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Book Review: Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg

Do you ever find a book in a bookstore that feels as though it is demanding you to read it? Normally you would walk right past it, but for some reason you can’t because this book is begging you to experience it? This was what happened to me when I found Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg.

From the cover: “For more than thirty years Natalie Goldberg has been challenging and cheering on writers with her books and workshops. In her groundbreaking first book, she brings together Zen meditation and writing in a new way. Writing practice, as she calls it, is no different from other forms of Zen practice—‘it is backed by two thousand years of studying the mind.’”

When I found this book, I had initially been looking for a book on how to develop characters. Instead, I went home with what I thought would be a coffee table read.

This book is definitely not a coffee table read, especially if you are a person with a craft or trade. The knowledge presented by Goldberg can easy apply to many more trades than writing alone. This is because this book doesn’t teach you how to write, it teaches you how to open to writing. Art, whatever form it takes, requires an openness that is often hard or scary to experience. Writing Down the Bones demystifies the at of opening yourself to every part of the human experience—good, bad, and ugly.

As an artist of any kind, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that in order to be worthwhile, it all has to be done “right”. After reading this book, I feel much more confident in my ability to call bullshit on all of that noise and just create. In order to create, we just need to create, and in doing so it is done “right”.

Arranged as a series of lessons, some leaning more toward meditations, this is one of those books you could open to any page at random and be shown exactly what you needed to see in that moment. With Goldberg’s bite-sized lessons, this book provides the perfect starting place for all of us to embark on a refreshed creative journey. Some particular lessons that stood out to me included:

  • First Thoughts: “…you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel.” (page 9)

  • Composting: “If we continue to work with this raw material, it will draw us deeper and deeper into ourselves, but not in a neurotic way. We will be able to see the rich garden we have inside us and use that for writing.” (page 16)

  • Man Eats Car: “Don’t make your mind do anything. Simply step out of the way and record your thoughts as they roll through you.” (page 37)

  • Don’t Tell, but Show: “Don’t tell readers what to feel. Show them the situation, and that feeling will awaken in them.” (page 75)

  • Big Concentration: “So when we concentrate in our writing, it is good. But we should always concentrate, not by blocking out the world, but by allowing it all to exist. This is a very tricky balance.” (page 80)

  • Writing Is a Communal Act: “So writing is not just writing. It is also having a relationship with other writers. And don’t be jealous, especially secretly. That’s the worst kind. If someone writes something great, it’s just more clarity in the world for all of us. Don’t make writers ‘other,’ different from you: ‘They are good and I am bad.’” (page 87)

  • A Little Sweet: “And it is your friend. It will never desert you, though you may desert it many times.” (page 119)

  • Every Monday: “There are many realities. We should remember this when we get too caught in being concerned about the way the rest of the world lives or how we think they live. There is just our lives and how we want to write and how we want to touch the rain, the table, the music, paper cups and pine trees.” (page 127)

  • Blue Lipstick and a Cigarette Hanging Out Your Mouth: “Sometimes there is just no way around it—we are boring and we are sick of ourselves, our voice, and the usual material we write about. It’s obvious that even if going to a café to write doesn’t help, it is time to find other ways. Dye your hair green, paint your nails purple, get your nose pierced, dress as the opposite sex, perm your hair.” (page 151)

  • Going Home: “All writers, at some level, want to be know. That’s why they speak. Here is a chance to bring your reader deeper into your heart. You can explain with deep knowledge what it means to be Catholic, a man, a southerner, a black person, a woman, a homosexual, a human being. You know it better than anyone else. In knowing who you are and writing from it, you will help the world by giving it understanding.” (page 155)

No matter who you are or what you practice, I encourage you to read this book. Give opening to yourself and your world a try. You may be surprised at the magnificence of it all—and it’s all in you, just waiting to be accessed. Happy writing, everyone.


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