Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg


This is the first book I wanted to read when ZenScribe came up with the idea of reviewing books on writing. The reason is that Writing Down the Bones is the fulcrum of a wonderful writing group I am a part of. This book was like a mystical object to me- something that held all the prompts in the world and many secrets to being a really good writer.

So when I opened it like some kind of sacred text, I expected Prompts that would unleash a tidal wave of writing euphoria. When I read it, there were not too many prompts, except for a chapter on where you could look for them. It felt like reading real good advice, the sort that doesn’t feel like advice.

Writing Down the Bones

Natalie Goldberg has incorporated many cues from her master Katagiri Roshi to cultivate the  open mindedness that is so essential for writing. Her chapters are short like poems (she is a poet) and they have brilliant headings that make you curious- Man eats car and Fighting with Tofu!

So what are the Bones that Goldberg talks about?

Well for starters, writing is a going deep inside process. You need to love your notebook and pens, and besides being able to calm your hyperactive body and mind for a while until the words are down on paper, you need to trust yourself completely.

If you cannot take a pen or sit at your computer and be focused,  a little bit of free writing is in order- keep your hand moving, no margins, no cuts or edits, no after thoughts. It is your pen liscence to express your deepest dreams.

If you have made a commitment with yourself that you will fill up a notebook a month, then this is very doable. Just maybe, one or two sentences will have an energy that the others lack. Those sentences could take you somewhere. Once the ideas are there on the page, you compost them and turn them into green verdure. This you do with a lot of trust and a lot of filtering as though you are a sieve.

What do you write about? Well the world is a stage- Goldberg points to lists, conversations, memories, color, people you love, streets, grandparents, sexual experiences—fertilize them and grow green plants.

To create a garden like that, you need discipline and deadlines and chocolate rewards. You also need to tap the water table that you have within- that deep reservoir of creativity that is the tat twam asi or what can be crudely translated as the thusness of you. This lies within and also without…in the listening to and knowing about the holy rhythms that surround you so that you can turn the mediocrity into magic.

Composting is one way of putting it. You can bake ideas as well- arrive at the holy warm smell of good wholesome food. So you don’t just write sequentially, you breathe life into what you write and create a movement with the ideas that you have. This sounds exotic and really there is no way to be able to practically implement this suggestion. The best thing would be to write about the things you cannot stop thinking about, and the feelings that you have about these obsessions will shape the rhythm of what you write.

Goldberg breaks a few stereotypical assumptions.

You don’t have to be like Prometheus if you want to write. I think a lot of this separation happens when you see yourself as a writer, as opposed to someone who is writing.

Writing could be communal. I’ve experienced this first hand. When people, not writers, come together and write, they share a collective energy that does not exist when you write alone. Goldberg talks about writing booths, writathons and writing groups. If you write and then read aloud, participating as a listener and not critic, you will see that everyone in the group comes up with something extraordinary sometimes.

You do not need to write in an elaborately decorated Writer’s Studio. You could write in a restaurant in Paris or on public transport, in the kitchen, or under a tree.

What Goldberg is saying that the bottomline is peeling away the layers of your heart and pouring energy into what you write.

Writing is not therapy, she says. It’s a gift, like this book is.


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