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.
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