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.