Writing Down the Bones – Natalie Goldberg

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Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.

We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded. This is how writers must think, this is how we must sit down with pen in hand. We were here; we are human beings; this is how we lived. Let it be known, the earth passed before us. Our details are important. Otherwise, if they are not, we can drop a bomb and it doesn’t matter. . . Recording the details of our lives is a stance against bombs with their mass ability to kill, against too much speed and efficiency. A writer must say yes to life, to all of life: the water glasses, the Kemp’s half-and-half, the ketchup on the counter. It is not a writer’s task to say, “It is dumb to live in a small town or to eat in a café when you can eat macrobiotic at home.” Our task is to say a holy yes to the real things of our life as they exist – the real truth of who we are: several pounds overweight, the gray, cold street outside, the Christmas tinsel in the showcase, the Jewish writer in the orange booth across from her blond friend who has black children. We must become writers who accept things as they are, come to love the details, and step forward with a yes on our lips so there can be no more noes in the world, noes that invalidate life and stop these details from continuing.

If you are not afraid of the voices inside you, you will not fear the critics outside you.

I write because I am alone and move through the world alone. No one will know what has passed through me… I write because there are stories that people have forgotten to tell, because I am a woman trying to stand up in my life… I write out of hurt and how to make hurt okay; how to make myself strong and come home, and it may be the only real home I’ll ever have.

Play around. Dive into absurdity and write. Take chances. You will succeed if you are fearless of failure.

I don’t think everyone wants to create the great American novel, but we all have a dream of telling our stories-of realizing what we think, feel, and see before we die. Writing is a path to meet ourselves and become intimate.

Anything you do fully is an alone journey.

Writers are great lovers. They fall in love with other writers. That’s how they learn to write. They take on a writer, read everything by him or her, read it over again until they understand how the writer moves, pauses, and sees. That’s what being a lover is: stepping out of yourself, stepping into someone else’s skin.

Writing is the act of discovery.

Handwriting is more connected to the movement of the heart.

I think talent is like a water table under the earth—you tap it with your effort and it comes through you.

First, consider the pen you write with. It should be a fast-writing pen because your thoughts are always much faster than your hand. You don’t want to slow up your hand even more with a slow pen. A ballpoint, a pencil, a felt tip, for sure, are slow. Go to a stationery store and see what feels good to you. Try out different kinds. Don’t get too fancy and expensive. I mostly use a cheap Sheaffer fountain pen, about $1.95…. You want to be able to feel the connection and texture of the pen on paper.

It is odd that we never question the feasibility of a football team practicing long hours for one game; yet in writing we rarely give ourselves the space for practice.

We walk through so many myths of each other and ourselves; we are so thankful when someone sees us for who we are and accepts us.

Accept loss forever
Be submissive to everything, open, listening
No fear or shame in the dignity of your experience, language, and knowledge
Be in love with your life

There is freedom in being a writer and writing. It is fulfilling your function. I used to think freedom meant doing whatever you want. It means knowing who you are, what you are supposed to be doing on this earth, and then simply doing it.

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 colored sensations and keep your pen moving across the page. If you read good books, when you write, good books will come out of you.

If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.

It’s the process of writing and life that matters. Too many writers have written great books and gone insane or alcoholic or killed themselves. This process teaches about sanity. We are trying to become sane along with our poems and stories.

It’s pretty nice to be talented. If you are, enjoy, but it won’t take you that far. Work takes you a lot further.

If you are not afraid of the voices inside you, you will not fear the critics outside you. Besides, those voices are merely guardians and demons protecting the real treasure, the first thoughts of the mind.

The deepest secret in our heart of hearts is that we are writing because we love the world, and why not finally carry that secret out with our bodies into the living rooms and porches, backyards and grocery stores? Let the whole thing flower: the poem and the person writing the poem. And let us always be kind in this world.

As writers we are always seeking support. First we should notice that we are already supported every moment. There is the earth below our feet and there is the air, filling our lungs and emptying them. We should begin from this when we need support. There is the sunlight coming through the window and the silence of the morning. Begin from these. Then turn to face a friend and feel how good it is when she says, “I love your work.” Believe her as you believe the floor will hold you up, the chair will let you sit.

What crannies of untouched perception can you explore? What autumn was it that the moon entered your life? When was it that you picked blueberries at their quintessential moment? How long did you wait for your first true bike? Who are your angels? What are you thinking of? Not thinking of? What are you looking at? Not looking at?

Choose your tools carefully, but not so carefully that you get uptight or spend more time at the stationery store than at your writing table.

This is why it is good to remember: if you want to get high, don’t drink whiskey; read Shakespeare, Tennyson, Keats, Neruda, Hopkins, Millay, Whitman, aloud and let your body sing.”

Inspiration means breathing in. Breathing in God. You actually become larger than yourself and first thoughts are present.

I had to get slow and dumb (not take anything for granted) and watch and see how everything connects, how you contact your thoughts and lay them down on paper.

And what great writers actually pass on is not so much their words, but they hand on their breath at their moments of inspiration.

Don’t cross out. (That is editing as you write. Even if you write something you didn’t mean to write, 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.)

We learn writing by doing it. That simple. We don’t learn by going outside ourselves to authorities we think know about it.

Give me your morning. Breakfast, waking up, walking to the bus stop. Be as specific as possible. Slow down in your mind and go over the details of the morning.

Writers live twice. They go along with their regular life, are as fas as anyone in the grocery store, crossing the street, getting dressed for work in the morning. But there’s another part of them that they have been training. The one that lives every second at a time. That sits down and sees their life again and goes over it. Looks at the texture and details.

This all happened fifteen years ago. A friend once told me: “Trust in love and it will take you where you need to go.” I want to add, “Trust in what you love, continue to do it, and it will take you where you need to go.” And don’t worry too much about security. You will eventually have a deep security when you begin to do what you want. How many of us with our big salaries are actually secure anyway?

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…You don’t only listen to the person speaking to you across the table, but simultaneously listen to the air, the chair, and the door. And go beyond the door. Take in the sound of the season, the sound of the color coming in through the windows. Listen to the past, future, and present right where you are. Listen with your whole body, not only with your ears, but with your hands, your face, and the back of your neck.

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.)

It’s good to go off and write a novel, but don’t stop doing writing practice.

Add to the list anytime you think of something. Then when you sit down to write, you can just grab a topic from that list and begin.

It is very important to go home if you want your work to be whole. You don’t have to move in with your parents again and collect a weekly allowance, but you must claim where you come from and look deep into it. Come to honor and embrace it, or at the least, accept it.

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 sensation and keep your pen moving across the page.

Don’t be tossed away by your monkey mind. You say you want to do something—“I really want to be a writer”—then that little voice comes along, “but I might not make enough money as a writer.” “Oh, okay, then I won’t write.” That’s being tossed away. These little voices are constantly going to be nagging us. If you make a decision to do something, you do it. Don’t be tossed away. But part of not being tossed away is understanding your mind, not believing it so much when it comes up with all these objections and then loads you with all these insecurities and reasons not to do something.

Go ahead; take Kant’s PROLEGOMENA TO ANY FUTURE METAPHYSIC and get it to show what he is telling. We would all be a lot happier.

THE BASIC UNIT of writing practice is the timed exercise.

Sit down right now. Give me this moment. Write whatever’s running through you. You might start with “this moment” and end up writing about the gardenia you wore at your wedding seven years ago. That’s fine. Don’t try to control it. Stay present with whatever comes up, and keep your hand moving.

If every time you sat down, you expected something great, writing would always be a great disappointment. Plus that expectation would also keep you from writing.

Tell about the quality of light coming in through your window. Jump in and write. Don’t worry if it is night and your curtains are closed or you would rather write about the light up north—just write. Go for ten minutes, fifteen, a half hour.

Begin with “I remember.” Write lots of small memories. If you fall into one large memory, write that. Just keep going. Don’t be concerned if the memory happened five seconds ago or five years ago.

Write in different places—for example, in a laundromat, and pick up on the rhythm of the washing machines. Write at bus stops, in cafés. Write what is going on around you.

Visualize a place that you really love, be there, see the details. Now write about it.

Write about “leaving.” Approach it any way you want. Write about your divorce, leaving the house this morning, or a friend dying.

Why else are first thoughts so energizing? Because they have to do with freshness and inspiration. Inspiration means “breathing in.” Breathing in God. You actually become larger than yourself, and first thoughts are present. They are not a cover-up of what is actually happening or being felt. The present is imbued with tremendous energy. It is what is.

Yet it is good to know about our terrible selves, not laud or criticize them, just acknowledge them. Then, out of this knowledge, we are better equipped to make a choice for beauty, kind consideration, and clear truth. We make this choice with our feet firmly on the ground. We are not running wildly after beauty with fear at our backs.

Hear “You are boring” as distant white laundry flapping in the breeze.

We are very arrogant to think we alone have a totally original mind. We are carried on the backs of all the writers who came before us.

You’re more interested, finally, in living life again in your writing than in making money. Now, let’s understand—writers do like money; artists, contrary to popular belief, do like to eat. It’s only that money isn’t the driving force. I feel very rich when I have time to write and very poor when I get a regular paycheck and no time to work at my real work. Think of it. Employers pay salaries for time. That is the basic commodity that human beings have that is valuable. We exchange our time in life for money. Writers stay with the first step—their time—and feel it is valuable even before they get money for it. They hold on to it and aren’t so eager to sell it. It’s like inheriting land from your family. It’s always been in your family: they have always owned it. Someone comes along and wants to buy it. Writers, if they are smart, won’t sell too much of it. They know once it’s sold, they might be able to buy a second car, but there will be no place they can go to sit still, no place to dream on. So it is good to be a little dumb when you want to write. You carry that slow person inside you who needs time; it keeps you from selling it all away. That person will need a place to go and will demand to stare into rain puddles in the rain, usually with no hat on, and to feel the drops on her scalp.

There is freedom in being a writer and writing. It is fulfilling your function. I used to think freedom meant doing whatever you want. It means knowing who you are, what you are supposed to be doing on this earth, and then simply doing it. It is not getting sidetracked, thinking you shouldn’t write any more about your Jewish family when that’s your role in life: to record their history, who they were in Brooklyn, on Long Island, at Miami Beach—the first generation of American Goldbergs—before it all passes and is gone.

The responsibility of literatuure is to make people awake, present, alive. If the writer wanders, then the reader, too, will wander.

Writing is 100% 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.

Finally, one just has to shut up, sit down, and write. That is painful. Writing is so simple, basic, and austere. There are no fancy gadgets to make it more attractive. Our monkey minds would much rather discuss our resistances with a friend at a lovely restaurant or go to a therapist to work out our writing blocks. We like to complicate simple tasks. There is a Zen saying: “Talk when you talk, walk when you walk, and die when you die.” Write when you write. Stop battling yourself with guilt, accusations, and strong-arm threats.
What crannies of untouched perception can you explore? What autumn was it that moon entered your life? When was it that you picked blueberries at their quintessential moment? How long did you wait for your first true bike? Who were your angels? What are you thinking of? Not thinking of? Writing can give you confidence, can train you to wake up.

I wish I had another chance to write that school composition, ‘What I Did Last Summer.’ When I wrote it in fifth grade, I was scared and just recorded: ‘It was interesting. It was nice. My summer was fun.’ I snuck through with a B grade. But I still wondered, How do you really do that? Now it is obvious. You tell the truth and you depict it in detail: ‘My mother dyed her hair red and polished her toenails silver. I was mad for Parcheesi and running the sprinkler catching beetles in a mason jar and feeding them grass. My father sat at the kitchen table a lot staring straight ahead, never talking, a Budweiser in his hand.

We must become writers who accept things as they are, come to love the details, and step forward with a yes on our lips so there can be no more noes in the world, noes that invalidate life and stop these details from continuing.

Writing, too, is 90 percent listening. You listen so deeply to the space around you that it fills you, and when you wrote, it pours out of you. If you can capture that reality around you, your writing needs nothing else. You don’t only listen to the air, the chair, and the door. And go beyond the door. Take in the sound of the season, the sound of the color coming in through the windows. Listen to the past, future, and present right where you are. Listen with your whole body, not only with your ears, but with your hands, your face, and the back of your neck.
Listening is receptivity. The deeper you can listen, the better you can write. You can take in the way things are without judgment, and the next day you can write the truth about the way things are.

…If you can capture the way things are that’s all the poetry you ever need.

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