Writing Down My Bones

Something about Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down The Bones grated on my sensibilities and I took an almost instant dislike to the book. So much of it is at best abstract and at worst wishy-washy and metaphysical. Goldberg is first and foremost a Bhuddist, she quotes somebody by the name of Katagiri Roshi so extensively that I think he deserved a writing credit. (No, really. By the time you reach page 111 and she decides to make reference instead to self-help guru Tony Robbins it feels like a breath of fresh air.) While there are inherent psychological concerns to any act of creation, I didn’t think the idea that ‘ants are elephants’ (a curious study in metaphor) rang true or that pretending to smoke in a cafe would somehow make me a better writer.

But a funny thing happened. As I was reading the book (and rehearsing in my head the damning critique I would give it in my blog), something did sink in. Goldberg writes:

How to generate writing ideas, things to write about? Whatever’s in front of you is a good beginning. Then move out into the streets. You can go anyplace. Tell me everything you know. Don’t worry if what you know you can’t prove or haven’t studied. I know the fields around Elkton because I say I do and because I want to walk out into them forever. Don’t worry that forever might be the one week you’re there as resident poet or salesman for a tractor company or a traveler on the way west. Own anything you want in your writing and then let it go.

The next thing I knew I was writing. Despite telling myself I was just going to read a chapter or two before bed, I was writing. Infact I wrote for several hours before eventually going to bed somewhere around 3am. I realised in that moment that there were things that I had never shared with anyone, things that I wanted to write about. Even things that happened fifteen years ago were so brilliantly encapsulated in my memory, and they wanted to be written.

Despite my earlier mentioned misgivings, this book does have a lot of good qualities. There is some really practical advice about stationery (pens, notebooks), idea generation, writing motivations and techniques. I was particularly interested in reading up on the ettiquette of writing in cafes and restaurants since it is something that I had been wondering about for months. If you are feeling philosophical about your writing, then by all means pick up a copy of this book. It will certainly help you approach subjects in new and refreshing (if at times oddball) ways.

2 comments… add one
  • Oh, I love this book. It’s pretty esoteric at times, but sometimes that’s what I need. It doesn’t have a strong attitude of workmanship, but I guess for most of us the hard part is just getting started. I’ve never read a good book on writing that really knows how to address structure, revision or research. Have you?

  • Mary,

    It definitely is esoteric and I guess that is both the thing you loved about it and the thing I struggled with. In a similar vein I haven’t really seen anything on the mechanics of research, editing and structure. If I find across anything along those lines I’ll let you know.

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