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Friday, January 06, 2006


Book Review: Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

Finally, one just has to shut up, sit down, and write.
- Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

Writing Down the Bones (Shambhala Publications, 1986) is not a new book. Written in 1986 by Natalie Goldberg, it has sold over one million copies and been translated into nine languages. It is an undisputed classic among books on the art and practice of writing, and it was written by a rock star of writers. What I mean by that is Goldberg has been featured on The Oprah Show, the Mecca for literary figures who understand the value of public exposure.

What I liked about this book is how easy it was to digest. It's not long, and it's broken up into many small chapters, each one dealing with one main point on the topics of writing and being a writer. The process Goldberg writes about and teaches both in this book and in workshops is simple: Put your pen to paper and write. "Keep your hand moving," Goldberg tells us. She refers to it as "writing practice," and advises that a writer should strive to do it daily, without expectation and without self-critique. Once I stopped cursing her and complaining about how I didn't have time to write every day, I realized that of course, she's absolutely right.

I appreciated Goldberg's friendly and open prose. I was encouraged by what she was telling me even though I have never met her. She writes from the heart and to the heart; her writing flows like a conversation between old friends in a coffee shop. Her advice is sometimes flowery but always solid. She writes from her own writing, from her own analysis of what it has meant to her to be a writer. And she's funny in a way that's honest and self-knowing yet not self-deprecating. I enjoyed her advice in the chapter entitled "We are not the poem." She writes:

"It is important to remember we are not the poem. People will react however they want; and if you write poetry, get used to no reaction at all."

What I didn't like about this book is how outdated it seemed. Goldberg's all about writing in notebooks, and I don't mean the kind that comes with power cords; I do mean the kind that comes with spiral binding. She also writes a lot about poetry, which is nice but which I don't necessarily aspire to create. And sometimes I got annoyed at the constant Zen-speak; although to be fair to Goldberg, I have always been a little biased against Zen Buddhism ever since my "Zen and Literature" professor in college assigned journal writing in a class and then asked me why I was so angry after he had read what I wrote. I'll show him!

I showed him alright. I dropped out of that class long before I had to read Writing Down the Bones, which he had assigned as required reading. Unresolved anger issues might be why I dropped out of his class, and then dropped out of college twice before finally obtaining my degree at the ripe old age of 29. And why I waited until I was in my thirties to admit that I was a writer and to finally read this great book. But I'm not angry at all when I write this. Not a bit.

Whatever you do, don't do as I did. Go find yourself a college bookstore and buy a barely read, used copy of Goldberg's classic book. You'll be glad you did, writer.

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