A Writer’s Rx: Developing a Writing Practice

Photo by lowjumpingfrog, courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons license. Rule number one of the timed exercise (freewrite): Don't let your hand stop moving!

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?

AND then don’t forget to get up and get this book! If you’re feeling lazy, you can go to Amazon or Powell’s and pick it up there, without moving an inch!

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.



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14 responses to “A Writer’s Rx: Developing a Writing Practice

  1. Had this book for a while; my favourite chapter is called Fighting the Tofu!

  2. I LOVE the Fighting Tofu chapter!!! I used to hand out copies of it to my students when I was teaching freshman composition– usually right around when their first essays were almost due. Maybe to share with them that they’re not alone, writing and disciplining oneself is write is hard for everyone…. Anyway, glad you also like this book. Any advice for using its chapters as structured writing exercises? Was speaking with a friend about using it, since it is a little more conceptual/inspirational than detailed prescriptive exercises (e.g.: start every sentence with a new letter, one-sentence stories, etc).

  3. 对我来说,每天找到几分钟认认真真地练习写,这就不容易。 可能《writing donw the bones〉〉那本书可以帮我一下。谢谢。

  4. Thanks for this recommendation, I’ve read Bird by Bird, Elements of Style, and On Writing, all of which have made me a better writer. I vaguely remember hearing about Writing Down the Bones, and seeing how it helped you, i will certainly pick up a copy when I get the chance.

    I found your blog via Freshly Pressed. I love your writing voice. It’s very confident and “your own”. Also, it’s amazing to hear your stories as a Fullbright scholar. I was looking into applying for a Fullbright scholarship and I sat through a full 2-hour meeting before realizing I had to be a grad student (i’m undergrad…) Oh well.

    Thanks for this awesome blog. The insight into your writing and life is invaluable to an aspiring writer.

    • Ben- how sweet of you to say, thanks for the comments! I want to check out Bird by Bird again, I believe I’ve read and used excerpts of the book without ever reading it in its entirety. (“Shitty First Drafts” is from there, right? That’s a major favorite of mine!) I was a frustrated fiction writer all through my undergrad years, and there are times when I feel my voice is *still* evolving, absolutely…so if I am allowed to give advice, it’s to persevere at all costs!!

      Also, you can definitely apply for a Fulbright Research Grant as a senior in college, for the year after you graduate (although some countries recommend being in grad school or having an advanced degree). And then there’s an English Teaching Assistant Fellowship (ETA for short) that is available in many countries, in which right-out-of-college aged applicants are encouraged! Taiwan has a huge ETA program. My friend Ashley is going to guest post about her ETA app process soon, and I plan to give more info about applying for and getting a Fulbright in future weeks… so hope you stay tuned and thanks for reading!

  5. Just finding time to practice my writing everyday and actually have stuff written down can be difficult. I think this book will help. Thank you for the recommendation!!! 😀

  6. I am definitely going to look for this book tomorrow.
    Thanks for the recommendation!

  7. Thanks for the book recommendation; I’ve just purchased Writing Down The Bones. For all iPad owners: this book is £9.49 in the iBooks store but only £6.49 on Kindle. I wish iBooks were better value.

  8. As you know, I had a similar experience with this book–first read it in college when I got it as a birthday gift, and have opened it quite a few times since then. Lately, I’ve fallen into a writing slump (really, a gaping cavern from which there’s little hope of climbing out), so maybe it’s time to pull it from the shelf again. 🙂

  9. zaidaisabella

    That excerpt impressed me. I will definitely be taking a look at that book. It reminds me of the rhetoric class I took a few years ago, which was what delivered my writing from average fictional blurbs to stuff people actually wanted to read. Thanks for sharing it!

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