Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg is one of those writing books which seems very familiar to me in the sense that I feel like I’ve seen the cover somewhere before but I have no memory of whether or not I’ve actually read it.
In this case, I think I did try to read Writing Down the Bones at one point, maybe when I was a teenager. I imagine that the chapter titles like “Fighting Tofu” might have put me off at the time. I didn’t want weird philosophical stuff. I wanted to know how to write. I wanted to know the rules. But not, like, The Elements of Style-type rules. The rules of story writing. I needed to know if I was getting it right.
I’d like to say that as an adult I’m less concerned with “the rules.” The truth is, I still read writing advice primarily to discern if what I’m already doing is “right” rather than to learn something new. But I’m a little more open to Natalie Goldberg’s approach now than I probably would have been as a teenager.
Of course, I’m now also interested in the role of research in creative writing.
Writing Down the Bones actually comes up a lot in the other books on writing on my list. A lot of the other authors recommend Writing Down the Bones as a good resource, but when they do it always seems to come with a warning that while Goldberg applies ideas from Zen and meditation to writing, the book itself isn’t necessarily spiritual in nature. The implication always seems to be that Goldberg’s book is useful despite the fact that it used Zen as a framework rather than because of it.
My first time reading this book back in the day, I do remember some of the Zen elements seeming weird to me. But this warning is probably less necessary now that mindfulness and meditation have become such big things. I actually started reading this book for this project around the same time I started playing around with a popular meditation app. Some of the lessons from that app helped me put into better context Goldberg’s discussions about things like the beginner’s mind and writing as a practice than I could the first time around. So it doesn’t seem weird to me anymore but I can see how it might have put off potential readers when it was first published and when some of these other authors were making their recommendations.
I was also reading this book around the same time I attended a free presentation by Marion Roach Smith, a popular memoir writer and writing teacher, who told all of the aspiring writers in the audience that writing exercises are a waste of time. Goldberg is maybe more focused on free writing than directed exercises, but I think this would still qualify under Smith’s definition.
While I don’t necessarily agree that writing exercises and free writing are a waste of time, I’ll admit that they are two types of writing that don’t necessarily work for me personally. I don’t know that I’ve had anything particularly valuable come out of the type of free writing Goldberg advocates for so heavily.
What I do find valuable, though, is writing with the rules off, which is probably closer to the shitty first draft idea from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird but in the same spirit as free writing. Both are about the importance of producing something without worrying that it’s actually any good. Lamott’s point is that you can make it better later. Goldberg’s is that you don’t have to wait until you’re “ready” to start writing.
This reminds me of something that’s commonly said about running, which is that in order to call yourself a “runner,” you don’t have to run races or win medals or own all of the right gear or otherwise be a member of the running elite. All you have to do is run. Goldberg’s stance on writing is basically that in order to be a writer, you don’t need to be a genius who produces Great Literature (or poetry) 100% of the time. All you have to do is write. I kind of like that.
Research makes writing less accessible to aspiring writers
Goldberg doesn’t really talk about research directly. What she does have to say seems to carry some mixed messages. On the one hand, learning from experts can enhance your writing. On the other, when you free write, you’re supposed to challenge yourself not to lift your pen from the page. Research is a form of lifting your pen from the page. Worse, it can prevent you from getting started in the first place.
I said before that Goldberg’s stance is essentially that anyone can write, just like (theoretically) anyone can run. You don’t need a special genius to do it. You just have to commit to your practice and put your pen to the paper. This is important because when other writers treat research as a barrier to productivity or creativity, the implication seems to be that Real Authors don’t need to do research because Real Authors can produce Great Literature without it. But Goldberg’s approach is much more about making writing seem accessible. It’s not that you should already know this stuff. It’s that you don’t have to know it in order to get started.
Start where you are
If there’s anything I admire about Writing Down the Bones, it’s the general attitude that when it comes to writing, it’s possible to just start where you are, no matter where that is. So many other writing books make it sound like you need to either be a natural genius or have put in the time and effort to learn all the rules related to the mechanics and storytelling before you even think about putting pen to paper. Or that you have to have had a particular kind of life experience. My younger self (the one that put this book down because it didn’t tell me what I wanted to know to make sure I was “getting it right”) could have benefited from Goldberg’s stance that you already have everything you need in order to begin.