Natalie Goldberg: Writing Down the Bones

Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation and grammar, just keep writing, says Natalie Goldberg. Keep your hand moving so you can put down whatever comes to mind – your very first thoughts – on paper. That’s how your writing can be fresh and alive, she says in her book, Writing Down the Bones. It’s all about “freeing the writer within”. That’s the subtitle of the book.

A former hippie who practised zen meditation, she says: “When I teach in a class, I want the students to be ‘writing down the bones’, the essential, awake speech of their minds,” She means “self-discovery”. For, as she wrote in the preface to the second edition of the book in December 2004:

It is my sincere wish that this book be taught in all public and private schools, that students learn how to do writing practice, that they come to know themselves, feel joy in expression, trust what they think. Once you connect with your mind, you are who you are and you’re free.

First published in 1989, Writing Down the Bones is now in its 30th anniversary edition. Julia Cameron of The Artist’s Way fame says in her preface to this edition: “A million-plus readers have followed Natalie’s bold plunge into the world of words.”

It was not talent but work and effort that helped her succeed, says Natalie Goldberg. In the Afterword she says:

I never thought of myself as talented. No one ever told me I had any talent. Anytime I went to a palm reader, an astrologer, I was told I should be an accountant. So it was my effort, my determination, that made new lines in my palm. I guess I’ve always believed in human effort. Human effort is not just the hard physical work of putting your shoulder to the grindstone. What I’m talking about is work that wakes us up. We all have that ability within us. Talent has nothing to do with waking up. I’m talking about being aware and mindful as a writer. Knowing the names of trees and plants, noticing the sun and how it’s hitting the chrome on a car. That comes with practice. It’s pretty to be nice to be talented. If you are, enjoy, but it won’t take you that far. Work takes you a lot further.

You have to work at your writing, it takes practice, she says.

Writing practice

You have to practise writing for 10 minutes, 20 minutes, an hour or whatever time you can spare, she says, but you have to follow these 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’s editing as you write. Even if you write something you didn’t mean to, leave it.)
  • Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, 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.

Goldberg was influenced by the beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg with whom she studied for six weeks in 1976 at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “He said, ’When your mind is shapely, your writing is shapely,” she recalls. She says:

Basically if you want to become a good writer, you need to do three things. Read a lot, listen well and deeply, and write a lot. And don’t think too much. Just enter the heat of words and sounds and coloured sensations and keep your pen moving across the page.

Goldberg advises:

When you write, don’t say, “I’m going to write a poem.” That attitude will freeze you right away. Sit down with the least expectation of yourself, say, “I’ am free to write the worst junk in the world.” You have to give yourself the space to write a lot without a destination. I’ve had students who said they were going to write the great American novel and haven’t written a line since. If every time you sat down, you expected something great, writing would always be a great disappointment. Plus that expectation would keep you from writing.


Writing takes time, says Goldberg, calling the process “composting”:

It takes a while for our experience to sift through our consciousness. For instance, it’s hard to write about being in love in the midst of a mad love affair. We have no perspective. All we can say is, “I’m madly in love,” over and over again. It is also hard to write about a city we just moved to, it’s not yet in our body… Hemingway wrote about Michigan while sitting in a cafe in Paris. “Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan. I did not know it was too early for that because I did not know Paris well enough.” (Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast).

Goldberg adds:

Often I will stab many times at something I want to say. For instance, you can look in my notebooks from August through December 1983 and see that I attempted to write several times a month about my father dying. I was exploring and composting the material. Then suddenly, and I can’t say how, in December I sat transfixed at the Croissant Express in Minneapolis and a long poem about that subject poured out of me. All the disparate things I had to say were suddenly fused with energy and unity — a bright red tulip shot out of the compost. (Goldberg’s zen teacher) Katagiri Roshi said, “Your little will can’t do anything. It takes Great Determination. Great Determination doesn’t mean just you making an effort. It means the whole universe is behind you and with you– the birds, trees, sky, moon, and ten directions.”

Nothing is too dull, too insignificant, to be ignored when you write, says Goldberg, who stresses “the power of detail”. “A writer’s job is to make the ordinary come alive, to awaken ourselves to the specialness of simply being,” she says.  “Be specific,” she adds. “Don’t say ‘fruit’. Tell what kind of a fruit – ‘It is a pomegranate.’ Give things the dignity of their names.”

Listen, don’t tell, but show

Goldberg believes in empathy. She stresses the importance of listening: “Writing is 90 percent listening. You listen so deeply to the space around you that it fills you, and when you write, it pours out of you. If you can capture that reality around you, your writing needs nothing else.”

“Don’t tell, but show,” Goldberg repeats the old adage. “Writing is not psychology,” she says. “We do not talk ‘about’ feelings. Instead the writer feels and through her words awakens those feelings in the reader. The writer takes the reader’s hand and guides him through the valley or sorrow and joy without ever having to mention those words.”

Writing Down the Bones has a chapter called Use Loneliness.  Goldberg says: “Writing can be very lonely. Who’s going to read it, who cares about it?… Think of sharing your need to talk with someone else when you write…

“Use loneliness. Its ache creates urgency to reconnect with the world. Take that aching and use it to propel you deeper into your need for expression – to speak, to say who you are…”

Go over what you have written – but only after some time, says Goldberg. “It is a good idea to wait awhile before you reread your writing. Time allows for distance and objectivity about your work.”

She describes the fascination of reading her own notebooks:

When I 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 writing sometimes 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.

That’s the joy of writing.

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