Menu

Recommended Reading: Writing Down the Bones

Ditch that internal editor and write with courage, thanks to advice from Natalie Goldberg.

Anatomical engraving of skulls University of Liverpool Faculty of Health and Life Science (CC BY-SA 2.0)

When it comes to the tyranny of facing that blank page (or screen) Natalie Goldberg’s got you covered. Not only does she have plenty of writing advice for writers at every level, she delivers that advice with the calm poise of someone who knows — someone who also overcomes that fear, that self-doubt, every time she sits down to write.

Goldberg recommends “writing practice” to beat writer’s block and to thwart the inner editor who defiles your brain with crippling thoughts such as: You’ll never write anything worth reading. You should just give up. Besides, don’t you need a snack, just now?

The root of writing practice is the timed exercise. If you participated in our recent Writing 101 course, you’ll recall that we like — and use — this advice ourselves:

The basic unit of writing practice is the timed exercise. You may time yourself for ten minutes, twenty minutes, or an hour. It’s up to you. At the beginning you may want to start small and after a week increase your time, or you may want to dive in for an hour the first time. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that whatever amount of time you choose for that session, you must commit yourself to it and for that full period…Burn through to first thoughts, to that place where energy is unobstructed by social politeness or the internal censor:

  • Keep your hand moving. (Don’t pause to reread the line you’ve just written. That’s stalling and trying to get control of what you’re saying.)
  • Don’t cross out. (That is editing as you write. Even if you write something you didn’t mean to write, leave it.)
  • Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. (Don’t even care about staying within the margins and lines on the page.)
  • Lose control.
  • Don’t think. Don’t get logical.
  • Go for the jugular. (If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.)

While some question the utility of writing practice, Goldberg likens writing practice to anything else where the doer strives to become better:

It is odd that we never question the feasibility of a football team practicing long hours for one game; yet in writing we rarely give ourselves the space for practice.

What I love about Goldberg is her reassurances. She’s always there, like a best friend, as a voice of experience, the writerly voice of reason, gently urging you on when you feel like you’re wasting your time:

When you write…sit down with the least expectation of yourself; say, “I am free to write the worst junk in the world.”

Goldberg never judges. She simply asks that we do the work by establishing a consistent practice, trust the process, and try not to be so hard on ourselves.

Show Comments

53 Comments

Comments are closed.

Close Comments

Comments

    1. Are you getting litteral there? Because, so say my parents, I was born next to the workplace of my dad who was writing a letter to someone and I actually… threw the pen on the floor. This good? Or bad?

    1. I’ve never heard of Wild Mind. I’ll have to check that out as well. What was homeschooling like? I’ve recently seen a few articles floating around the net about home-schooled kids who complete college in their early teens.

      1. He loved it – I loved it. He went on to college and majored in graphic design/animation. It was a much healthier choice than public school in the US.

  1. I have a book by Natalie Goldberg that I have really enjoyed — this one has been on my list for a while! I love the reminder that we do need to practice, writing is a craft and an art, and it takes time, patience, and practice to get it “right.”

      1. I got my Goldberg’s mixed up! Turns out it was Bonni Goldberg’s “Room To Write” that I had really enjoyed. However, Writing Down the Bones has been moved up on my list :)

  2. Those who like Goldberg’s approach, will most likely also appreciate the succinct, stylish books on writing by Brenda Ueland (If You Want to Write) and Dorothea Brande (Becoming a Writer), both of whom advocated daily writing practice in the 1930s. Today’s writing gurus Goldberg, Julia Cameron and Peter Elbow essentially restate Ueland and Brande’s wisdom. I’ve found that combining the perspective of these writing community “grandmothers” with contemporary advice has illuminated different aspects of my writing practice.

    1. I follow Julia Cameron’s “stream of consciousness writing” suggestion … her famous Morning Pages which comprise 3 pages. Also have read Goldberg’s book. Thanks for mentioning Brenda Ueland and Dorothea Brande. Will get those too!

  3. Love her book. She writes with the kind of voice that feels like she’s speaking to you in a very relatable way. Follow her advice and the words will flow!

  4. Actually, I do need a snack right now; just thinking about writing out all the gushing stupid fervency I’m capable of–at full throttle– gives me an appetite for a big, smooshy eclair. And another coffee. Thank goodness for rational editing in the cool, quiet hours of morning. (btw, snacking worked well for Proust, with all those little sponge cakes he devoured; not to mention his ‘immense puff pastry’ of recollection…). Great ideas, and a great book recommendation. Thank you. :o)

  5. Wow, this book sounds great. I’ll need to get it for sure. It’s interesting how you’ve shared this post today. It’s just what I needed, especially since I wrote about my own experiences with the blank page recently.

    I’ve committed to spending at least 15 minutes a day working on my children’s book. I know it’s not much time but consistency is the goal.

    Thanks again for sharing such a wonderful posts. We writers sure need all the tips and encouragement we can get. Thanks much :)

    1. Consistency is an excellent goal. After a little while, you’ll have a pile of material to sift through — no doubt, there will be gems and ideas there.

      1. I really hope so. I’ve been writing consistently this week and I’m realising it’s feeling more natural and fun like it used to instead of a chore. So yeah, I’m pretty excited. Keep those great posts coming!

  6. You probably know this but Natalie Goldberg is also a well-known artist!
    I was walking the galleries in Santa Fe, NM a couple of years ago and was struck by these really colorful energetic paintings. While chatting with the gallery owner about these he casually mentioned that she is also a writer.
    I then exclaimed “Oh yes! She wrote Writing Down the Bones”!

    1. I always thought trying to teach writing, esp. creative writing, was presumptuous if not downright scandalous, as it can hardly do without prescripts. Natalie seems to preempt folks like us and so, even before knowing that she is an artist [an extenuation, from my point of view] I’m quite willing to embrace her non-doctrine. I’ve already reblogged her post. And looking fwd to more.

  7. Some really helpful,ideas in here. I always self-edit as I write. I can see it bleeds the energy of the first thoughts….will try the suggestions. Thanks

  8. Oh yes! This book was the center of my writing for years. So inspiring, Non-judgemental, and sometimes you turn out something worthwhile as a consequence.

  9. This is funny…I have given away or lost multiple copies of this book since I first had my hands on it in 1998. I have been without it for years–really wanting a copy–but just not getting around to procuring one. Today I finally ordered myself a brand new copy…and lo! Here it is on the Daily Post. It must be a sign…

  10. For a short time back in the 90s, my two friends and I would meet once a week and experiment in the way Natalie suggested. We would each pick a scrap of paper with a topic on it. I don’t remember a darn thing any of us wrote, but I remember the time we spent together as a sacred meeting of souls.

  11. Goldberg recommends what impassioned writers do. They write around, over, under, through – and in spite of – whatever else they’re dealing with otherwise. Stephen King’s book, On Writing, penned after his accident, also offers excellent Writing 101 and 102 insight, and suggestions.

    1. I love that idea of “over, under, through, and in spite of,” speaks to the consistency of writing practice and being productive.

      King’s book is a favorite here — no doubt we’ll be profiling that in our series at some point.

  12. I made “writing practice” the title of my infant blog. It’s the only writing book I really liked from the beginning, and I use the technique with my Freshman comp students. Paper is a relatively safe place to explore–once we can get our hands moving. Don’t you feel sorry for people who have to think and think before they can squeeze out a word?

  13. approach the blank paper as a printer would a blank canvas or a composer a blank staff sheet, with faith that the God who made you and given you the ability to translate what you see with you eyes and hear with your heart in a way that will give others courage and honor and lift up the God of the universe in praise

  14. I really agree. I taught creative writing courses for a decade. I always recommended Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg to my students.