Book Review—Writing Down the Bones

Book: Writing Down the Bones
Author: Natalie Goldberg

I stumbled upon a mentor for life in Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (2005).  Her book was on a suggested reading list in an obscure writing class I took many years ago.  First published in 1986, this should be a standard go-to book in everyone’s personal library.  Bursting with vivid personal anecdotes and references to famous writers, her book has remained on suggested reading lists for decades, as relevant today as ever.  AU writing students—and who isn’t writing something at university—in need of a book with solid motivation and practical writing applications will discover a valuable treasure trove of wisdom within the pages of Goldberg’s paperback.

In a succinct preface, the author explains to the reader the reasons one writes, along with her own motivations.  Following that is a short introduction on her personal writing history which warrants why she is a present-day writing guru to many.  I only wish I had her as a teacher in one of my creative writing classes.  My high school English curriculums could not have been more dry or insipid.  No doubt the success of her book over the past thirty plus years is partially due to her meditation studies.  Mindfulness practices tend to spill over into all other areas of life, and Ms.  Goldberg’s book is no exception.  Her writing is clear, concise, and delivered with a self-deprecating sense of humour:

We want honest support and encouragement.  When we receive it, we don’t believe it, but we are quick to accept criticism to reinforce our deepest beliefs that, in truth, we are no good and not really writers.  My ex-husband used to say to me, “You look ugly.  Aah, now that I have your attention…” He said when he complimented me, I never heard him, but as soon as he said something negative, I perked right up (Goldberg 63).

We are encouraged to write concisely, and the insides of this book illustrate that.  Contents are broken down into brief, easy-to-read chapters, often a few pages long, which makes it easy to ignore for weeks on end when you’re busy writing a school assignment, but then pick right up where you left.  Writing advice ranges from the practical to the frivolous.  Natalie manages to make verb and noun exercises fun and makes sentence syntax sink swiftly into our brains.  Additionally, she shapes imaginative and innovative writing exercises to experiment with in your spare time.  And time flies when you do them; they’re that much fun to a writing geek.

Further, Writing Down the Bones makes writing glamourous and pleasurable again, something missing in much of our everyday living.  Goldberg doesn’t just tell the writer to tell a tale, she shows us how with lines like these: “Writing is not a McDonald’s hamburger.  The cooking is slow, and in the beginning you are not sure whether a roast or a banquet or a lamb chop will be the result” (Goldberg 41).  The book also highlights the rare community of writing, with all the distinct and interesting characters jostling around, some gushing with self-confidence, some shy and stereotypical.  Goldberg manages to cut through the tedium of writing and urges her audience to come forward and spill its’ words for the world to view.  The author writes deliciously about the compulsions and obsessions of writing that a true writer knows all too well.

Following Goldberg’s epilogue, the book ends with an informative interview (adaptation) between the author and Tami Simon of Sounds True, a spiritual multimedia publishing company.  This ties in beautifully with the Zen of writing, a minor theme within the book.  Certainly, Writing Down the Bones is an ideal book to own for every developing writer.  Goldberg generously offers her readers engaging insights into her adventures in writing and makes it justly fresh and fun.

Goldberg, Natalie.  Writing Down the Bones. 2005.  Shambhala Publications.  Boston & London.  200 pages.
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