Review and summary: Writing Down The Bones, by Natalie Goldberg
One of the best ways to improve your writing is to study other forms.
Like poetry, for example.
Natalie Goldberg is the author of 15 books, a painter, and a poet, among other things. Her book “Writing Down the Bones” is a how-to manual on fostering a writing practice that reduces creative inhibitions and pushes our inner critic on the sidelines where it belongs.
I pulled together some of the most surprising quotes and lessons that apply to both new and experienced writers. Then I sprinkled in observations from my own writing struggles. Can you relate to these?
Lean into first thoughts
To summon your most interesting and emotionally resonant work, ignore your inhibitions while drafting.
First thoughts are also unencumbered by ego, by that mechanism in us that tries to be in control
Go for the jugular. (If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.)
This one’s a personal struggle. One friend in particular is always pushing me to draw more of myself into my writing--including this essay.
I’m learning the “scary essays”--those that reveal personal struggles and other things I prefer to broom under the carpet--often resonate most.
Even when writing about a less personal topic--a book review, for example--it’s still important to blend personal insights and stories into the piece. Writing personally makes it yours, and forms a stronger connection with the reader.
Give your writing time
The internet makes us feel like everything must be created and shared immediately.
This is nonsense.
Let your experiences and insights marinate and age, like a good steak.
Hemingway wrote about Michigan while sitting in a café in Paris. “Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan. I did not know it was too early for that because I did not know Paris well enough.”
Time provides perspective. Observations and new feelings only reach the surface after we’ve had some time to reflect. Go ahead and draft immediately, if you want.
But come back later with a new perspective, ready to layer on deeper observations and feelings.
I often do this with book summaries and reviews. My perspective shifts and ripens with time as something in the back of my brain works on what I read.
Write with a beginner’s mind
Become a tourist in your own life.
Even the mundane details can be approached as new. I’ve heard James Altucher say he sometimes tries to live life as an alien in his own body. What would be interesting, or odd, about the activities, people, and places you experience every day if someone else lived your life?
Writers, when they write, need to approach things for the first time each time.
Bring fresh eyes to your life looking at it—and writing from—a newcomer’s perspective.
Saying “I’m not a writer” is fear talking
The ability to write is universal.
Again, but louder: THE ABILITY TO WRITE IS UNIVERSAL.
You tap your writing power by practicing and publishing.
Katagiri Roshi said, “Capability is like a water table below the surface of earth.” No one owns it, but you can tap it. You tap it with your effort and it will come through you
I wrote a newsletter for a year with nearly zero subscriber growth. I started with 75 subscribers.
A year later: 90.
Today: over 900.
Keep working. Keep writing. Keep publishing.
Write. Publish. Release.
Each piece of writing is a snapshot of you, from you, in time. Release it and move on to the next piece.
Don’t identify too strongly with your work. Stay fluid behind those black-and-white words. They are not you. They were a great moment going through you ...
You today are not the words you wrote yesterday, last week, last year. Let go and keep writing so you can discover who you are today.
For example: last year I wrote about how I obliterated sugar from my diet.
Guess what? Sugar is back in my diet. And now I’m whittling it down again.
That doesn’t make the essay untrue. Sugar was out of my diet, at that time.
And now it’s a different time.
Release the writing. Then write something new.
Forget your interests. Write about your obsessions.
Your obsessions elicit deeper emotions, deeper energy. That’s more interesting.
Your main obsessions have power; they are what you will come back to in your writing over and over again. And you’ll create new stories around them. So you might as well give in to them.
But how do we discern between our interests and obsessions?
For me, my interests are things I passively consume: pro sports. Star Wars.
My obsessions are things I regularly do: write, workout, read books.
My obsessions fuel writing consistency. And that work also seems to resonate more strongly with readers.
Risk brings writing rewards
Writing that feels safe isn’t interesting because it’s common.
A little too much exposure is better than too little. Take some risks.
Sometimes we expose ourselves before we understand what we have done. That’s hard, but even more painful is to freeze up and expose nothing
This one is tough in the modern cancel culture era. Sometimes putting ourselves out there comes with consequences, from strangers or friends and family.
If we don’t push our boundaries, our writing doesn’t grow. We don’t grow.
The boundary changes with time. At first, publishing a newsletter exceeded a boundary for me. Then, writing more personal essays exceeded a boundary.
When I got personal and wrote about my own struggles with beer, it resonated far more than if I’d written a generic piece about the state of alcohol consumption today, for example.
Your writing has a courage muscle which gets stronger over time. As it strengthens, you have to push harder to challenge it.
Cure writers’ block with food
Food is common ground. It’s an entry point to relatable descriptions and emotional resonance. Start there when you're stuck.
IF YOU FIND you are having trouble writing and nothing seems real, just write about food. It is always solid and is the one thing we all can remember about our day.
Food is great way to start a scene by dumping the reader into a sensory experience.
Someday, I’ll write about some of the most contentious and inane business meetings I’ve ever attended. They occurred offsite, in hotel meeting rooms. And what’s the one thing I remember most about them besides all the bile and posturing that went on?
What we ate and drank.
“The coffee was cold and bitter that morning, a harbinger of the the day’s discussions to come.”
Something like that.
Great writers make the ordinary fascinating
Hemingway-esque adventures are not required to write well.
A writer’s job is to make the ordinary come alive, to awaken ourselves to the specialness of simply being.
Learn to write about the ordinary. Give homage to old coffee cups, sparrows, city buses, thin ham sandwiches. Make a list of everything ordinary you can think of. Keep adding to it.
Think of wild adventures as special effects. They can inject pizazz into a piece of writing, but it’s the ability to find interesting observations about the mundane that form the backbone of interesting writing.
Realize almost no one writes online
Very few people write online, even though it can feel like everyone does.
Writing is not a natural part of the American context. Use that attitude to your advantage.
If you publish online, you are committing a rare and brave act. Congratulations. Now go do it again.
Writing Down The Bones: unique and timeless approaches to the craft of writing
Even though Writing Down The Bones was published in 1986, the book contains loads of great advice for digital writers, helping them to formulate a reliable writing practice and to lean into the feelings and topics that feel the most scary and true.