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Writing Down The Bones: Freeing The Writer Within

Natalie Goldberg

  Writing Down

  the Bones

  Expanded edition with a preface

  and interview with the author



  Boston & London


  Shambhala Publications, Inc.

  Horticultural Hall

  300 Massachusetts Avenue

  Boston, Massachusetts 02115

  © 1986, 2005 by Natalie Goldberg

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

  The Credits section constitutes a continuation of the copyright page.

  The Library of Congress catalogues the trade paperback edition of this book as follows:

  Goldberg, Natalie.

  Writing down the bones.

  1. Authorship. I. Title.

  PN145.C64 1986 808’.02 86-11840

  eISBN 978-0-8348-2113-2

  ISBN 978-0-87773-375-1

  ISBN 978-1-57062-258-8

  ISBN 978-1-59030-316-0

  ISBN 978-1-59030-261-3

  ISBN 978-1-59030-794-6

  For all my students past, present, and future

  May we all meet in heaven café writing for eternity.




  Beginner’s Mind, Pen and Paper

  First Thoughts

  Writing as a Practice


  Artistic Stability

  A List of Topics for Writing Practice

  Fighting Tofu

  Trouble with the Editor

  Elkton, Minnesota: Whatever’s in Front of You

  Tap the Water Table

  We Are Not the Poem

  Man Eats Car

  Writing Is Not a McDonald’s Hamburger


  Original Detail

  The Power of Detail

  Baking a Cake

  Living Twice

  Writers Have Good Figures


  Don’t Marry the Fly

  Don’t Use Writing to Get Love

  What Are Your Deep Dreams?


  Nervously Sipping Wine

  Don’t Tell, but Show

  Be Specific

  Big Concentration

  The Ordinary and Extraordinary

  Talk Is the Exercise Ground

  Writing Is a Communal Act

  One Plus One Equals a Mercedes-Benz

  Be an Animal

  Make Statements and Answer Questions

  The Action of a Sentence

  Writing in Restaurants

  The Writing Studio

  A Big Topic: Eroticism

  A Tourist in Your Own Town

  Write Anyplace

  Go Further

  Engendering Compassion

  Doubt Is Torture

  A Little Sweet

  A New Moment

  Why Do I Write?

  Every Monday

  More About Mondays

  Spontaneous Writing Booths

  A Sensation of Space

  A Large Field to Wander In

  The Goody Two-Shoes Nature

  No Hindrances

  A Meal You Love

  Use Loneliness

  Blue Lipstick and a Cigarette Hanging Out Your Mouth

  Going Home

  A Story Circle

  Writing Marathons

  Claim Your Writing

  Trust Yourself

  The Samurai

  Rereading and Rewriting

  I Don’t Want to Die


  Afterword: An Interview with the Author


  Books and Audio by Natalie Goldberg



  A YEAR AGO on a December night in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I attended the birthday party of a young filmmaker I had known only briefly. For about half an hour I stood near the buffet table in conversation with a man in his early thirties, who I had just met. He was obviously a serious poet; I told him I was once a poet, too, before I’d written my first book. We bantered back and forth. I was enjoying myself immensely.

  Suddenly, with a quizzical look on his face, he asked, “So, anyway, what have you written?”

  “Well, several books,” I said, “but the one I’m most known for is called Writing Down the Bones.”

  “You’re kidding!” His eyes bugged out. “I thought you were dead.”

  Without blinking an eye, I responded, “No, not yet. Still trucking along, still putting pen to paper.”

  We both laughed.

  He didn’t need to say any more. I understood: he’d read me in high school. All books read then must be by deceased men—or women. No author studied in a secondary school institution could possibly be alive.

  Writing Down the Bones came out in 1986. I have often told audiences that if it had been published in the fifties it would have flopped. But instead it met this country exactly where it was—great hordes of Americans had a need to express themselves. Writing is egalitarian; it cuts across geographic, class, gender, and racial lines. I received fan letters from vice presidents of insurance agencies in Florida; factory workers in Nebraska; quarry workers in Missouri; prisoners in Texas; lawyers, doctors, gay rights activists, housewives, librarians, teachers, priests, politicians. A whole revolution in writing began soon after it came out. Separate writing sections in bookstores sprang up. One student said to me, “I get it! Writing is the new religion.”

  “But why,” people asked me, “does everybody want to write?”

  I don’t think everyone wants to create the great American novel, but we all have a dream of telling our stories—of realizing what we think, feel, and see before we die. Writing is a path to meet ourselves and become intimate. Think about it: Ants don’t do it. Trees don’t. Not even thoroughbred horses, mountain elk, house cats, grass, or rocks do it. Writing is a uniquely human activity. It might even be built into our DNA. It should be put forward in the Declaration of Independence, along with the other inalienable rights: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—and writing.”

  And it’s inexpensive. All you need is pen, paper (of course, computer, if you are so inclined), and the human mind. What crannies of untouched perception can you explore? What autumn was it that the moon entered your life? When was it that you picked blueberries at their quintessential moment? How long did you wait for your first true bike? Who are your angels? What are you thinking of? Not thinking of? What are you looking at? Not looking at? Writing can give you confidence, can train you to wake up.

  Writing Down the Bones is backed by a two-thousand-year-old practice of studying the mind. It is not solely Natalie’s creative idea. I wanted to root this work, give it a solid foundation. At the time I wrote it, I had already studied meditation for ten years, six in close practice with a Japanese Zen master. Where do thoughts come from? Memories, ideas, even the word the? Meditation and writing practice are coincident. The more we understand the human mind, our basic writing tool, the better, more secure we can be in our writing.

  When this book came out, people called me a genius. I smiled, but I knew I wasn’t a genius. Maybe the only genius moment was having Zen inform the writing. I had a sincere and earnest desire to figure out this writing life. I very badly wanted to do it and I didn’t know how, and I hadn’t learned how in all my public school education. By college, I think I
gave up. But I had a yearning for it way deep underneath, a desire I didn’t even know I had. I was in love with reading and literature. There were stories only I knew about my family, about my first kiss, last haircut, the smell of sage on a mesa and my kinship with the flat plains of Nebraska. I had to get slow and dumb (not take anything for granted) and watch and see how everything connects, how you contact your thoughts and lay them down on paper.

  I wish now that I had another chance to write that school composition, “What I Did Last Summer.” When I wrote it in fifth grade, I was scared and just recorded: “It was interesting. It was nice. My summer was fun.” I snuck through with a B grade. But I still wondered, How do you really do that? Now it is obvious. You tell the truth and you depict it in detail: My mother dyed her hair red and polished her toenails silver. I was mad for Parcheesi and running in the sprinkler, catching beetles in a mason jar and feeding them grass. My father sat at the kitchen table a lot staring straight ahead, never talking, a Budweiser in his hand.

  What an opportunity to recount the crush I had on a blond boy down the block, the news of racial injustice I saw on TV and how I felt confused and hurt by it, how I feared my sister was prettier than me, how I made coleslaw with my grandma. But I didn’t know how to narrate all these things.

  In this book, I instruct all of us how—the old students, and the young.

  It is my sincere wish that this book be taught in all public and private schools, that students learn how to do writing practice, that they come to know themselves, feel joy in expression, trust what they think. Once you connect with your mind, you are who you are and you’re free.

  A long time ago I read Jack Kerouac’s essentials for prose. Four of them, in particular, have provided me with heart for the path:

  Accept loss forever

  Be submissive to everything, open, listening

  No fear or shame in the dignity of your experience, language, and knowledge

  Be in love with your life

  Believe me, you, too, can find your place inside the huge terrain of writing. No one is so odd as to be left out.

  Now, please, go. Write your asses off.

  —DECEMBER 2004


  I WAS A GOODY TWO-SHOES all through school. I wanted my teachers to like me. I learned commas, colons, semicolons. I wrote compositions with clear sentences that were dull and boring. Nowhere was there an original thought or genuine feeling. I was eager to give the teachers what I thought they wanted.

  In college I was in love with literature. I mean wild about it. I typed poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins over and over again so I could memorize them. I read John Milton, Shelley, Keats aloud and then swooned on my narrow bed in the dormitory. In college in the late sixties, I read almost exclusively male writers, usually dead, from England and the rest of Europe. They were very far removed from my daily life, and though I loved them, none of them reflected my experience. I must have subconsciously surmised that writing was not within my ken. It never occurred to me to write, though I secretly wanted to marry a poet.

  After I graduated college and discovered that no one was going to hire me to read novels and swoon over poetry, three friends and I started a co-op restaurant and cooked and served natural food lunches in the basement of the Newman Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This was the early seventies, and one year before the opening of the restaurant I had tasted my first avocado. The restaurant was called Naked Lunch, after the novel by William Burroughs—“a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” In the morning I baked muffins with raisins and muffins with blueberries or even with peanut butter if I wanted. Naturally, I hoped the customers would like them, but I knew if I cared about the muffins, they usually were good. We had created the restaurant. There was no great answer outside ourselves that would get us an A in school anymore. It was the very beginning of learning to trust my own mind.

  One Tuesday I was making ratatouille for lunch. When you make it for a restaurant, you don’t cut up one onion and one eggplant. The counter was filled with onions, eggplants, zucchinis, tomatoes, and garlic. I spent several hours chopping and slicing. Walking home from work that night, I stopped in the Centicore Bookstore on State Street and wandered up and down the aisles. I saw a thin volume of poetry entitled Fruits and Vegetables by Erica Jong. (Jong had not come out with her novel Fear of Flying yet and was still unknown.) The first poem I opened to in the book was about cooking an eggplant! I was amazed: “You mean you can write about something like that?” Something as ordinary as that? Something that I did in my life? A synapse connected in my brain. I went home with the resolve to write what I knew and to trust my own thoughts and feelings and to not look outside myself. I was not in school anymore: I could say what I wanted. I began to write about my family because nobody could say I was wrong. I knew them better than anyone else.

  This all happened fifteen years ago. A friend once told me: “Trust in love and it will take you where you need to go.” I want to add, “Trust in what you love, continue to do it, and it will take you where you need to go.” And don’t worry too much about security. You will eventually have a deep security when you begin to do what you want. How many of us with our big salaries are actually secure anyway?

  I have taught writing workshops for the last eleven years at the University of New Mexico; at the Lama Foundation; to the hippies in Taos, New Mexico; for nuns in Albuquerque; to juvenile delinquents in Boulder; at the University of Minnesota; at Northeast College, a technical school in Norfolk, Nebraska; as Minnesota Poet-in-the-Schools; at Sunday-night writing groups in my home, to gay men’s groups. I teach the same methods over and over again. It is such basic information about trusting your own mind and creating a confidence in your experience that I have never grown tired of teaching it. Instead my understanding continues to deepen.

  In 1974 I began to do sitting meditation. From 1978 to 1984 I studied Zen formally with Dainin Katagiri Roshi (Roshi is a title for a Zen master) at the Minnesota Zen Center in Minneapolis. Whenever I went to see him and asked him a question about Buddhism, I had trouble understanding the answer until he said, “You know, like in writing when you . . .” When he referred to writing, I understood. About three years ago he said to me, “Why do you come to sit meditation? Why don’t you make writing your practice? If you go deep enough in writing, it will take you everyplace.”

  This book is about writing. It is also about using writing as your practice, as a way to help you penetrate your life and become sane. What is said here about writing can be applied to running, painting, anything you love and have chosen to work with in your life. When I read several chapters to my friend John Rollwagen, president of Cray Research, he said, “Why, Natalie, you’re talking about business. That’s the way it is in business. There is no difference.”

  Learning to write is not a linear process. There is no logical A-to-B-to-C way to become a good writer. One neat truth about writing cannot answer it all. There are many truths. To do writing practice means to deal ultimately with your whole life. If you receive instructions on how to set a broken bone in your ankle, you can’t use those same instructions to fill a cavity in your teeth. You might read a section in this book that says to be very specific and precise. That’s to help the ailment of abstract, general meandering in your writing. But then you read another chapter that says lose control, write on waves of emotion. That’s to encourage you to really say deep down what you need to say. Or in one chapter it says to fix up a studio, that you need a private place to write; the next chapter says, “Get out of the house, away from the dirty dishes. Go write in a café.” Some techniques are appropriate at some times and some for other times. Every moment is different. Different things work. One isn’t wrong and the other right.

  When I teach a class, I want the students to be “writing down the bones,” the essential, awake speech of their minds. But I also know I can’t just say, “Okay, write clearly and with great honesty.” In class we try d
ifferent techniques or methods. Eventually, the students hit the mark, come home to what they need to say and how they need to say it. But it is rarely, “Okay, in the third class after we have covered this and this, you will write well.”

  It is the same for reading this book. The book can be read consecutively and that may be good the first time through. You may also open to any chapter and read it. Each chapter is designed to be its own whole. Relax as you read and absorb it, as by osmosis, with your whole body and mind. And don’t just read it. Write. Trust yourself. Learn your own needs. Use this book.

  Beginner’s Mind, Pen and Paper

  WHEN I TEACH a beginning class, it is good. I have to come back to beginner’s mind, the first way I thought and felt about writing. In a sense, that beginner’s mind is what we must come back to every time we sit down and write. There is no security, no assurance that because we wrote something good two months ago, we will do it again. Actually, every time we begin, we wonder how we ever did it before. Each time is a new journey with no maps.

  So when I teach a writing group, I have to tell the story all over again and remember that the students are hearing it for the first time. I must begin at the very beginning.

  First, consider the pen you write with. It should be a fast-writing pen because your thoughts are always much faster than your hand. You don’t want to slow up your hand even more with a slow pen. A ballpoint, a pencil, a felt tip, for sure, are slow. Go to a stationery store and see what feels good to you. Try out different kinds. Don’t get too fancy and expensive. I mostly use a cheap Sheaffer fountain pen, about $1.95. It has replaceable cartridges. I’ve bought hundreds over the years. I’ve had every color; they often leak, but they are fast. The new roller pens that are out now are fast too, but there’s a slight loss of control. You want to be able to feel the connection and texture of the pen on paper.

  Think, too, about your notebook. It is important. This is your equipment, like hammer and nails to a carpenter. (Feel fortunate—for very little money you are in business!) Sometimes people buy expensive hardcover journals. They are bulky and heavy, and because they are fancy, you are compelled to write something good. Instead you should feel that you have permission to write the worst junk in the world and it would be okay. Give yourself a lot of space in which to explore writing. A cheap spiral notebook lets you feel that you can fill it quickly and afford another. Also, it is easy to carry. (I often buy notebook-size purses.)