for set periods of time” or “don’t be afraid to write garbage” and “pursue the parts you want to flinch away from.” Goldberg also counsels openness and receptiveness, presence in the moment, and trusting “in our own voice and process” (14-15). In many ways she is conveying her own writing practice as a model for the reader to consider in forming their own. To my mind, her approach is a bit more freewheeling than I’d be comfortable with, but then my early training as a writer was in journalism. It’s hardly a surprise that I might see things a bit differently. However, Goldberg’s chapters tend to be short and to the point, each focused on a specific element of advice, which helps add to the book’s value in a reference or quick read sort of capacity. I can see returning to particular chapters for inspiration, affirmation, or advice as needed.
Overall, I might consider this an excellent book for those very early in their writing careers. It’s a gentle and very feeling-friendly approach to writing that may help those who have not yet developed much of a practice.
Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. 1986. Boston & London: Shambhala, 2010. Kindle file.