Notes on Writing Down the Bones

Like the advice in pretty much all writing books, Natalie Goldberg’s advice in Writing Down the Bones boils down to the same core principles: write every day; don’t edit while you write; use detail; don’t worry about being perfect. Goldberg offers some useful tips for keeping a daily writing practice, but she also admits that you have to keep changing up your routine just to keep yourself interested. In other words, no one piece of advice is the magic bullet for all would-be writers, or will even work for one writer for the entirety of a writing life.

There are some useful nuggets to be mined here, and repetition helps the basic advice get heard. What I like about Goldberg’s approach to writing as a “practice” is that it takes the focus off the end product and puts it on the process of writing (or creating) just for its own sake. I think in American culture especially, we become too obsessed with productivity and sales and getting famous. We forget to do things for no other reason than our own enjoyment, and the spark gets lost that way.

Here are some key ideas from Writing Down the Bones that are worth remembering:

  • Composting: It takes time for our experiences to sift through our consciousness so we can write coherently about it. In other words, you’re not going to write well about something you’re going through right now. That’s why so many writers start with their childhood, I guess.
  • When you practice writing, it’s a good idea to separate the editor/internal censor  from the creator, but that’s very difficult to do for many of us!
  • It is the process of writing that teaches us how to write.
  • Writers write about their obsessions. List your obsessions and you have a list of things to write about.
  • Use original detail in your writing, but don’t be rigid about it. Fiction doesn’t have to absolutely mirror reality.
  • To be a good writer, you must read a lot of good books and write a lot. (This is what everyone says, but I find it so dismaying to run into writers who don’t read.)
  • “Show, don’t tell” actually means: Don’t tell readers what to feel; show them the situation and the feeling will awaken in them.
  • Be specific. Use the names of things.
  • Even if you aren’t sure of something, express it as if you know yourself.
  • If you have a big topic you want to write about, break it down into its aspects. Write small to get big.

Some interesting exercises I gleaned from the book:

  1. List 10 nouns on one side of a piece of paper. Cover them and list 15 verbs on the other side that are associated with a profession. Try to match nouns with verbs in unusual combinations to make sentences. Think about actions–they have power.
  2. If you can’t think of anything else to write about, write about food. We all love to eat.
  3. Keep a box or envelope or file of topic ideas. Pull one out and just start writing when you get stuck.
  4. If you are unsure of a piece, put it away for a while. Reread it as a reader, not as the writer. Underline the good parts and throw away the rest.

A few recent links about writing and similar creative pursuits…

Stephen King asks: Can a novelist be too productive?

We are all artists now, though.

But if you don’t click on this story, the writer doesn’t get paid.

Inspired by Austin Kleon…

I’ve decided to go analog and carry a notebook with me for recording my to-do lists, ideas, upcoming events, monthly goals, and the like, instead of relying on my phone or tablet. (See my last post.) Sure, it’s one more thing I have to cart around, but I carry a backpack purse anyway. I’ve noticed that it’s become harder and harder for me to remember what I need or intend to be doing, and I’m wondering if it’s because I’m not physically writing it down. They say that the act of writing–pen on paper–aids memory. And I know that when I’m making notes or getting my ideas out, I prefer to write them longhand first before typing them in the computer.

Besides, I love notebooks, don’t you? How do you keep track of what you need to do?

Notes on The Creative Habit

The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp is the first of several books I’m planning to read on the creative process. Tharp’s book is a great place to start, as it contains many nuggets of useful information on fashioning a creative life that can be put into practice immediately. Although Tharp’s art is dance, her advice is general enough to apply to any creative pursuit, even cooking, yoga, or gardening, and of course, writing. I found it very inspirational and wanted to share my reading notes, which may be of interest. I hope if you are intrigued that you go ahead and read the whole book–it’s worth it.

Rituals of preparation: Begin each day the same way. Commit to a creative practice by starting with a ritual. Create a working environment that’s habit forming. Distractions and fears are the enemy!

Twyla says: “…there is no one ideal condition for creativity. What works for one person is useless for another. The only criterion is this: Make it easy on yourself.”

That’s why following someone else’s prescription for creativity may not work!

Creative DNA: How do you see? What is your focal length: close up, medium, or long view?

Harness memory: Experiences and memories are the source of art. Find new ways to connect the memories that you’ve stored.

Twyla says: “Metaphor is the lifeblood of all art.”

Start with a box: When starting a new project, put everything about that project together into a box,* including research, notes, inspiration. (*A blog can be a “box.”)

Scratching: the process of getting started and finding ideas. Look everywhere. Read! You can’t stop with one idea–a workable idea is the combination of two separate ideas.

Accidents: Have a plan/don’t over plan. Be open to luck and happy accidents. Run with them when they occur. Limits on resources can help creativity.

Creativity as an act of defiance: Why do I have to obey the rules? Why can’t I be different? Why can’t I do it my way?

Spine*: the first strong idea/your intentions/motive for existence. Stick to your spine and your piece will work. The audience does not have to know what it is. It guides you and keeps you going. It’s a gift you give yourself to make the work easier.

*This is the key chapter in the book, the one most important piece of wisdom to take away.

Thought: Could you have a spine not only for creative projects, but for phases of your life?

Skill: You need to develop your skills to be truly great. Combine skill with passion. Learn to do for yourself to broaden your skills. Practice (diligence+habit) to keep your skills. Never take fundamentals for granted.

Inexperience erases fear–you don’t know what is not possible. Switch genres or to another skill set.

Ruts and grooves: There will come a time when creativity fails you. A rut: you’re spinning your wheels; the world is moving on while you’re standing still. Ruts are caused by bad ideas, bad timing, or bad luck. A rut is sticking to old methods without taking into account how you’ve changed (“always done it this way”). Question everything except your ability to get out of the rut.

First see the rut; second, admit you’re in a rut; third, get out of the rut. You may need to change your environment. You may need a new idea; set an aggressive quota. You may need to challenge or reverse your assumptions; practice this.

A groove: moving forward without hitches; learning, growing, stretching, being at your best. The call to a creative life is not supposed to be torture. Does it give you pain (a rut) or pleasure (a groove)?

Build a bridge to the next day. Write your intention down and read it first thing on the following day.

An A in failure: The creative act is editing out the ideas that don’t work. You do your best work after your biggest disasters. Failure is necessary, but you must be willing to learn from your failures. Build failure into the process; invite criticism and learn from it.

  • failure of skill: develop skills
  • failure of concept: move on to something else
  • failure of judgment: be a tyrant
  • failure of nerve: looking foolish is good for you
  • failure through repetition: try something new
  • failure from denial: admit when something is not working

The long run: Be in the bubble. Be willing to subtract everything that disconnects you from your work. (The most difficult advice to put into practice!)

A caution against self-publishing, with links…

I have a side job right now where I review “indie” books, which mostly means self-published books, although some small-press books are also thrown into the mix. Reading on average one self-published book a week for the past several months has made me very pessimistic about the quality of self-published books in general. In fact, it’s pretty insulting to readers, some of the dreck that’s being sold to us in these days of instant self-publication. A book may be a piece of art, it may be your baby, but it’s also a product that is being sold, and readers deserve a professional product. I view my little reviews as something of a public service, either a message to the author that the book was not nearly ready for publication, or if that’s not something the author wants to hear, then a message to the reader to beware.

It’s not all bad news. Self-published nonfiction tends to be better quality than fiction, I think because nonfiction is more likely written by a professional in his or her field. When it comes to fiction, though, I have a hard time recommending any of it. Of all the books I’ve reviewed, I’ve only given an unqualified recommendation to books published by a small press, which had obviously received the attention of an editor, a copyeditor, a designer, and a cover artist.

Based on my forays into the world of self-published books as a reviewer, I’ve developed a prejudice against them as a reader. Whether that’s fair or not, it’s the natural result of being exposed to so much amateurish self-published writing. I can assure you that I’m not the only reader who is rapidly learning never to touch a self-published book. I would caution any new writer to think long and hard before choosing to self-publish. For a small subset of writers, self-publishing may be a good way to build a readership and maximize profits. However, most writers won’t be able to distinguish themselves in the rapidly expanding ocean of self-published books out there, and they may be putting their work out for judgment before it’s mature enough.

For further reading, here’s a small collection of links about deciding whether to self-publish:

Finally, if you decide to go the self-publishing route, make sure that your command of spelling and grammar is impeccable. Readers should not have to read your book with a red pencil in their hands. And please, I’m begging you, learn the difference between passed and past.

Women writing — some links

For my yearly reading project in 2015, I have been focusing on women writers, specifically of speculative fiction. This project has led me down lots of wonderful side alleys discovering new writers, revisiting old favorites, and thinking about what they have to say. It’s also helped me understand the bias that women writers continue to face when it comes to getting published, reviewed, and honored. Here I want to share some related links and also encourage every reader to seek out more women writers to add to their To Read lists.

I am putting together a list of great books by women writers to read. It is now over 150 books. I’ll probably share it when it gets up to 200 or so titles. In the meantime, here are some women writers who I have been reading lately to go out and discover right now: the aforementioned Margaret Atwood and Daphne du Maurier; Shirley Jackson; Patricia Highsmith; Ursula K. Le Guin; Octavia Butler; Jane Austen; Stella Gibbons; Dorothy L. Sayers; Harper Lee; Tana French; Mary Doria Russell; Kate Atkinson; Ngozi Chimamanda Adichie; Ruth Ozeki; Jhumpa Lahiri; Ann Leckie; Emily St. John Mandel.

Patricia Highsmith, from 20 Photos of Famous Authors Looking Badass at Flavorwire.