Ode to Natalie Goldberg
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within is the one book – other than the Bible – that has had the greatest influence on my life. Prior to reading it, my writing was sporadic at best. Ideas would float in and out of my mind, but I wasn’t committed to a regular schedule. I wrote when the mood hit me or when I had time, which wasn’t often with three young children. Though I always had the desire to write, I couldn’t figure out how to make it fit into my life. I shared this with a co-worker and she recommended Goldberg’s book.
Each short chapter suggested practical ways to approach writing, giving the reader a variety of techniques and methods to work with. My favorite technique is timed writing exercises, which Goldberg calls a “basic unit of writing practice.” She suggests that you time yourself for a specific amount – say ten minutes, twenty minutes or even an hour – to write. The specific amount of time doesn’t matter only that you commit yourself to the full period. Goldberg pairs the timed writing exercise with the idea of free writing.
She list five rules:
- 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 don’t mean to write, leave it.)
- Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, and 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.)
[Years later, I learned Goldberg was referring to theories of the writing process developed by Peter Elbow. Though I used Elbow’s books Writing Without Teachers and Writing With Power in my composition classes, I always thought Goldberg’s book made those theories accessible.]
Goldberg relates free writing to what she calls “first thoughts” and explains their importance this way:
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.
This idea was revolutionary to me. It allowed me to just write without worrying if it sounded ‘right’ or was grammatically correct. It gave me permission to freely connect with my thoughts and ideas. I began to develop as a writer. I regularly scheduled fifteen-minute blocks three times a week to write in my notebook. Those few minutes became a refuge from my busy life as a working mother. There would be days when I would pull into the parking lot at a park to write before picking up my kids from day care. Learning how to access my first thoughts helped me to begin to trust my own thinking. I filled notebook after notebook with free writing. The free writing began to turn into stories. After three years of regular writing practice, I found myself enrolled in a master’s level Written Communications program.
Writing Down the Bones taught me that I have something important to say. It helped me to believe in myself as a writer. The very first article I ever had published was developed from a free write I wrote shortly after I started reading Goldberg’s book. As a result, I firmly trust the process of free writing and first thoughts. So much so that after fifteen years I still begin my writing time with a timed free write. The act of writing uninhibited by censorship and editing has led to countless discoveries and answered many questions. However, Goldberg’s greatest influence on me is how I think about writing. I firmly believe that we become good writers when we trust the writer within. That small voice inside holds the key to creativity and truth.
I have preached the concepts in this book so much over the years that I can’t tell you how many times I have recommended it or given away my own copy. I should probably see if there is a way for me to get a commission from the publisher.
If you haven’t read Writing Down Bones, I suggest you get a copy right away. I’m so psyched about this book that one lucky reader is going to get a free copy. Stay tuned for details on how.