Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Writing Down the Bones

Following up on yesterday's post, The Bookshelves of Others, the book I spotted in the bookcase in my bedroom at VCCA was Natalie Goldberg's classic Writing Down the Bones. I entertained myself with scanning the shelves while brushing my teeth, and so I almost spat a mouth full of toothpaste on the shelf when I finally noticed it. For two weeks I'd been scanning the shelves for something that would interest me, and there, at last, it was and had been all along: a tattered and yellowed copy of Writing Down the Bones.

This was meant to be, I thought, as I had never actually read that book. Only recently have I become interested in learning more about the creative process (see my take on Julia Cameron's The Right to Write). I'd heard Writing Down the Bones mentioned many times; it was time to read it.

I love that the edition I found is the original 1986 one, when Writing Down the Bones was first published. It has a vintage feel and very much a 1980s vibe. Manuscripts are typed and submitted by mail. Rejection letters are sent. The Internet is nowhere in sight, nor is texting or Facebook. People still call each other, write letters and visit. It was refreshing to read about that way of life in real time and not in hindsight.

And yet, Writing Down the Bones didn't resonate with me as much as Julia Cameron's work did. Maybe because the writer within me has already been freed; the subtitle is "Freeing the Writer Within." Maybe because it's too Zen; a lot of those references came out of left field for me. However, it was a pleasant read, and I gleaned several insights and ideas from it. I'd love to try a writing marathon, and I liked the idea of running a poetry booth as a charity fundraiser (I'd have to get better at writing poems first.). I did underline a lot, so I thought I'd share that. Following is my list of favorite insights from Writing Down the Bones.

"Writing is so simple, basic and austere." (p. 24)

"... at that moment [of putting something down in writing] you are free because you are not fighting those things inside. [...] The power is always in the act of writing." (p. 32)

"It is very painful to become frozen with your poems, to gain too much recognition for a certain set of poems. The real life is in writing, not in reading the same ones over and over again for years." (p. 33)

"Writing is a whole lifetime and a lot of practice." (p. 37)

"Seeing names makes us remember." (p. 44 - on being specific)

"Writers live twice. They go along their regular life, are as fast as anyone in the grocery store, crossing the street, getting dressed for work in the morning. But there's another part of them that they have been in training. The one that lives everything a second time. That one sits down and sees their life again and goes over it. Looks at the texture and details." (p. 48)

"And what great writers actually pass on is not so much their words, but they hand on their breath at their moments of inspiration." (p. 51)

"Oddly enough, writing in a café can work to improve concentration. But instead of reducing stimulation, the café atmosphere keeps that sensory part of you busy and happy, so that the deeper, quieter part of you that creates and concentrates is free to do so. It is something like occupying a baby with tricks, while slipping the spoon full of apple sauce into her mouth. Mozart used to have his wife read stories to him while he was composing for the same reason." (p. 92)

"A perfect studio has always told me that the person is afraid of his own mind and is reflecting in his outward space an inward need for control. Creativity is just the opposite: it is a loss of control." (p. 96)

"Do not be tossed away by your achievements or your fiascos. Continue under all circumstances. It will keep you healthy and alive." (p. 111)

"Hemingway has said, "Not the why, but the what." Give the real detailed information. Leave the why for the psychologists. It's enough to know you want to write. Write." (p. 113 - on the question of "Why Do I Write?")

"When I have reread my notebooks it never fails to remind me that I have a life, that I felt and thought and saw. It is very affirming, because sometimes writing seems useless and a waste of time. Suddenly you are sitting in your chair fascinated by your own mundane life. That's the great value of art - making the ordinary extraordinary. We awaken ourselves to the life we are living." (p. 162)

One more insight from Writing Down the Bones has already affected my writing; I shall share that soon.


  1. Your serendipitous discovery reminds me of a discovery I made in France last November. I went to eat some carrot-leek soup for lunch in a little Dijon cafe co-op started by a French and American couple (free trade and fresh food). Near the front they have a bookshelf that is "take a book/leave a book." I was staring at the shelf and then I realized that what I was looking at was Phillip Lopate's "Portrait of My Body." I ran over and grabbed it and all I could think was "Who in Dijon is reading this book? Oh, how I wish I could meet that person." So ever after I'll be haunted by the knowledge that somewhere in Dijon is/was someone as enamored of the essay as me. And we'll never meet.

    1. Julie, thanks for sharing your story of finding Phillip Lopate's book. Next time you're in Dijon, if that co-op has a bulletin board, you should put up a note looking for that person who left the book. You never know.

  2. Some of those quotes are quite evocative... particularly about the writer living twice.

    1. William, thanks, they definitely are. I'd heard that thought about the writer living twice before, but it was nice to be reminded again.

  3. Annette, I reviewed Old Friend From Far Away a while back and recapped Writing Down the Bones. I find her books in the inspirational camp more than the strictly how-to. And of course both are great. There's a core of steel in her books, too: spiritual discipline and constant practice.

    1. Richard, thanks for commenting! I agree, Writing Down the Bones is definitely in the inspirational camp, and your "core of steel" observation is quite apt.