I own too many books about writing, mainly because they provide a deceptively productive way of procrastinating from my writing practice. Some I have abandoned after the first chapter. Some I reference when I need to. Others have become favourites that I have read over and over.
One of my writing books lives permanently on the crooked bookshelf beside my bed. Its pages are yellowed and soft, and it lies open at any page easily. I have delved into it weekly since I carried it home. This luminous book is Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, by Natalie Goldberg. It was first published in 1986 and has sold over a million copies.
If you’re ever feeling stuck or brain-fogged when it comes to writing, or if you just want to read some good, clean writing that cuts through everything, this is the book to have at hand. When I’m staring at the screen and running around in mental circles, I’ll pick up the book and within minutes I’ll be calm and detangled and think, ‘Hey, as a writer, this is what matters’.
I discovered Writing Down the Bones a few years ago at Perth’s annual Save The Children second-hand book sale in Winthrop Hall. I was drawn to its cover, and the idea of writing having ‘bones’. I started reading at the beginning, but soon began jumping through chapters all over the place. Some are a couple of pages, others longer. I want to say that you can open the book at any page and find something to help you (which is true), but that makes the book sound like a self-help manual. It’s not.
It is, however, a comfort, a trigger for inspiration, a catalyst for exploration, a reminder of stuff we know but too often forget, and a personal account of the writing journey by a great writer. The thing that I come back to, time and again, is Goldberg’s suggestion of sitting down and writing, just writing freely, straight out of your head onto the page, hand moving constantly, no editing or deleting or backspacing, no set agenda of what you’re going to write, just letting it out and following where it goes without judging or trying to control the content. Ten minutes of free writing, timed, go for it. Or half an hour. Or whatever you’re up for that day.
As a creative writer, too often I tell myself what I must write, or what I should be writing, instead of letting my mind and body tell me. I forget to get quiet and listen to what’s inside, instead of looking outside for things to write about. All it takes is for me to sit down at the kitchen table, start writing about the colour of the apple in the bowl in front of me, and it will trigger a memory of a similarly green dress that my grandmother sewed for me as a child, and how she later sewed a green velvet dress for my high school ball, and how the complicated boning in the dress stuck into my hips all night while my first ever (thoroughly bejewelled) high heels murdered my toes – yet they’re still at the back of my wardrobe somewhere – and then how my one-year old son saw a photo of me in that dress and pointed and said ‘mummy’, even though it was taken twenty years ago.
At any point in such a textual wander your mind can latch onto a fact or an image or a sliver of memory and run with it to a place you never consciously planned to visit. Writing Down the Bones is about being present to capture these ‘first thoughts’, the raw stuff that emerges unbidden from daydreams, things that your mind seizes up, throws into your vision, and that you catch and write on the fly. I have repeatedly experienced the way Goldberg’s ideas lead to fresh, surprising writing, and would encourage any writer to pick up a copy and absorb a little bit of her Zen writing wisdom.