Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

Has anyone else read this?

I bought this today, having lent it to a school friend years ago and not getting it back. This book is responsible for me abandoning what I thought I wanted to do (become an alternative therapist) and take myself seriously as an artist.

It wasn’t a flash of lightning revelation, but I read it and suddenly I was writing poetry, then out of those poems grew songs, out of the songs I started performing live, out of performance I got into theatre - I am going to go to an Arts College in September - I’ve come a long way from wanting to be an alternative therapist.

I decided to buy it again because I feel that with this apparent flurry of artistic activity I’ve neglected my poetry, and it feels incredibly important to me that I return to my roots as an artist.

Hi, Sebbi,

I read it years ago when it first came out (yeah, that long ago 8) ). While I liked her approach, I ended up realizing that I wanted more from my writing than a garage full of journal/notebooks. Her ideas, imo, can be good places to start, though, if they fit your process.

(Keep in mind that she wrote the original edition before the internet, so her take on things might be different now. If there’s a new edition, I haven’t read it, so can’t comment on that.)

I got a new edition, but I don’t think there’s much new in it.

I think re-reading it I’m noticing that she speaks of a subtle seperation in your writing: Your wild forest (where you run free) and your garden (where you grow flowers).

What she talks about mainly is the forest; and says to discover your garden for yourself.

I think this is incredibly good advice: there really is nothing more debilating than expecting works of art every time you write.

I have to say, as a beginner, I found the sheer fact she was encouraging me to just get off my ass and write at all empowering; now having been there, done that, published poems, written an album and then got blocked up; I’m noticing far more subtlty than I originally thought!

I have the book on my bookshelf but haven’t read it. I read “Wild Mind” about 13 years ago and found her suggestions for writing exercises helpful.

More recently I read “Long Quiet Highway,” not so much for information about her but for information about her Zen teacher Dainin Katagiri. I’m a big fan of Katagiri and enjoyed reading what Goldberg had to say about him.

The books on writing I found most helpful were two by Peter Elbow, “Writing Without Teachers” and “Writing with Power.” The process he describes worked beautifully in a workshop for beginners I ran for three years. I believe he still teaches English at the University of Massachusetts - Amherst.


I love Natalie Goldberg’s stuff - I read both Writing Down the Bowns and Wild Mind years ago and still pick one or the other up every now and then for a bit of inspiration. As Sebbi puts it above, her writing isn’t about writing the Great [insert country here] Novel, its about letting go of the inner censor and just getting it down on paper. I actually have two writing practices - a daily journal (written in viJournal) where I just get down whatever I feel like in the moment, and my ‘book’ which I have been slowly working on for years (started in Word, worked on in CopyWrite for a while, but written in Scrivener for getting on to two years now).

I could never digitise my practice like that!

I think, for me, writing is something that happens through the body, and to have it digital would just break that energy.

For somethings (such as what I am writing right now) it makes complete sense to use a keyboard - I’m not trying to express myself emotionally right now, however…

I’m the opposite, I much prefer writing with a keyboard! :slight_smile:

I feel that by using both hands to write I’m using both sides of my mind, plus I can type a lot faster for a lot longer than I can writing.

But you’re missing out on so much.

These are some of the many things digital can’t do (or can do, but would be missing the point):

Write in spirals.
Write upside down.
Write in watercolour
Paint in thick black acrilic on acetate then scratch text out of it again.
Write on a big A2 piece of brown paper with felt tip.
Write whilst forgetting about spelling or punctutation.
Write across multiple pieces of paper at once.
Mind-map (ok it can do this, but very badly, no matter how advanced the software).
Saturate the page so there’s no white space left.
Graphical notation.
Making poetry by cutting out text from newspapers and blu-tacking them to the wall.
Random placement of words.
White boards.
Chalk poetry in public (that will disappear with the rain).

When it comes to expressing myself, I see the computer as a means of dulling my work down for presentation; it’s the edit rather than create phase. I would rather photocopy/scan my work, but I’m aware that my hand-writing would make lots of people complain. This does depend on what I’m working on, admittedly - I mean, for things like script writing, I would normally work directly into the computer, but even then, generally, the creative work has already been done, and I see script-writing as documentation of it!

You haven’t read very many of my posts, have you? :wink:

Some of us see the computer the exact opposite. To me the editing is done with the paper (changes are made digital). The tools I need are the ones that provide solutions to my shortcomings. Things like illegible handwriting, inability to focus, sight issues, and portable reference materials. I admire and eny folks like you who can just “do things” the traditional, artistic way. Call it upbringing, lack of education, mental defeciency or plain laziness, I don’t care, but I am able to produce much more usable material with a computer than without it.

I think Wock said it best in a different thread “the right tool for the job”. Unlike physical craftmanship (carpentry, welding, etc) the “right tool” to use is defined by the craftsman not the job.

I’ll often write down notes and ideas, or work out problems in longhand. I have dozens upon dozens of fountains pens and nearly as many inks and, with a scrumptious paper like Clairefontaine, it’s a pure joy to write.

However, I’ve never been able to write write (as in create fiction) in longhand. I’ve tried, even (sort of) taught myself to do it, but it’s an unpleasant experience for me. My fingers start to itch to type because I can type much faster than I can write in longhand and when I get in the flow, it’s almost like channeling. Since I can type very fast when I need to, I can keep up with the images in my head. (Note, please, that I’m not claiming fast accurate typing, but close enough to work.)

Everyone has their own process, which might change over the years. I think it’s important for a writer to pay attention to what works for them, and to ignore those would who tell you that a “real” writer only has two choices: quill or steel nib. :wink:

Studio717: Bingo. I think this is a brain vs record thing for me too.

I despise typed “personal” corespondence. To this day all “love letters” to my wife are hand written (takes about an hour to write a 6x9 page in a readable way). So I type them as I think then copy them to paper. There is no way I can be creative if I had to hand write everything.


I actually do most of those things either in my journals or those notes/ideas/etc. pages I was talking about in my earlier post. My multicolored pages are beautiful and often sparkly, too, since I have a whole collection of gel pens as well as my fountain pen collection. My darling spouse even bought me a Fujitsu ScanSnap for my birthday so I can now scan in all my notes without having to retype them onto the computer. :smiley: Much easier to search and use, with a few judicious keywords.

Part of our differences, however, probably has to do with what we’re writing - I’m writing novels, not so much ‘performance art’, so I need more traditional methods for creating that.


I agree with the personal note being handwritten. Very nice touch (and I’m sure you’re wife likes it, too :smiley: ).

One thing that probably has a lot to do with my preferred tools for writing is that I write by ‘ear’. (Not to be taken literally… :smiling_imp: :laughing: ) The melody of a sentence, paragraph, etc., has to be right before I can move on, but I’m actually able to rearrange the words to make them ‘right’ without even thinking much about them. I can stay in the flow state and rearrange for sound - when I’m using a keyboard. I just can’t do that when I’m handwriting. (And I think that’s why I miss old WordStar so much. I could rearrange to my heart’s content without ever having to use a mouse.)

That is a very valid point to make - see little distinction between my practice as a visual artist and as a writer.
That having been said most of my writing is not for “art” in any way, shape or form. It’s more often a way of writing down my dreams (both literal and figurative), thoughts, anxieties, self-pity, frustrations, musings etc etc etc on a daily (or close to daily) basis.

If I had any intention through any of this to actually SHOW IT to anybody I would probably write nothing (for fear of appearing too obsessive, psychotic, perverted, self-pitying, narcissistic etc. etc. etc.).

It is generally “normal” long-hand prose.

There is still nothing you could do, to convince me to use a computer for this task (then again, I’m very much of the belief that the less time spent at computers, the happier we seem to be; and on this basis am very seriously considering a computer-deprivation-week [an idea I got from The Artist’s Way - it’s a less extreme, but never-the-less powerful adaptation of reading-deprivation-week] at some point soon).

…i was just told by my English teacher that i should read it…she lent it too me to read over march break (this week i’m off school)…this is very strange.

but i really enjoy the book. i think i’m going to go out and buy it.

I’ve read Goldberg’s book more than once. The first time, because I kept hearing and writing rave reviews. Politely put it aside. Then had to take over another teacher’s class about two weeks into the term, and she’d already assigned WDTB, and I didn’t think it fair to dictate a whole new book list when the students had already purchased the previous instructor’s list. Read it again. Still didn’t get it. Found it absolutely useless for my students, as well. (And they agreed). It could be it’s more useful if you’re writing poetry, but I just found it irritating and superficial and boring. And useless. But I seem to be in the minority.

How so?

I’m afraid I have to join you in that minority, Sebbi. I bought the book at least twenty years ago and threw it out. Guilt-tripped remorselessly by my writer friends, I bought it again (Natalie is happy), read it, and put it in that stack of books that I am supposed to like.

Stephen King’s On Writing is much better. Ursula LeGuin’s two or three writing books are wonderful. Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream, which I am currently reading, is striking me as pure gold.