REVIEW: Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within 2nd Edition by Natalie Goldberg (Shambhala 2006)

#NANOWRIMO has inspired me. It’s exactly what I needed. Not to write a novel, but help get me back into the habit of writing naked. It’s hard to write naked. It can be cold and comfortless. And it would be easier if I was speaking literally. It would just be my naked butt on the airy mesh of my office chair, standing on occasion with nothing more than a waffle print on my flabby ass. But writing naked is much harder than this, and it is much harder because I’m speaking figuratively. I’m talking about writing without a sense of knowing and control. I’m talking about writing with a sense of freedom, without limitation and without…wait for it…an outline. Ahhhh!!!!!

Natalie Goldberg Writing Down the BonesThis is terrifying for me. I’m a plotter. I have a Ph.D. in American literature. I like feeling smart. I like getting As. I like doing things “right.” I like the side of my brain that knows the answer. And that side likes to plot. It makes me feel safe. It makes me feel in control. And it is also killing my writing. Enter #NANOWRIMO and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (2006).


Writing Down the Bones

Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (2006) was first published in 1986 and has since become a classic in the genre. Simply put, it is about writing in its purest form. After reading dozens of books about structure and about plotting, I came to Writing Down the Bones at a time when I needed to learn (or remember) how to let go and just write. What I realized over time was that my characters were feeling flat; it felt like the plot was leading them, rather than them leading the plot. And much of this was the result of my being a Type A, total control freak. I wanted my stories plotted. I wanted to know where things were going. I wanted to know what was going to happen. I wanted, basically, to be in control. The result of course was that I was, and as would follow, my characters were not. This is not to denigrate the importance of structure or the benefits of outlining and pre-plotting, but it is to suggest that one must be open to what your characters want to say and do. I was not. I had gone too far in one direction, and my stories, and characters, were suffering.

Learn more about my “Writing Tips: The Best Lessons from the Best Books on Writing” Series

The goal of this series is pretty simple. I’m a lover of craft books. They fill my shelves. They cover my desk. They sit behind my toilet. They’re an obsession. They’re also the most awesomest procrastination tool ever. Which is good for you, and bad for me. I’m a recovering craft-book junky and this series is my therapy. I’m going to pass along the best pieces of advice from some the best books on writing that I’ve read. These blog posts are based on my own interpretation of the best writing ideas/ advice/ lessons from the best books on the craft of writing.

Writing is a Process

The thing was, I already knew that writing was about process. I’d learned this as a graduate student and as an academic. How many times had I started a paper thinking I knew what I wanted to say, only to discover half way through that I was actually saying the opposite? This “writing to learn what I wanted to say” never struck me as problematic. The key was, of course, just starting. I trusted this process. And this trust got me through a 350 page dissertation on experimental, post-modern fictionist Ronald Sukenick. I sat down everyday not to say something, but to learn what I had to say.

But somewhere in the transition from academic to creative writer, I’d forgotten this truth. Or perhaps creative writing posed a different kind of psychological challenge that I was unprepared for.

Meditative Writing

With a growing sense of what was wrong with my writing, I started exploring ways to reorient myself to writing as a process. I took a wonderful course called Meditative Writing at the Jakob Krueger Studio with writing teacher Jessica Hinds that got me started and it is this “meditative” approach that Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones famously advocates, and that #NANOWRIMO encourages.

The basic unit of  Hinds’s Meditative Writing Class, and Goldberg’s “writing practice,” is the timed writing exercise. The basic rules of the exercise are thus:

  1. You give yourself a set amount of time to write.
  2. You write about anything that comes to mind without judgment.
  3. You don’t stop writing for the entire time period.
  4. You always write for the allotted time.

The goal is not to get anything right (a big one for me). It is to simply follow the leading edge of your imagination wherever it goes, without judgment. If you want to berate yourself on the page for being a lousy writer, that’s fine. If you want to muse on the meaning of life, fine. You can set an intention (like creating a voice journal for a character) or you can choose to just spew. No matter what, it is all fine.

Hinds’s class directs this meditative process towards the characters that emerged and their emotions, while also experimenting with different kinds of prompts. The end goal of the class is to help you discover what works for you. It was a great class and the added benefit of the guidance you receive from Hinds is invaluable. I’d recommend it without reservation.

Goldberg clarifies the process thus: “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 is the basic premise of Goldberg’s book: Learning how to write as a meditative practice. It is very similar to what is generically referred to as “free writing.” For Goldberg, this practice is linked to Zen meditation. Zen metaphors and teachings are used through the text and provide the philosophical and artistic basis for many of her ideas. The book’s teachings aren’t organized around linear objectives so much as they feel like collected musings on related topics and ideas.

Goldberg isn’t the first one to make this connection. Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing which is on my shelf and which is great and which I’ll be doing a post on soon, comes to mind.

Another important aspect of both Goldberg and Hinds’s class is their emphasis on the importance of congratulating yourself on completing the “practice”. This moment of congratulating yourself is important, because it reorients us to thinking about not what we have written, but simply that we have written as the accomplishment.

And as David Milch (co-creator and writer of such shows as NYPD Blue, Deadwood, Luck and many others) has said, “Whatever you think about your writing when you aren’t writing, is false.” We’ve all had the experience of thinking we wrote something brilliant, only to realize it sucked. And we’ve also had the experience of writing junk, only to realize it’s brilliant. So the truth is, despite your ego’s eagerness to trash what you have or haven’t accomplished, you never know. The key, according to Goldberg, is to get away from this judgment (since it is so often wrong) while celebrating the success of having written regardless of what you wrote.


This is why #NANOWRIMO (and Goldberg’s book) is so useful to plotters and pantsers alike. It reminds you that writing is a process and a practice. The #NANOWRIMO rush of it all becomes its own excuse and justification for imperfection. Which is exactly what we need. Permission to fail. This is what practice is. No one sets out to write a piano concerto without first practicing scales; the scientific method operates not on the discovery of correct answers, but on the elimination of failures; the greatest of inventors always have more failures under their belts than successes. Failure is the key to success no only in the sciences, but also in the creative arts.

I’m not writing a novel for #NANOWRIMO, but I am sitting down everyday to write 1500-2000 words on whatever comes to mind. I am practicing. I am giving myself permission to fail. And because of this, I am remembering how to succeed.

David Milch provides an interesting commentary on the psychological importance of this practice of writing. Milch’s 20-50 minute writing exercise is identical to Goldberg’s and Hinds’ except he limits himself to a two part dialog. This is what he says: “Whatever comes out is fine. Put it in an envelope when you’re done, seal the envelope, don’t talk about it to anybody, and don’t show it to anybody, and that doesn’t mean, “I’m just gonna show my friend; I’m just gonna find out what she thinks.” Don’t show it to anybody! These are exercises that you are doing, and you are building certain neuro pathways, and you are shutting down certain other neuro pathways. What I’m describing is a physiological, behavioral sequence that is going to have neurological changes for you. You’re going to habituate yourself in a different fashion, and you can’t fool around with it.” For more from David Milch, check out the Go Into The Story screenwriting blog. Tons of great stuff there.

According to Goldberg, “You have to give yourself the space to write a lot without a destination.” And the reason? Because the truth is, we write not to teach, but to learn. I’m not talking about self-discovery here. I’m talking about story discovery. Writing is a process of discovery, and you have to be open to that process. You have to write naked. Why? Because according to Milch, “…in the course of this, the true categories of your imagination will emerge, and they are absolutely different from what you think they are.”

This, for me, is the key to #NANOWRIMO and the reason I’m so into it right now. It has given me a reason, and an excuse, to write naked.

Go figure…I’ve always been a bit of an exhibitionist anyway.

Questions for you:

Have you tried NANOWRIMO? Will you? Do you freewrite? Do you write naked!? How do you stay “free” in your writing?

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