Writing Down the Bones

Writing Down the Bones

Natalie writes with such simplicity and clarity. It's clear she practices what she preaches. An underlying current through the book was how her Zen practice enables her to have the peace of mind and focus to accomplish something as wonderful as this book. She speaks with truth and honesty which makes the words so much more powerful. Although I don't agree with everything she says, I respect the manner in which she is free to communicate her innermost thoughts, fears, and successes with the entire world.

Natalie has attained a level of detachment that has allowed her to treat success and failure the same. True to the Buddhist art of observing one's body rather than being imprisoned within in, she speaks fluidly and objectively of experiences both positive and negative—whatever those terms actually mean. The non-judgmental attitude she has cultivated is apparent in her writing.

Interestingly, Robert Pirsig wrote a blurb on the back and I just finished reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Rather than numbered chapters, Natalie has titles and collects her thoughts into each one. The chapters are short and interspersed with stories and advice. It's an easy read but one can choose to go deep into the implications and lessons as well.

Natalie is a strong proponent of writing in a notepad. This is non-negotiable in her eyes. There must be some truth to that but writing on a keyboard is so much more efficient. How can I balance the efficiency of the keyboard with the creative necessity and sheer joy of writing on paper?

Beginner's Mind, Pen and Paper

Start with the basics, and go back to them from time to time. This opening chapter acknowledges that tools don't matter and lovingly encourages you to begin with a simple, fast pen and a large notepad. Don't get too caught up in the tools. Our goal is to write fast, write anywhere, and not have to lug around heavy, bulky, expensive hardcover journals. A word of caution about small notebooks though,

A small notebook can be kept in your pocket, but then you have small thoughts. - Natalie Goldberg

I've often struggled with and switched between writing by hand and typing. Natalie's personal distinction is that if it's emotional, she must write it the first time by hand, because handwriting is more connected to the movement of the heart. Yet, for stories, she goes straight to the typewriter.

Experiment with writing on different mediums. Our tools also affect the way we form our thoughts. Don't get too stuck on one form of writing.

First Thoughts

The basic unit of writing is the timed exercise. Ten minutes, twenty minutes, an hour. It's up to you but, of course, the general advice is to start small.

  1. 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.)
  2. Don't cross out. (That is editing as you write. Even if you write something you didn't mean to write, leave it.)
  3. Don't worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. (Don't even care about staying within the margins and lines on the page.)
  4. Lose control
  5. Don't think. Don't get logical.
  6. 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.)

As much as Natalie emphasizes the emotional, spontaneous writing path, she is adamant about those few rules. They allow us to burn through to the first thoughts.

First thoughts have energy and vitality even though they may not make much logical sense. First thoughts don't care about what other people will think.

First thoughts are also unencumbered by ego, by that mechanism in us that tries to be in control, tries to prove the world is permanent and solid, enduring and logical. The world is not permanent, is ever-changing and full of human suffering. So if you express something egoless, it is also full of energy because it is expressing the truth of the way things are. You are not carrying the burden of ego in your expression, but are riding for moments the waves of human consciousness and using your personal details to express the ride. - Natalie Goldberg

First thoughts correlate to being present.

The present is imbued with tremendous energy. - Natalie Goldberg
Don't stop at the tears; go through to truth. This is the discipline. - Natalie Goldberg
When you are present, the world is truly alive. - A Meditation Teacher

Writing as a Practice

As with every practice, the more you do it, the better you get at it.

This is long-standing advice from most writers; write even if you don't feel like it. Waiting for "inspiration" is a trap.

Nobody gets plumber's block, they simply do plumbing. Creativity is work. I write daily because I'm a professional and this is what I do. - Seth Godin

There are many areas of my life I can apply this. Reading a book. Writing a journal. Working with people. I don't always have to love what I'm doing, sometimes it's just work but I'm a professional and this is what I do. I'm a professional about reading because it's going to help me be a better person and provide more value for the people I interact with and care about. I'm a professional about writing my journal because it's going to outlast my memories and be a legacy I can leave behind. It also allows me to distill and synthesize what's bouncing around in my mind. I'm a professional about working with people because it demonstrates that I'm reliable, trustworthy, and knowledgeable in my domain.

Instead of having high expectations and setting yourself up for disappointment, say, "I am free to write the worst junk possible." Give yourself space to write.

Natalie's goal is to fill one notebook a month.

Relaxing is key to good writing. Notice the handwriting become larger, looser, more free.


It takes a while for our experiences to sift through our consciousness. - Natalie Goldberg

It's easy to get discouraged when the words aren't coming to you in the moment. Sometimes you must step back from an experience, or leave a place, in order to write about it. Hemingway wrote about Michigan while sitting in a cafe in Paris.

Natalie tried to write several times about her father dying but it wasn't until at an unforeseen time and place that a long poem suddenly poured out of her.

Composting is allowing the thoughts and experiences to settle in order that they may provide nourishment for the flowers that are to come.

Artistic Stability

This is the notion that if you keep writing all the garbage that comes out and continue to trust the process, you'll gain a sense of artistic security and will have nothing to fear of the voices within you or the critics without.

A list of Topics for Writing Practices

Writing out a list of topics is good for priming. It's like turning over the compost and fertilizing the garden of your writing.

(Natalie lists 15 helpful topics here)

Fighting Tofu

This is what Steven Pressfield calls Resistance, with a capital "R", in The War of Art.

Let your internal dictator and the resister fight it out in your writing. Once they've exhausted themselves, or you've become sick of them, then the deeper, more peaceful writing space will appear. This may mean writing a few pages of junk and tossing them out.

Natalie goes one to list 6 tricks that have helped nudge her along. The one that resonates with me is trying to fill one notebook a month. No quota on quality, just quantity. This I have done and it's a perfectly reasonable expectation of myself.

She ends the chapter by saying,

You can make up all kinds of friendly tricks. Just don't get caught in the endless cycle of guilt, avoidance, and pressure. When it is your time to write, write. - Natalie Goldberg

Rereading and Rewriting

Rereading what you've written is reaffirming because it reminds you that you have a life. A wonderful, twisted life full of emotions, thoughts, perceptions. It also shows how one changes over time and dispels the notion of identity continuity. We do not remain the same person no matter how attached to the ego we become. To deny that is choosing to remain in temporary comforting darkness. Travel does the same time—it reaffirms life.

Rereading shows how your mind works.

Art is making the ordinary extraordinary. We awaken ourselves to the life we are living. - Natalie Goldberg

We don't always realize the value of our writing in the moment. It's good to leave it be and come back to it after a while. Others may, in fact, realize it's much better than we gave it credit for.

Our conscious minds are not always in control. Sometimes the subconscious comes out and creates something beautiful of which we are not consciously aware of at the time.

Write from the heart and don't change the words as they come out. Learn to trust your own voice. If you are truly present when writing, it will be there whole.

The ego is always trying to gain control of things. Don't let the ego become the editor.

I Don't Want to Die

Even a Zen Buddhist, or perhaps especially a Zen Buddhist,  has to be honest with the truth of who they are. On his deathbed in 1971, instead of a deep, inspiring admonition, Suzuki Roshi told his dear friend "I don't want to die". He was simply being honest to who he was and what he felt in the moment. To this Katagiri bowed, "Thank you for your great effort."

Natalie expresses this idea that artists and creatives, though forged in vitality, "must touch down on a quiet place otherwise they will burn out". An artist burning out looks like suicide, addiction, and mental illness. Perhaps this is a simple explanation of this well-known phenomenon.

By the opposite token, a spiritual person (her words) who is seeking and mostly at peace, must dip into liveliness and spontaneity which is behind the inner peace. It's important not to neglect the vitality that exists within the peace. This energy must be expressed in writing, always coming from a place of peace.

We can say exactly what we feel—"I don't want to die"—at the moment of dying. "Not in anger, self-recrimination, or self-pity, but out of an acceptance of the truth of who we are". When life comes at us fast and furious, "...we can just begin to write, simply begin to write what we have to say".


Anything we fully do is an alone journey. - Natalie Goldberg
Success can be lonely, isolating, disappointing...Give yourself the space to feel whatever you feel, and don't feel as though you shouldn't have a wide range of emotions. - Natalie Goldberg

This I struggled with recently. I had many plans, too many perhaps, of which most were not realized but I had forewarned myself that this was a real possibility. In fact, I cautioned myself about forcing my own will on the moment. For the most part I believe I was able to accomplish that objective even though I felt brief pangs of remorse during the moments when I realized I was not getting everything done.

The bottom line.—This too shall pass. No matter what it is, soaring success or dismal failure. Another moment, another step. The here and now is the only reality we inhabit. Everything else, past and future, is an illusion and is real only to the extent that our minds make it.