If you want to write, I recommend that you first go buy a copy of Natalie Goldberg‘s book Writing Down the Bones. Just go to your local bookshop and have a look at the first few chapters (chapters are typically 1-2 pages long). If you are intrigued, pick it up, along with an empty notebook and a pen. Go home, and set a timer for ten minutes, and do some writing exercises. It will free your soul.*
I won’t belabor this story, but the first time I read Writing Down the Bones, it was the fall semester of my freshman year of college; I was 18 years old and it changed my life. Our freshman composition teacher had assigned it, along with a book of writing mechanics (punctuation, MLA citation rules, and so forth). So when I settled down to read a few chapters of Goldberg’s book, I had no idea what was about to happen.
And now, 9 years and 10,000 miles later, during this month and now full summer of daily writing–for the book, the blog, stand-alone essays, personal correspondence, or just for the PRACTICE– it has been my guide, moral support, and primary reference for igniting the flow of writing energy. Sometimes I will leave off work for the day, knowing that I have a hard section of a hard chapter for tomorrow, and will assign myself a few sections of Writing Down the Bones to look at and respond to when I start work the next day– literally, to warm up with.
It is like my Writing Rx, a prescription for all maladies: if I anticipate working on an emotional or personal section, I might read the chapters called “Living Twice” or “The Ordinary and the Extraordinary,” for comfort and encouragement. Whereas if I am bracing myself for a research-dense history section, my brain might be calling out for a reminder about “Original Detail” for rigor, or “One Plus One Equals a Mercedes-Benz,” for levity and humor to lift my daunted spirits.
Here’s an excerpt from the chapter called “Writing as a Practice,” so if you’d like to get a taste of Goldberg’s wisdom and teaching at home! Let me know how it goes– feel free to comment below with your thoughts. How do you create a writing practice and stay disciplined? What are your favorite writing exercises? What Writer’s Rx you use to stay sane and energized with the process?
Excerpt from “Writing as a Practice,” from Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, pages 11-13:
When you write, don’t say, “I’m going to write a poem.” That attitude will freeze you right away. Sit down with the least expectation of yourself; say, “I am free to write the worst junk in the world.” You have to give yourself the space to write a lot without a destination. I’ve had students who said they decided they were going to write the great American novel and haven’t written a line since. If every time you sat down, you expected something great, writing would always be a great disappointment. Plus, that expectation would also keep you from writing…..
Often I can look around the room at my students as they write and can tell which ones are really on and present at a given time in their writing. They are more intensely involved and their bodies are hanging loose. Again, it is like running. There’s little resistance when the run is good. all of you is moving; there’s not you separate from the runner. In writing, when you are truly on, there’s no writer, no paper, no pen, no thoughts. Only writing does writing– everything else is gone.
One of the main aims in writing practice is to learn to trust your own mind and body; to grow patient and non-aggressive. Art lives in the Big World. One poem or story doesn’t matter one way or the other. It’s the process of writing and life that matters. Too many writers have written great books and gone insane or alcoholic or killed themselves. This process teaches about sanity. We are trying to become sane along with our poems and stories….
Writing practice embraces your whole life and doesn’t demand any logical form: no Chapter 19 following the action in Chapter 18. It’s a place that you can come to wild and unbridled, mixing the dream of your grandmother’s soup with the astounding clouds outside your window. It is undirected and has to do with all of you right in your present moment. Think of writing practice as loving arms you come to illogically and incoherently. It’s our wild forest where we gather energy before going to prune our garden, write our fine books and novels. It’s a continual practice.
Sit down right now. Give me this moment. Write whatever’s running through you. You might start with “this moment” and end up writing about the gardenia you wore at your wedding seven years ago. That’s fine. Don’t try to control it. Stay present with whatever comes up, and keep your hand moving.
from Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, by Natalie Goldberg. Shambhala, Boston & London, 1986.
*Note: Results not guaranteed but actually rather frequent.