Review – Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

I like collecting things. When I was a kid it was cats – models of them not real ones. I had dozens of small ornamental cats varying from tastefully realistic to psychedelic seventies creations picked up for pennies at a car boot.

My boyfriend has already banned me from ever liberating them from my parents attic and installing them in his house.

Nowadays it tends to be books – history books which I claim are for research, books on jeweled skeletons (also research), mills & boon (market research) and finally, books on writing.

I own a lot of books on writing – mostly as ebooks since they tend to be cheaper and nobody is going to idly flick through my kindle and start asking why I have a copy of the dummies guide to writing. They’re mostly okay, with a few good ones, and many terrible ones. I have a whole folder of romance writing books which range from ‘alpha male heroes good verbose women bad’ to ‘if the female lead isn’t a hedge fund manager with four children and impeccable hair you’ve gone wrong’.

Writing Down the Bones isn’t a romance writing how-to-book. In fact, it’s not really a writing how-to book at all. It’s an essay collection of advice on (to borrow the subtitle) ‘freeing the writer within’. It’s very famous, and very zen and was compulsory reading on the OU writing course I did many years ago. It’s also over twenty years old and so treats computers like magical unicorns.

Which isn’t to say that it’s bad. Writing Down the Bones is infused with the concept of writing as meditation and self-realisation. The short essays that make up the book cover all sorts of topics from why write to free writing to eroticism. It’s designed to be read at multiple sittings, picking the pieces which speak to you t any given time and skipping over the others. The advice is often contradictory, at one point extolling the virtues of morning pages and rigorous practice, at another praising the spontaneity of writing whenever you wish.

It’s also a personal story of what writing has meant to Natalie Goldberg. Almost every essay is supported by an anecdote from her own experience of writing and teaching writing. At times it feels a little like eavesdropping on the thoughts of a good friend. One who’ll reassure you that what you’re doing is worthwhile and good even when it really isn’t.

Which brings me to my problem with Writing Down the Bones. I don’t think there’s one right way to write. That would be daft. But I do think that there’s a craft to writing. Writing Down the Bones is a book that advocates writing to brilliance, if you write a lot and you write freely then eventually you’ll find gold in what you’ve produced. For me that’s rubbish. But for you it might not be. Personally, I think it’s an approach which works best for poetry and biographical pieces, neither of which I write, but if you want to mine your brain for gold then this book is an excellent pickaxe. The writing as a meditation approach is not something that works for me (I end up with pages of odd ideas but nothing useable), but it’s something that’ worth trying to see if it works for you.

But this is only a small part of Writing Down the Bones. Most of the book is an effort to heckle or cajole you into writing something, anything, whether you feel it’s too hard, too emotional, too time-consuming. Natalie Goldberg believes in the transformative power of writing (or pursuing some creative endeavour) and that is the real reason for reading this. It’s one of those books I get down whenever I feel a little lost. I dip into it and sooner or later I’ll come across an essay that deals with whatever’s bugging me and gives me enough of a push to carry on. It won’t make your writing better, in purely mechanical terms, but it will make you write. And it will encourage you to write about the things that inspire you, the things you love, the things you collect. It’s non-judgemental – which is a rare quality in a writing book.

Tea and Typing

I like tea.  Not black tea, but green tea and white.  I prefer it to be flavoured, usually with flowers, but citrus and mint will do.  (I’m not a fan of flavouring tea with a bunch of tropical fruit but will make allowances if it’s iced.)

If you’re wondering what this has to do with writing then to be honest nothing much.  I have the odd character who drinks tea (okay most of them do, they’re wealthy regency characters – it’s practically a hanging offence to not indulge) but I can hardly claim it’s research.

No, the point about liking tea is that I like it.  I’m not an expert, though I can tell you I like white peony over silver needle.  Similarly, I like writing and I write things I like.  Genre fiction, usually romance, occasionally straying into gothic, with a bunch of repetitious magical tropes and mostly set in the same off-kilter magical regency world.  It’s not expertly researched (although I try), or properly literary, but it’s mine, and it pleases me.

So tea and writing, both things about which I can only really say that I know what I like, but only one is going to be a main topic of this website.  (Yes, it will probably end up being tea, but you never know!)