Writing Down The Bones: Freeing The Writer Within, Page 2Natalie Goldberg
Garfield, the Muppets, Mickey Mouse, Star Wars. I use notebooks with funny covers. They come out fresh in September when school starts. They are a quarter more than the plain spirals, but I like them. I can’t take myself too seriously when I open up a Peanuts notebook. It also helps me locate them more easily—“Oh, yes, that summer I wrote in the rodeo series notebooks.” Try out different kinds—blank, lined, or graphed pages, hard or soft-covered. In the end, it must work for you.
The size of your notebook matters too. A small notebook can be kept in your pocket, but then you have small thoughts. That’s okay. William Carlos Williams, the famous American poet who was also a children’s doctor, wrote many of his poems on prescription pads in between office visits by his patients.
Doc, I bin lookin’ for you
I owe you two bucks.
How you doin’?
Fine. When I get it
I’ll bring it up to you.1
You can find many prescription-pad-size poems in his collected works.
Sometimes, instead of writing in a notebook, you might want to directly type out your thoughts. Writing is physical and is affected by the equipment you use. In typing, your fingers hit keys and the result is block, black letters: a different aspect of yourself may come out. I have found that when I am writing something emotional, I must write it the first time directly with hand on paper. Handwriting is more connected to the movement of the heart. Yet, when I tell stories, I go straight to the typewriter.
Another thing you can try is speaking into a tape recorder and feeling how it is to directly record your voice speaking your thoughts. Or you might use it for convenience’ sake: you might be working on the hem of a dress and you begin to think how it was with your ex-husband and you want to write about it. Your hands are busy sewing; you can talk about it into a recorder.
I have not worked very much with a computer, but I can imagine using a Macintosh, where the keyboard can be put on my lap, closing my eyes and just typing away. The computer automatically returns the carriage. The device is called “wraparound.” You can rap nonstop. You don’t have to worry about the typewriter ringing a little bell at the end of a line.
Experiment. Even try writing in a big drawing pad. It is true that the inside world creates the outside world, but the outside world and our tools also affect the way we form our thoughts. Try skywriting.
Choose your tools carefully, but not so carefully that you get uptight or spend more time at the stationery store than at your writing table.
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:
Keep your hand moving. (Don’t pause to reread the line you have 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.)
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.)
These are the rules. It is important to adhere to them because the aim is to burn through to first thoughts, to the place where energy is unobstructed by social politeness or the internal censor, to the place where you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel. It’s a great opportunity to capture the oddities of your mind. Explore the rugged edge of thought. Like grating a carrot, give the paper the colorful coleslaw of your consciousness.
First thoughts have tremendous energy. It is the way the mind first flashes on something. The internal censor usually squelches them, so we live in the realm of second and third thoughts, thoughts on thought, twice and three times removed from the direct connection of the first fresh flash. For instance, the phrase “I cut the daisy from my throat” shot through my mind. Now my second thought, carefully tutored in 1 + 1 = 2 logic, in politeness, fear, and embarrassment at the natural, would say, “That’s ridiculous. You sound suicidal. Don’t show yourself cutting your throat. Someone will think you are crazy.” And instead, if we give the censor its way, we write, “My throat was a little sore, so I didn’t say anything.” Proper and boring.
First thoughts are also unencumbered by ego, by that mechanism in us that tries to be in control, tries to prove the world is permanent and solid, enduring and logical. The world is not permanent, is everchanging and full of human suffering. So if you express something egoless, it is also full of energy because it is expressing the truth of the way things are. You are not carrying the burden of ego in your expression, but are riding for moments the waves of human consciousness and using your personal details to express the ride.
In Zen meditation you sit on a cushion called a zafu with your legs crossed, back straight, hands at your knees or in front of you in a gesture called a mudra. You face a white wall and watch your breath. No matter what you feel—great tornadoes of anger and resistance, thunderstorms of joy and grief—you continue to sit, back straight, legs crossed, facing the wall. You learn to not be tossed away no matter how great the thought or emotion. That is the discipline: to continue to sit.
The same is true in writing. You must be a great warrior when you contact first thoughts and write from them. Especially at the beginning you may feel great emotions and energy that will sweep you away, but you don’t stop writing. You continue to use your pen and record the details of your life and penetrate into the heart of them. Often in a beginning class students break down crying when they read pieces they have written. That is okay. Often as they write they cry, too. However, I encourage them to continue reading or writing right through the tears so they may come out the other side and not be thrown off by the emotion. Don’t stop at the tears; go through to truth. This is the discipline.
Why else are first thoughts so energizing? Because they have to do with freshness and inspiration. Inspiration means “breathing in.” Breathing in God. You actually become larger than yourself, and first thoughts are present. They are not a cover-up of what is actually happening or being felt. The present is imbued with tremendous energy. It is what is. My friend who is a Buddhist said once after coming out of a meditation retreat, “The colors were so much more vibrant afterward.” Her meditation teacher said, “When you are present, the world is truly alive.”
Writing as a Practice
THIS IS THE PRACTICE school of writing. Like running, the more you do it, the better you get at it. Some days you don’t want to run and you resist every step of the three miles, but you do it anyway. You practice whether you want to or not. You don’t wait around for inspiration and a deep desire to run. It’ll never happen, especially if you are out of shape and have been avoiding it. But if you run regularly, you train your mind to cut through or ignore your resistance. You just do it. And in the middle of the run, you love it. When you come to the end, you never want to stop. And you stop, hungry for the next time.
That’s how writing is, too. Once you’re deep into it, you wonder what took you so long to finally settle down at the desk. Through practice you actually do get better. You learn to trust your deep self more and not give in to your voice that wants to avoid writing. 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.
When you write, don’t say, “I’m going to write a poem.” That attitude will freeze you right away. Sit
down with the least expectation of yourself; say, “I am free to write the worst junk in the world.” You have to give yourself the space to write a lot without a destination. I’ve had students who said they decided they were going to write the great American novel and haven’t written a line since. If every time you sat down, you expected something great, writing would always be a great disappointment. Plus that expectation would also keep you from writing.
My rule is to finish a notebook a month. (I’m always making up writing guidelines for myself.) Simply to fill it. That is the practice. My ideal is to write every day. I say it is my ideal. I am careful not to pass judgment or create anxiety if I don’t do that. No one lives up to his ideal.
In my notebooks I don’t bother with the side margin or the one at the top: I fill the whole page. I am not writing anymore for a teacher or for school. I am writing for myself first and I don’t have to stay within my limits, not even margins. This gives me a psychological freedom and permission. And when my writing is on and I’m really cooking, I usually forget about punctuation, spelling, etc. I also notice that my handwriting changes. It becomes larger and looser.
Often I can look around the room at my students as they write and can tell which ones are really on and present at a given time in their writing. They are more intensely involved and their bodies are hanging loose. Again, it is like running. There’s little resistance when the run is good. All of you is moving; there’s no you separate from the runner. In writing, when you are truly on, there’s no writer, no paper, no pen, no thoughts. Only writing does writing—everything else is gone.
One of the main aims in writing practice is to learn to trust your own mind and body; to grow patient and nonaggressive. Art lives in the Big World. One poem or story doesn’t matter one way or the other. It’s the process of writing and life that matters. Too many writers have written great books and gone insane or alcoholic or killed themselves. This process teaches about sanity. We are trying to become sane along with our poems and stories.
Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist master, said, “We must continue to open in the face of tremendous opposition. No one is encouraging us to open and still we must peel away the layers of the heart.” It is the same with this way of practice writing: We must continue to open and trust in our own voice and process. Ultimately, if the process is good, the end will be good. You will get good writing.
A friend once said that when she had a good black-and-white drawing that she was going to add color to, she always practiced first on a few drawings she didn’t care about in order to warm up. This writing practice is also a warm-up for anything else you might want to write. It is the bottom line, the most primitive, essential beginning of writing. The trust you learn in your own voice can be directed then into a business letter, a novel, a Ph.D. dissertation, a play, a memoir. But it is something you must come back to again and again. Don’t think, “I got it! I know how to write. I trust my voice. I’m off to write the great American novel.” It’s good to go off and write a novel, but don’t stop doing writing practice. It is what keeps you in tune, like a dancer who does warm-ups before dancing or a runner who does stretches before running. Runners don’t say, “Oh, I ran yesterday. I’m limber.” Each day they warm up and stretch.
Writing practice embraces your whole life and doesn’t demand any logical form: no chapter 19 following the action in chapter 18. It’s a place that you can come to wild and unbridled, mixing the dream of your grandmother’s soup with the astounding clouds outside your window. It is undirected and has to do with all of you right in your present moment. Think of writing practice as loving arms you come to illogically and incoherently. It’s our wild forest where we gather energy before going to prune our garden, write our fine books and novels. It’s a continual practice.
Sit down right now. Give me this moment. Write whatever’s running through you. You might start with “this moment” and end up writing about the gardenia you wore at your wedding seven years ago. That’s fine. Don’t try to control it. Stay present with whatever comes up, and keep your hand moving.
IT TAKES A WHILE for our experience to sift through our consciousness. For instance, it is hard to write about being in love in the midst of a mad love affair. We have no perspective. All we can say is, “I’m madly in love,” over and over again. It is also hard to write about a city we just moved to; it’s not yet in our body. We don’t know our new home, even if we can drive to the drugstore without getting lost. We have not lived through three winters there or seen the ducks leave in fall and return to the lakes in spring. Hemingway wrote about Michigan while sitting in a café in Paris. “Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan. I did not know it was too early for that because I did not know Paris well enough.”2
Our senses by themselves are dumb. They take in experience, but they need the richness of sifting for a while through our consciousness and through our whole bodies. I call this “composting.” Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat, and very fertile soil. Out of this fertile soil bloom our poems and stories. But this does not come all at once. It takes time. Continue to turn over and over the organic details of your life until some of them fall through the garbage of discursive thoughts to the solid ground of black soil.
When I have students who have written many pages and read them in class, and the writing is not all necessarily good but I see that they are exploring their minds for material, I am glad. I know those people will continue and are not just obsessed with “hot” writing, but are in the process of practice. They are raking their minds and taking their shallow thinking and turning it over. If we continue to work with this raw matter, it will draw us deeper and deeper into ourselves, but not in a neurotic way. We will begin to see the rich garden we have inside us and use that for writing.
Often I will stab many times at something I want to say. For instance, you can look in my notebooks from August through December 1983 and see that I attempted several times a month to write about my father dying. I was exploring and composting the material. Then suddenly, and I can’t say how, in December I sat transfixed at the Croissant Express in Minneapolis and a long poem about that subject poured out of me. All the disparate things I had to say were suddenly fused with energy and unity—a bright red tulip shot out of the compost. Katagiri Roshi said: “Your little will can’t do anything. It takes Great Determination. Great Determination doesn’t mean just you making an effort. It means the whole universe is behind you and with you—the birds, trees, sky, moon, and ten directions.” Suddenly, after much composting, you are in alignment with the stars or the moment or the dining-room chandelier above your head, and your body opens and speaks.
Understanding this process cultivates patience and produces less anxiety. We aren’t running everything, not even the writing we do. At the same time, we must keep practicing. It is not an excuse to not write and sit on the couch eating bonbons. We must continue to work the compost pile, enriching it and making it fertile so that something beautiful may bloom and so that our writing muscles are in good shape to ride the universe when it moves through us.
This understanding also helps us to accept someone else’s success and not to be too greedy. It is simply that person’s time. Ours will come in this lifetime or the next. No matter. Continue to practice.
I HAVE A PILE OF spiral notebooks about five feet high that begin around 1977, my early years of writing in Taos, New Mexico. I want to throw them out—who can bear to look at the junk of our own minds that comes out in writing practice? I have a friend in New Mexico who makes solar houses out of beer cans and old tires. I think I will try to build one out of discarded spiral notebooks. A friend who lives upstairs says, “Don’t get rid of them.” I tell her she can have them if she wa
I pile them on her stairs leading up to her apartment and leave for Norfolk, Nebraska, for four days to do a writing workshop. When I return she looks at me oddly, plunks herself down in the old pink chair in my bedroom: “I’ve been reading your notebooks all weekend. They are so intimate; so scared, insecure for pages, then suddenly they are not you—just raw energy and wild mind. And now here you are—Natalie—in the flesh, just a person. It feels so funny.” I feel good because I don’t care that she sees how I really am. I’m glad. I want someone to know me. We walk through so many myths of each other and ourselves; we are so thankful when someone sees us for who we are and accepts us.
She said it was empowering to read my notebooks because she realized that I really did write “shit,” sometimes for whole notebooks. Often I tell my students, “Listen, I write and still write terrible self-pitying stuff for page after page.” They don’t believe me. Reading my notebooks is living proof of that. My upstairs neighbor said, “If you could write the junk you did then and write the stuff you do now, I realize I can do anything. There’s so much power in the mind. I feel like who knows what I can do!” She said the main thing she saw in the notebooks—whole notebooks of complaints, boring description, and flagrant anger—was an absolute trust in the process. “I saw that you kept on writing even when you wrote, ‘I must be nuts to do this.’”