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

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I first came across Writing Down the Bones in a creative writing class I was doing some 15 years ago. The book was recommended as a critical text, and I read it with some surprise and a great deal of interest. When I saw that the book had been re-released recently with new material, I jumped at the opportunity to revisit it. I read a lot of creative writing “how-to” books, but Writing Down the Bones really isn’t that kind of book. It doesn’t cover such things as creating good characters, plotting, point of view, or narrative structures, although all of these things come out of the practice that Goldberg advocates. Instead, Goldberg has created a kind of “Tao of Writing”: a way of using writing to “meet ourselves and become intimate.” This is writing as practice – a way of living and expressing ourselves so that what we write matters and so that, in sum, our lives matter.

In the 66 pieces that Goldberg presents in this book as chapters, there are essays about what it means to be a writer, suggested writing topics, on dealing with the inner editor, on coping with external criticism, on the notion of the metaphor, on writing obsessions, the power of detail, on the power of verbs, and much more. The book does provide a few clear lessons and many exercises to try out. Each essay makes suggestions around how to find topics that are both relevant and inspirational, and seamlessly integrates personal anecdote with professional advice. One of the points that Goldberg comes back to repeatedly is the notion of “Beginners Mind.” This is a kind of exercise that involves a timed writing practice which doesn’t allow for stopping, crossing out or editing. The main thing is to go deep and find those powerful first thoughts that have energy and meaning. It’s an exercise that can be done any time, within the context of any piece of work or on any topic, and which leads to a surprising amount of inspiration. Since first reading the book I’ve returned to this exercise repeatedly and it has never failed to kickstart my work.

As most of the pieces were written prior to 1986 when the book was originally published, there are some funny references to things like pens, typewriters and these newfangled tools called computers: “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 the line.” But Goldberg’s own writing is so light and smooth, that the essays don’t date even when their subject matter is outdated. There’s nothing didactic in here – it’s all about going within and finding what matters and then bringing that back out onto the page.

Every essay provides some kind of kernel of insight that can be immediately applied. All of them go to the very heart of what it means to be a writer, and how, above all, to perceive the world deeply enough to create it:

“As writers we have to walk in the world in touch with that present, alert part of ourselves, that animal sense part that looks, sees, and notices — street signs, corners, fire hydrants, newspaper stands.”

The expanded edition contains an updated preface and a very detailed author interview. It’s fascinating to see how timeless (typewriter bells notwithstanding) the words in this book are. Writing practice, as Goldberg presents it, is no small thing. It’s not about producing something commercial. Instead it’s about choosing to live and write as part of that life in a way which is purposeful and authentic. So Writing Down the Bones isn’t just a guide for writers to write better, it’s a guide for living better and for integrating that life with work that is immensely meaningful. This is a book that will open doors of perception that won’t be closed again when you close the pages.

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About Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.