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Natalie Goldberg

Natalie Goldberg is the author of ten books. Writing Down the Bones, her first, has sold over one million copies and has been translated into twelve languages. For over thirty years she has practiced Zen and taught seminars in writing as a spiritual practice. She lives in New Mexico.

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"I'm convinced that none of the writers of my acquaintance can go another day without a copy of Natalie Goldberg's magical manual Writing Down the Bones."

– Linda Weltner, The Boston Globe

"The author's style is refreshingly informal. This book is highly recommended to readers who would like to develop their ability to write, and to those who would like to know how to use writing as a Zen-like activity to help them on their personal journeys toward self-discovery."

– New Age Retailer

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Writing Down the Bones

A Voice In My Head

02/08/12

I found Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones in a small-town library four years ago. It was an accident — I was looking for a book of poems. I read it that night in a dim attic bedroom with the sloped ceiling crushing my neck. I also read it on a summer beach in Wellfleet, in a coffee shop in Boston, on a sleepless bus ride to Manhattan, during a blizzard in Minneapolis, in a hostel in Dublin, at the airport in Milwaukee. I read it a year ago. I read it last week. It is a book about writing, it is a book about life, it is a book about the inner workings of my own mind.

I’m what you might call a secret writer. I have things I want to say but I’m not sure I want anyone to hear them. So I go to work every day. I look at spreadsheets and databases. In my secret life, I write things. Most people who know me have no idea.

I have some doubt and insecurity. I avoid writing about the hard things. I throw my writing away. I throw away entire notebooks (lots of notebooks). I write in isolation. I refuse to share it with anyone. In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg confronts the doubt that whips around inside of me and cripples me again and again. The brief chapters are about details, practice, deep loneliness and fear. She understands the critic, the editor, the censor — all battling for attention in my own head:

“If those characters in you want to fight, let them fight. Meanwhile, the sane part of you should quietly get up, go over to your notebook, and begin to write from a deeper, more peaceful place.”

Writing Down the Bones is full of ideas — triggers to writing. Sometimes I’m avoiding myself and I need to get over it; I read a few pages just to get the itch back. Sometimes I need to feel the tremor in my fingers, the frantic heart-racing desperation to get the words out of me. Sometimes I need to be reminded that I’m not finished, even when I think I’ve quit. Every now and then I read the whole thing, front to back, very late at night.

At the core of Writing Down the Bones is Natalie Goldberg’s method, her writing practice. It is based on this one simple rule: keep your hand moving. When you keep your hand moving, you begin to uncover first thoughts — the ones that flash across your mind before you have a chance to mold them or censor them. I finally understood the practice when I was stranded in the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport during a raging blizzard hell storm last year.

I often carry Writing Down the Bones with me when I fly — just in case my other books turn out to be bad. I had it with me that winter in Minnesota when my flight was cancelled. I couldn’t get on another flight to Boston for three days. It was impossible to get anywhere in the storm. So I pulled out the book, read a few pages and chained my elbows to a table at Starbucks. At Natalie’s prompting, I wrote for those three days, almost without pause. I pushed past what I had thought was my limit. I wrote until my hands were cramped and the cheap airport notebook was full. I wrote with my jaw on the table in shock. My feet were cold. I was drinking mint tea. I could hear it in my head: “Just ten more minutes. Keep your hand moving. Go.”

“. . . 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. It’s a great opportunity to capture the oddities of your mind. Explore the rugged edge of your thought. Like grating a carrot, give the paper the colorful coleslaw of your consciousness.”

When I found this book four years ago, I had just left my Minnesota home for the East Coast. My upbringing and culture had been instantly reduced to stereotypes. I was a stereotype. Throughout Writing Down the Bones, Natalie is describing her own experiences living in Minnesota. It’s nothing special. She studied at the Minnesota Zen Center in Minneapolis. She wrote at the diner with orange booths in Owatonna. But that night in the attic bedroom, it felt like a secret language she was speaking solely for my benefit. She was teaching in schools, writing poems, practicing zazen, getting a divorce — all in Minnesota. It wasn’t even that I loved Minnesota — I just felt alone. On that night, in those pages, I was less alone.

Life happens in no particular order and each moment is just each moment. There’s the drunk man on the street and the stray cat on the back porch and the coffee you spilled on your shoes. There’s the thought in your head and the pen in your hand. There’s the notebook on the table. There’s the word you have written that someone else will read. It just happens. Each moment.

I am learning how to be vulnerable these days. How to open up wide and say This is it, this is really it. This is who I am. Sometimes it hurts and I don’t mean in a good way. It just hurts. Stretching becomes cracking, splitting, breaking.

I am also learning how to share.

I am also learning how to speak.

“Our lives are at once ordinary and mythical. We live and die, age beautifully or full of wrinkles. We wake in the morning, buy yellow cheese, and hope we have enough money to pay for it. At the same instant we have these magnificent hearts that pump through all sorrow and all winters we are alive on the earth. We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded. This is how writers must think, this is how we must sit down with pen in hand. We were here; we are human beings; this is how we lived.”

Ask Natalie Goldberg into your heart. I’m serious. Hers is the generous voice that forgives me for my doubt and tells me to keep going. She asks me what I’m afraid of and shows me the path that’s already in front of me, that my feet are already walking. She hands me the pen again and says, “Here. Just write. Go.”

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4 Comments

  1. Kathy Fish said on 02/08/12 at 12:53 pm Reply

    Terrific review of a life-changing book. Long before i ever began writing seriously, I mentioned to a co-worker that I enjoyed writing stories. Anyway, word got to another person in the office I hardly knew and one day she walked up to me and gave me this book, as a gift. It had similarly profound effect on me. Thanks for the reminder.

    Reply

    Lisa Buchs said on 02/08/12 at 4:59 pm

    Thanks Kathy! Anytime someone tells me they want to write, I tell them to read this book. I think I might start gifting it out too – that’s a great idea!

  2. Jordan Blum said on 02/10/12 at 11:46 am Reply

    I’d argue that most of our favorite pieces are found by accident; you pick up a book or click on a random poem and it may just change your life. And I relate to the secret writer persona. Hell, 2 – 3 a.m. is when I’m most passionate and motivated to write, and while I’d like to have my pieces published, I’m not sure I want them read (and thus, judged).

    Reply

    Lisa Buchs said on 02/10/12 at 5:48 pm

    I agree. I always open up a random book or two when I’m in a bookshop…just in case.

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