Book Review: “Writing Down the Bones”

By Mark Nichol

I was reading Natalie Goldberg’s 2005 edition of her classic writing guide Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, and as I worked my way through its sixty-four short chapters, I became less and less enchanted by her ruminations and suggestions as a sort of fatigue set in.

Then I realized I had been doing it all wrong. Writing Down the Bones is not a book to be absorbed in one sitting, or even sequentially in a handful of reading sessions. Each of those dozens of distinct chapters should be experienced discretely — this is a book for snacking on over a period of time, not gorged on in one or a few meals.

Goldberg shares in the introduction that she put out this book at an ideal time, in the mid-1980s, when many more people than before began to indulge their interest in writing. (Soon, the ubiquity of home computers would ease their effort considerably.) Since then, the book has been used widely in schools and writing workshops as a source of inspiration, and when it’s read piecemeal, I think, it provides a steady diet of encouragement and exercises.

Why? Goldberg’s breezy anybody-can-do-this essays are a little Zen, and sometimes a little kooky, but her comments about how quotidian life can get in the way of striving to become a Great Writer are reassuring, somehow: “This woman has had false starts and personal crises and self-doubt, just like me,” I tell myself, “but here I am, holding in my hands a book she wrote, a book of hers that was published (the second of about a dozen so far), a book that multitudes have read, and continue to read.”

Goldberg recommends writing in many diverse environments: not just at home or in a cafe or at a workshop; how about setting up a spontaneous-writing booth at an outdoor fair or festival? It’s just like those kissing booths of yore — except that instead of giving out smooches for a dollar (did people actually do that once upon a time?), you write a poem on a topic of the customer’s choosing. She says the booth was always a hit.

Her advice ranges from the practical — she prefers to write in longhand rather than on a computer because it seems more personal and closer to the heart — to the spiritual, though even her Zen master is matter of fact: “No matter how many times they knock you down, get up again.” Not very profound, is it? But no writing guide will do the writing for you. All it does it kick you in the keister — and Writing Down the Bones gives you more than a year’s worth of weekly booting for about two dimes at a time.

You can find the book on Amazon.com

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8 Responses to “Book Review: “Writing Down the Bones””

  • Leif G.S. Notae

    I have read some books like this, you have to apply it for a little while and still keep moving before you go on to the next lesson. If you do it right, you can hit that Zen moment.

    As far as the quote goes, there are far too many people who do not get back up when they get knocked down. AS I get rejected, I keep in mind they give me an idea on where my writing is and not to take it personal. Instead of taking weeks to get over it, it is now maybe ten minutes.

    Good review, never read the book myself but I will keep an eye out and see if I can swoop on a copy. Thanks for sharing!

  • Mary

    Once upon a time… has it really been seven years?? as a beginning writer, I read Writing Down the Bones. I went on to read Wild Mind… and for the first time, I understood that my semi-sporadic bursts of crazy writing energy, long periods of writing even though I didn’t feel like it because I knew if I stopped the next burst might not come, my habit of writing long-hand in a world of computers and electric typewriters… all my quirky, nutty little writerly habits… were ok. Writing Down the Bones gave me a glimpse into the world of the grown-up writer, and set the little girl in me free.

    Thanks for the reminder of a book I owe a lot to. I will have to pull out my copy and revisit an old friend.
    -Mary

  • Deborah H

    Thank you, Mark, for reminding us about Natalie Goldberg’s book. I don’t know why I haven’t read it, but I’ll look for it this weekend.

  • Polly Burns

    I’ve read this book and thoroughly enjoyed it. It made me realise that writing isn’t about just sitting at the computer and typing away, it can be much more freeing than that. I now spend one morning a week in a cafe, just writing into a notebook, and somehow lots of different ideas come more quickly, just for the change of environment. When I read the book, I only wrote at the computer, but since implementing the cafe idea, I now write in longhand into a notebook and type up later. Great book.

  • Mark MacKay

    “Writing Down the Bones” is a great book for people who have a position that also includes writing. I’ve conducted workshops for National Park and Forest Rangers whose job descriptions require them to also write the story of their park, historic site or landmark. Short exercises fit into busy schedules.

    I also recommend Gail Sher’s “One Continuous Mistake: Four Noble Truths for Writers.” She may be too quirky for some. Her teaching is related to Zen. http://www.gailsher.com/books.html.

  • BryonM

    Writing Down the Bones is a brilliant book. It has helped me over the years get my ideas out and then come back and craft something worth reading.

  • Freeman Presson

    “Seven times knocked down, eight times get up” _is_ actually a Zen saying. I tripped over it many times in my 15 years in Zen schools.

  • Tracy

    I own this book. It is all worn down and soft around the edges from being read so much. I bought it when it came out and, when my son was old enough, he read it. I agree, it’s meant to be digested in small bites, but I have read through it beginning to end several times when I was stuck and couldn’t get going. The crazy disconnectedness of it helps to get me started writing again.

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