June 18, 2012

inspired: Writing Down the Bones

Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg, was the first book about writing I read, many years ago. It remains the most liberating and influential work about writing I have ever read. My friend Emily, who is a poet, recommended the book to me when I was first beginning to articulate my interest in being a writer.  I read the book on a trip to visit my grandparents, who live in a small town in Northwest Wisconsin. I began reading in my bedroom at their house, and the book caught me like wildfire. At my first opportunity, I ventured into town to find a place to sit and write, to let the flames of inspiration consume me and see where they might lead. It is the first time I ever gave myself over to writing, rather than sitting down to write with a specific purpose or intention. I have loved many books throughout my life, and I think every book I read impacts me in some way or another. But this is one of those rare, few books I can say truly changed me. 
The book is a long-standing classic in writing texts, published over thirty years ago, when I was just five years old. I think you would be hard-pressed to find a writer who has not come across the book at one time or another. But I continue to marvel at its endurance over time, and at the consistencies it exposes in the craft of writing as well as its obstacles, through this timelessness. 
The book is structured into very, very short chapters - most are one to three pages. The chapters are intended to be read in whatever way you choose, in sequential order or on a whim, based on their subject. In this way, the book invites an easy return to re-read its chapters bit by bit, like meditations or affirmations. Here is one of my all-time favorite passages from Writing Down the Bones, found in the chapter "The Power of Detail": 
“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... 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.”
I have written these words on a page that I posted in the front of my journal, as a reminder for every day's new writing-beginning. There are more brilliant passages in this book than I could even begin to recount, and I am sure I will continue to refer back to its wisdom often in my writing journey.
For many years since that first reading, and through many varied stages of dormancy in my writing practice, I failed to pick the book back up. About a year ago, I saw a new, smaller, hardbound edition of the book while browsing in a bookstore. Though I knew I owned the original paperback copy, I had long ago misplaced it, and had been thinking of the book often, wishing I could find it again. I added the new version to my wish list, and was delighted when Ryan picked it up for me this past Valentine's Day! He inscribed the front of the book with a reminder of his belief in me. Three months later, I finally began to share my writing. 
In this new phase of my writing life, I have often turned to this book for nurture and inspiration. I can honestly say that it never, ever fails to reignite the flames of passion and purpose I feel for writing. Each chapter I read teaches me something new, or helps me view something else in a different light. Often, it simply (but importantly!) reminds me of something I already know, but am so quick to forget. Any day that I am stuck, I return to read its gentle and substantial chapters, to see what might help me break out of my own blocks and begin once again.

(Here is a link to the bookstore, Vroman's, in Pasadena, CA, where I first saw the book.  It is an incredible independent bookstore with an impressive selection of titles! And check out Emily Bobo's amazing poetry in this published volume - it is exquisite!)


  1. I had a similar revelation upon my first reading of this book. My father gave it to me as a birthday gift and from that point forward I began to write daily and consistently, and I've never looked back. It was oddly encouraging to read something that said what I had always been hoping, that everything that I write doesn't necessarily have to be groundbreaking, or even good, so long as I continue to write. I am thoroughly enjoying your blog so far, it's been quite inspiring. Thank you for sharing and also please thank your husband for me for sharing your previous blog post on his Twitter, for I don't believe I would have found you otherwise.

    1. Stephen! Your comment SO encouraged me when I received it through email in June. As a novice blogger, when it got lost in the web of my blog's menus and settings, I did not know how to reply, since something must have gone wrong and it never appeared on the actual post! Thanks to another recently "lost" comment, I just now figured out how to actually reply, and I am so sorry it took me so long. Your words were greatly appreciated then AND now, and I am so grateful for your feedback! What a wonderful, meaningful gift to receive such a special book from your father. I love to hear about your own writing journey and I hope that in these last months your writing has continued and been even more fulfilling for you! Means so much to know that other writers can identify with my own journey, thank you SO much for sharing. :)

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with this book! It seems like such a great resource for writers. In fact, I ordered myself a copy right after I read this post. I can't wait for it to arrive later this week!

  3. Brittany - I AM SO HAPPY YOU ORDERED THIS BOOK!!! :) You are going to love it! I believe it has something for everyone, and even over time, the answers and inspiration I find in its pages will change according to what I am going through. Thank you for reading and for taking the time to comment, means a lot!