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Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within Paperback – February 2, 2016
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About the Author
NATALIE GOLDBERG is the author of fourteen books, including Writing Down the Bones, which has changed the way writing is taught in this country. She teaches retreats nationally and internationally. She lives in New Mexico.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
"Julia, come on in! It’s great!" Natalie Goldberg’s voice carried over the roar of the Rio Grande river. She had invited me to go swimming, assuring me that our jumping-off point would be safe and placid. It was nothing like safe and placid. The river’s current was strong, and it took a strong swimmer—like Natalie—to brave its depths.
"Come on in," she called again, "You’ll love it." And so, egged on by her enthusiasm, I stepped into the current. It was both strong and swift. Losing my footing, I found myself sputtering. Natalie laughed. "Don’t you love it?" she called. "Just relax." True to her word, Natalie herself rode the current. "You’re doing fine," she assured me, as I mentally wrote my obituary, "Writer takes the plunge and drowns."
Asked to write a foreword to this, the thirtieth anniversary edition of Writing Down the Bones, I found myself remembering that afternoon on the Rio, and the way that Natalie’s bold enthusiasm lured me from the shore. “Why, it’s just like her teachings,” I realized. A million-plus readers have followed Natalie’s bold plunge into the world of words. "Just dive in," urges Natalie, teaching, "Begin where you are." Inspired by her conviction that all of us have lively stories to tell, Natalie’s students put pen to the page, following her enticing leads. Writing Down the Bones is a book of short essays. True to her word, she begins at the beginning: "Beginner’s mind, pen and paper." From there, it’s time to push off from the shore. "Keep your hand moving," she commands. "Don’t cross out, don’t worry about spelling, punctuation and grammar; lose control, don’t think, don’t get logical, go for the jugular."
In other words, take the plunge.
"Do you want a tomato?" It’s another afternoon with Natalie, twenty years later. This time, we are standing at her kitchen counter, and she is urging me to just take one succulent bite. The tomato is home-grown, plucked by Natalie’s own hand. And though I’m not used to eating a tomato like a peach, Natalie models the daring it takes to consider the tomato an end in itself, and not a mere ingredient.
"Why, it’s just like her teaching," I caught myself thinking. It’s a matter of appetite. It’s a matter of satisfaction. Natalie’s writing is filled with savory details. The tomato she plucked from her garden can yield an entire essay.
"Include original detail," Natalie urges her students. Our lives are filled with details, like the ripe red tomato plucked from the vine. Natalie’s writing is filled with food, and her appetite for life gives us food for thought.
—Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way
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When I purchased the book, I saw nothing to indicate that it was specific to one particular form of writing, but after reading it, I feel that the author speaks much more to poetry than other forms of writing. The author on several occasions admonishes us to write in the moment and not dwell on ideas we've had in the past. She relates an experience of one student who had a fully-formed idea while out jogging but couldn't reproduce it when s/he got home to the blank page. Goldberg went into a spiel about how we should just let go of those thoughts that are not inspired or conceived in the moment that we sit down to write. That's where I have a fundamental disagreement with her and feel her philosophy becomes almost destructive to new writers. Perhaps poetry functions that way. Perhaps someone has to have that spontaneous quality about their work in order for it to be fresh and exciting. I don't know. I'm not a poet. However, for novels, short stories, and longer works, you would be a fool to let great ideas get away. Personally, I like to let some of those ideas percolate for weeks and even years. Yes, we mature and our perspectives change, but in a lot of cases that only means that we can approach a subject in a different way as we grow older. It doesn't make the subject any better or worse to write about.
Bottom line: I came away from the book with mixed feelings. In my opinion she crossed over the line of reason too often in the book to put forth her spiritual views. It was like a one day seminar that gets you pumped up, but then you get home and review your notes, and realize, sadly, that it was mainly hype with very little substance. I can summarize her tome with three bullet points: Be true to thine ownself. Always observe the world around you. Make writing a habit in your life.
Goldberg suggests an interesting method. She asks you to practice writing. This allows you to simultaneously cultivate all aspects of your writing without the stress of having to produce a masterpiece. I was recently reading Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers which suggests that putting in the time into a given activity is the most important aspect to success. For example, he claims that the Beatles became good because they spent thousands of hours working anonymously in a club. So I guess her advice jives with his opinion. But it seems that writing practice can be frightening and stressful too. Her advice: just do it. To be fair, what else could she say? Don't be afraid. The advice is as obvious as Gladwell's Outliers but its amazing how many people don't really know it.
The book is an interesting read. It's one approach to writing. I have to say that while I am not going to be following much of the advice (not yet) the book made for interesting reading. That Goldberg is in love with the mind and imagination is abundantly clear. Her mind goes places I wouldn't want mine to (i.e. 1 + 1 = Mercedes Benz). The downside is that if you are looking for a particular answer for your craft, this book will not supply it. Writing Down the Bones is rather bit out there in term of its approach to writing. But it's still a valid method. Writing as Meditation.
Note: Several reviewers have claimed that she is trying to convert people to Zen Buddhism. I don't think she is. She mentions her guru a lot though so if that kind of thing annoys you, its best to steer clear of the book. The central idea of the book is writing as meditation so this shouldn't be surprising.