Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within
(Shambhala, 171 pp)
Scope: Writing inspiration and exercises
Overview: Natalie Goldberg is a poet. It’s almost as if she can’t help it. Even this book, a how-to book about writing, is filled with little bits of poetry—both her own and works of others. She’s also a creative writing instructor, a painter, a memoirist, and a novelist. Her experience in these fields forms the basis of Writing Down the Bones. She says in introduction, “There’s no logical A-to-B-to-C way to become a good writer. One neat truth about writing cannot answer it all.” That’s one of the books strengths. It doesn’t purport to have all the answers or even the answer. It’s a collection of vignettes about what’s worked for her, what she’s seen work for her students and colleagues.
In that way, the book has flavors of a memoir. At first I was a bit put off by all the personal stories and tangents. When I read about writing, I want meat not fluff—lessons and antidotes I can readily apply to my own work-in-progress. About half way through though, I looked back and realized, I’d actually marked dozens of pages where I’d found helpful, applicable advice. Here are some of the highlights:
- “It’s good to go off and write a novel, but don’t stop doing writing practice.”
Throughout the book, Ms. Goldberg stresses this point. Writers must practice the way singers warm-up with scales or basketball players drill free-throws. Free-write for ten minutes. Eaves-drop on a conversation and transcribe what you hear. Writing down the Bones is filled with suggestions. Consider these warms-up primer for your creativity, a whetstone for your skills.
- “Use original detail in your writing.”
Nothing enlivens a description like specific, original details. Take details from your own experience—that bar you were at on Friday with the solo vocalist who was never quiet on key—and apply them to your writing. Maybe you’re not writing about a bar, but a talent contest or Sunday service. Use the specifics that carry over: the way the audience shifts in their seats and avoids looking directly at the musician. The whispers. The weak applause. These details will bring life and verisimilitude to your writing.
- “Don’t tell readers what to feel. Show them the situation, and that feeling will awaken within them.”
Of all the explanations for the “Show, don’t Tell” maxim, this is the most clear and simple I’ve read.
- “They [writers] take on a writer, read everything by him or her, read it over again until they understand how the writer moves, pauses, and sees.”
Writers must read. We’ve all heard that. But when we read we must pay attention. Trust your own voice enough to learn from others. Studying the authors you love won’t make you a plagiarist.
- “There is no perfect atmosphere, notebook, pen, or desk, so train yourself to be flexible.”
Life is full of appointments and deadlines, of flat tires and text messages and TV specials. If you wait for the perfect moment to write, you’ll never write. Learn to steal moments where you can. Make the most of the scraps of time life offers.
- “Dye your hair green, paint your nails purple, get your nose pierced, dress as the opposite sex, perm your hair.”
Sometimes, as writers, we get stuck in a rut. When moving from desk to coffee shop to library isn’t enough, try something more visceral. When I was young, I used to paint my face, wear dress-up robes, or do my hair in a fancy chignon. Just for fun. It was enough to keep my imagination wheeling all afternoon. Does your character wear a fedora? Wear a fedora. Sport red lipstick? Breakout your MAC Ruby Woo. Try it and see where your imagination takes you.
- “You should listen to what people say. Take in what they say…Then make your own decision.”
This is great advice both when reading craft books and participating in group critique. Listen with an open mind to people’s suggestions. It’s easy to let ego cloud the way. Don’t let it. But ultimately, it’s your voice, your writing. Take the advice that resonates and leave the rest.