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Writing Down the Bones
Natalie Goldberg
Freeing the Writer Within
Published by Shambala/Boston in 1986

A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2002


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Judith Guest writes in the Foreword, "Some years ago, while cleaning out my grandmother's attic, I came across this motto encased in an old oak picture frame: Do Your Work as Well As You Can and Be Kind. She goes on to talk about how in her Chapter "More About Mondays" Natalie says, "Let the whole thing flower: the poem and the person writing the poem. And let us always be kind in this world." Like Guest, the older I get the more important it seems to me to be kind in the world. Guest says this about Golberg's book:

[page xi] In this collection of sane and clear-hearted observations on writing, along with its solid, practical tips, there is a vitality that sings and an honesty that makes me want to cry. This is the way writing feels when it is good. What a challenge to make it feel good all the time!

Guest, who almost turned down the request to write the Foreword because she had never done one before, did a masterful job on her first attempt. Just as she did with her first novel, Ordinary People, which was a phenomenal success. So much so that she says when she came to write her second novel, she tried to use what she had learned in the first novel, but it didn't apply to the second. This led her to understand that because she was writing a different novel, she was exploring a new path.

[page xii] It is easy to lose sight of the fact that writers do not write to impart knowledge to others; rather, they write to inform themselves.

The opening sentence of the Introduction is a hoot! It should remind many writers of trying to write during their school days in some way. It certainly reminded me.

[page 1] I was a goody-two-shoes all through school. I wanted my teachers to like me. I learned commas, colons, semicolons. I wrote compositions with clear sentences that were dull and boring. Nowhere was there an original thought or genuine feeling. I was eager to give the teachers what I thought they wanted.

Natalie says that one day she opened a thin book of poems by Erica Jong found a poem about an eggplant. Something snapped in her mind! She realized that if Jong could write about something as familiar as an eggplant that maybe she could write about something she was familiar with, her family.

[page 2] This all happened fifteen years ago. A friend once told me: "Trust in love and it will take 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.

Natalie studied Zen formally for seven years and had trouble with understanding the Roshi Katagiri's answers to her about Zen until he began his answer, "You know, like in writing when you . . ." Then one day he said to her:

[page 3] "Why do you come to sit meditation? Why don't you make writing your practice? If you go deep enough in writing, it will take you everyplace."

In the Chapter "First Thoughts" she gives the basic unit of writing practice: the timed exercise. These instructions are very similar to the process that Peter Elbow in his Writing Without Teachers calls a "free writing" exercise. Here's the instructions. If you are a compulsive goody-two-shoes writer who turns out dull, boring prose, this may be your savior. Simply follow these instructions as careful as you did your grade school teachers instructions. These instructions work for the post-elementary school writer. Choose a time period, either 10 minutes, 20 minutes or an hour and follow the steps on page 8:

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's 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.)

Her next thoughts about the ego are right on target. Writer's block is ego block every time. Each one of the steps above requires that you effectively disable your ego from control as you do your exercise. You are learning how to disable your ego so that you will be able write without its disabling effect on your writing. Gee, those grammar school English teachers never taught us that, did they? They counted on our egos to be in control so that we young'uns could write with correct spelling, correct punctuation, correct grammar, only problem was what we produced wasn't worth reading except by our teachers. No one else certainly would want to read it. As a result, we grew up unable to write anything interesting even though it had good spelling, good punctuation, and good grammar!

If you want to learn about how important good punctuation is to being a writer, I suggest you get hold of a copy of Gertrude Stein's How to Write - there are perfectly literate sentences in that book that have absolutely no punctuation and yet one sentence will string out over several pages! Good punctuation is as necessary for writing as eating in a plate with divided sections for each of the parts of the meal is. Great for kids and TV dinners and just about nothing else!

Why bust the ego? Ever try to light a campfire in a driving rainstorm? But read how Natalie lays it out for us:

[page 9] First thoughts are also encumbered 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 moment the waves of human consciousness and using your personal details to express the ride.

I read this book in 1987, in fact, exactly fifteen years ago to this day according to my date glyph in the margin. What is a date glyph? It's a combination of a signature and date that is unique for every day and every year. It is a drawing that resembles two fishes nose to nose which represents the year and the month in placed in the left fish and the day in the right fish. Each year I must design a new fish. The drawing of the fish shows graphically the waves of human emotion that I am riding at the time of reading the page and writing in the margins.

Here's my marginal notes for January 27, 1987 on page 9: "The ego reifies and stultifies. The Ego Buster: 'Up Until Now.' E. g., 'I have a very strong ego, up until now.'" This phrase "up until now" placed at the end of a sentence I have since come to call "the limitation eraser" because, deftly applied to the end of a sentence by the stultifying ego, will disable the stultification. Perhaps you have never heard of the limitation eraser, up until now. The previous sentence is of course another example of its application. There is a salubrious effect you can notice if you begin adding the limitation eraser to every sentence you say aloud in which you discover by the end of the sentence that you have just constructed a limitation or some blatant statement of the static nature of the world.

This will not work for people who have such strong egos that they are both convinced that the world is unchanging and that the way the world is for them will never change. With such a mind set, naturally they will be unable to add the limitation eraser to the end of their solid statements of the world's condition, up until now. They systematically avoid doing or thinking or saying anything that would fly in the face of the rock solid belief they have in the world as it is now and always has been, up until now.

[page 17] It is true that when we begin anything new, resistances fly in our face.

In the margin of page 17 next to the above sentence, I wrote this: "Journey of One Step takes Place after 1,000 miles." This is currently embodied in Matherne's Rule #40. The idea behind this inversion of Confucius's famous saying, "Journey of thousand miles begins with first step." is this: When one has a lot of resistance to doing something, one will avoid dealing with it over and over again until perhaps after a thousand times or miles, one overcomes the resistance and just does the thing that one supposed one was seeking to do, but in actuality was systematically avoiding doing in intricate ways designed by the ego, up until now.

[page 17] Actually, when I look at my old notebooks, I think I have been a bit self-indulgent and have given myself too much time to meander in my discursive thoughts. I could have cut through it sooner.

My marginalia spoke directly to Natalie this time: "No, you could not have - the you(past) could not and thus did not — the you(now) can and can therefore see how the you(past) could've done it better." What we all have is many subpersonalities inside of us, each of which when they take charge call themselves, "I". It is only by indexing the subpersonalities as I did in in my marginalia that one is able to separate these subpersonalities is a useful way in text. In speech, if one listens carefully to the tone in such spoken statements as "I don't know how I could have done that." one will notice a raised inflection on the second "I" audibly indicating that the second "I" in the sentence is a different "I" from the first "I". Which brings us to her next topic in the chapter titled "Fighting Tofu":

[page 23] If those characters in you [RJM: i.e., those "I"'s] want to fight, let them fight. Meanwhile, the sane part of you should quietly let them get up, go over to your notebook, and begin to write from a deeper, more peaceful place. Unfortunately, those two fighters often come with you to your notebook since they are inside your head. We can't always leave them in the backyard or basement or at the day-care center. So you might have to give them five or ten minutes of voice in your notebook. Let them carry on in writing. It is amazing that when you give those voices writing space, their complaining quickly gets boring and you get sick of them.

In "We Are Not the Poem" she echoes a sentiment that I first encountered at age 18 when I first read Emerson's incredible essay titled, "Self-Reliance" — any of you, dear Readers, who have not read this essay should read it. If you haven’t re-read it in the past ten years, you should realize that you(then) who read it no longer exists, and you deserve a chance for you(now) to read it with fresh eyes. (A quick google search will find it on-line for you.) Read it now. One pertinent quote from it: "I hate quotations. Tell me what you know." Oops, that's not the one. "Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day." Those are hard words which one would do best to take to heart if one would be a writer.

[page 32] Sometimes when I read poems at a reading to strangers, I realized they think those poems are me. They are not me, even if I speak them in the "I" person. They were my thoughts and my hand and the space and the emotions at that time of writing. Watch yourself. Every minute we change. It is a great opportunity. At any point, we can step out of our frozen selves and our ideas and begin fresh. This is how writing is. Instead of freezing us, it frees us.

Instead of freezing us, it frees us, just as the limitation does. Perhaps you've avoided trying to use it, up until now? It, too, frees us, but only if it is used systematically from now on.

In "Writing is Not a McDonald's Hamburger" Natalie tells us that writing strips the ego bare of all its encrustations of pretenses — it leaves us naked, and if we shiver in the cold, let us remember what the American Indian told the English lady who asked if his bare chest was cold since it was uncovered in the winter air, "Paleface squaw have no covering on face."

[page 36] Let go of everything when you write, and try at a simple beginning with simple words to express what you have inside. It won't begin smoothly. Allow yourself to be awkward. You are stripping yourself. You are exposing your life, not how your ego would like to see you represented, but how you are as a human being.

As a kid I read a lot of comic books. One character I recall was the "Two-Gun Kid" with his famous crossed holsters, one gun on each hip with the butt of each pistol facing forward because of his patented cross-armed draw. As a writer now, it is imperative that I have a working pen handy in case I'm walking, driving, or sitting in some public place and a thought, a poem, an idea flits across my mind. Flit is a good word to describe that process. If I don't capture the flitting thought, it will fly out my mind as quickly as it came in, or what I will recall when I get home ready to write it down will be but a blur of the original crystal clear thought. So I have found it prudent, like the Two-Gun Kid, to have two instruments of my work handy in case one of them were to misfire or go empty at a crucial moment. One cannot stop what one is doing to write something down, but must capture the thought as it flies and record it.

[page 37] People often say, "I was walking along [or driving, shopping, jogging] and I had this whole poem go through my mind, but when I sat down to write it, I couldn't get it to come out right." I never can either. Sitting to write is another activity. Let go of walking or jogging and the poem that was born then in your mind [goes, too].

I do a lot of my reading while driving. I taught myself to do this carefully during a fourteen year span during which I worked 12 hours a day and drove an hour each way. By reading as I drove, I was able to get in two hours of good reading most every day. As I drove along reading, if a thought came to me, I noted it in the margins. Likely I was reading this very book while driving and made these margin notes that I'm sharing with you that would have else been unavailable to me. One caution: reading while driving is not an activity to be taken lightly or to be bragged about. I took to lowering my book whenever anyone I knew or a policeman passed me by to keep from having to answer questions about what I was doing. One must train oneself to scan the road ahead every 2.5 seconds at 60 mph and learn to trust one's peripheral vision to notify you instantly of any changes in view ahead. Studies have shown that our peripheral vision is better at detecting motion than the rods and cones of the foveal sharp vision in the center of our line of sight, so trusting one's peripheral vision, once learned, can be very effective. I have noticed that I have fewer panic stops when reading because I am more effective at being attentive when I allow my peripheral vision to be in charge of that job. To me reading while driving is actually safer than not.

Good writing is inspirational. It causes us to inspire with our breath in time with the writer. This kind of writing cannot be subject to the rules of a grammar school teacher for whom inspiration comes in a Weekly Reader. Good grammar must yield to inspiration; punctuation must create the breathing cycle of the writer. Shelley knew how to write inspirational poetry. He was a great writer. In Whitman's words, "he sang the body electric."

[page 51] And what great writers actually pass on is not so much their words, but they hand on their breath at their moments of inspiration. If you read a great poem aloud — for example, "To a Skylark" by Percy Bysshe Shelley — and read it the way he set it up and punctuated it, what you are doing is breathing his inspired breath at the moment he wrote that poem. That breath was so powerful it still can be awakened in us over 150 years later. Taking it on is very exhilarating. 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.

I thought I was tone deaf and unable to sing as a child and well into my thirties when I met my present wife, Del. She taught me to listen and I found that by listening, I could sing along in key with anyone who sang within the range of my voice. I sang for many years in a Barbershop Chorus. It was not my singing ability that was lacking, but my listening ability. It is such a relief to be able to sing aloud in church from now on. This lesson in singing that Natalie took reminded me of my own experience of learning to sing correctly.

[page 52] Several years ago I took a singing lesson from a Sufi singing master, and he told me there is no such thing as tone-deafness. "Singing is ninety percent listening. You have to learn to listen." If you listen totally, your body fills with music, so when you open your mouth the music automatically comes out of you. A few weeks after that, I sang in tune with a friend for the first time in my life and I thought for sure I had become enlightened. My individual voice disappeared and our two voices became one.

That's the scariness of singing to or writing to one's ego: It disappears! Your ego must be willing to trust you in order for it to allow itself to disappear.

In the next passage, Natalie gives us a useful exercise for listening called a "Recall." As I read this now, it reminds me of the way I write reviews of books I've read. I recall specifics of things said that were important to me when I read them and I share the specific thing and the thoughts that were important to me. As I'm doing now:

[page 53] After something is read in class, I often have the students do a "recall": "As close as you can to the exact words of what was said or written, repeat anything that was strong for you. Don't step away and say, 'I liked when she talked about the farmland.' Give us exact details: 'Standing in the field, I was lonelier than a crow.' Besides opening and receiving what was said, this kind of deep, nonevaluative listening awakens stories and images inside you. By listening in this way you become a clear mirror to reflect reality, your reality and the reality around you.

Natalie encourages us on page 54 to enter the poem with our whole body and quotes Dogen, the great Zen master, "If you walk in the mist, you get wet." If you walk in the mist, let your writing create a similar mist for your readers to walk through, then they will be awake, present, and alive in that mist. If you keep your writing alive, your readers will eat it up: like a kid eating an ice cream cone, they'll even eat the serving dish.

Haha. Excuse me. I was chuckling over marginalia on page 56. Natalie keeps her chapters short, two, maybe three pages each with titles like the one for this page, "Don't Marry the Fly." Here's what I wrote along with a cartoon of a man drawing something with his pen:

These 2 & 3 page chapters fill up a book fast
& leave lotsa drawing room
& everyone one can use a drawing room
after tea.

Have you ever noticed that when you give them a compliment, some friends will look or away from you, or grunt "uh-huh" and change the subject as if it never happened? But dare give this same friend a criticism, and they perk right up as if they'd suddenly come alive!

[page 58] My ex-husband used to say to me, "You look ugly. Ahh, 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. . . . Stop! Really stop when someone is complimenting you. Even if it's painful and you are not used to it, just keep breathing, listen, and let yourself take it in. Feel how good it is. Build up a tolerance for positive, honest support.

In recent years, I have done this with others if they slough off a compliment. I stop them and say, "Did you hear my compliment?" and will not move on to another topic until they have allowed themselves to feel appropriately good about the compliment.

When I wrote the review of A Zen Wave a few months ago, I discovered the Japanese language construction of a postposition, which is the inverse of our preposition. A preposition is a marker in English that tells us the word it precedes [thus: pre-position] is modified by the word it comes after. Thus we have the preposition "of" in "sound of water". In Japanese the word "of" would be a postposition and the equivalent expression to our phrase "sound of water" would be written literally in Japanese using a postposition as "water of sound." Natalie points out another facet of the Japanese language encourages us to think of the act of seeing as a relational interaction back and forth between two parties, as in the sentence "I see the dog."

[page 62] It is interesting to note that in the Japanese language the sentence would say, "I dog seeing." There is an exchange or interaction rather than a subject acting on an object.

The chapter "Don't Tell, but Show" was about not using the word "about" in the way I did in the first part of this sentence. By making the sentence structure recursive, by using "about" in process (without the quotation marks) and then again in content (with the quotation marks), I was able to show exactly what to avoid doing by doing it, by demonstrating it. Writing that talks about something is terribly dull and borinnnnggg! Don't talk about, demonstrate! Do it right away, kid! or acronymically, DIRAK! The first sentence of this paragraph is an application of this DIRAK principle demonstrated in action: Matherne's Rule #7.

[page 69] As soon as I hear the word about in someone's writing, it is an automatic alarm. "This story is about life." Skip that line and go willy-nilly right into life in your writing.

In her two-page chapter "Talk is the Exercise Ground" she tells us that talking should be a way of warming up for the real game, which for writers is the time along with pen in hand.

[page 78] Once I came home from a visit in Boston and said to a friend in passing, "Oh, he's crazy about her." She was in the process of writing a mystery novel in those days and honed in, "How can you tell he was crazy about her? Tell me what actions he did." I laughed. You can't make general statements around writers — they want me not to "tell" but to "show" with incidents. . . . Talk is a way to warm up for the big game — the hours you write alone with your pen and notebook. Make a list of all the stories you have told over and over. That's a lot of writing to be done.

Here's my marginalia from the bottom of the second page, written DIRAK.

Talk is warm
Writing is cold
Unless the story
Begs to be told.

A one-page chapter flies at all conventions for writing books, but this one does it with impudency with a title almost as long as the text: "One Plus One Equals a Mercedes-Benz." Here is the first third of the chapter to illustrate how Natalie does her thing.

[page 82] I always tell my students, especially the sixth-graders, the ones who are becoming very worldly-wise: Turn off your logical brain that says 1+1=2. Open up your mind to the possibility that 1+1 can equal 48, a Mercedes-Benz, an apple pie, a blue horse. Don't tell your autobiography with facts, such as "I am in sixth grade. I am a boy. I live in Owatonna. I have a mother and father." Tell me who you really are: "I am the frost on the window, the cry of a young wolf, the thin blade of grass."

What I was on January 27, 1987 was scribbled at the bottom of the page:

I am the Night Rainbow
Hovering over the City.

A two-page chapter that tells us to "Make Statements and Answer Questions" leads off with this wonderful story:

[page 85] In the early seventies there was a study done on women and language that affected me very deeply and also affected my writing. One of the things the study said was that women add on qualifiers to their statements. For instance, "The Vietnam war is awful, isn't it?" "I like this, don't you?" In their sentence structure women were always looking for reinforcement for their feelings and opinions. They didn't just make statements and stand behind them: "This is beautiful." "This is terrible." They needed encouragement from outside themselves. (By the way, what they found to be true for women they also mentioned was true for minorities.)

About the time I read this book, I had been studying NLP (neurolinguistic programming) for about ten years, and the use of this sentence structure (adding a question to the end of a sentence) was called a tag line. It was demonstrated by NLP trainers to be useful in ratifying or obtaining agreement with a statement made to a client in a therapeutic setting by allowing the part of the client that may be opposed to the statement to be represented as well. That makes sense to you, doesn't it? So, we might say that the use of tag lines by women helps them to defuse any resistance that the other party might have to the position that they are taking on an issue. That would thus tend to act as a social lubricant to prevent friction in a conversational environment, would it not?

[page 85] Another thing women did in their speech was to use a lot of words like perhaps, maybe, somehow. Indefinite modifiers. For instance, "Somehow it happened." As though the force were beyond understanding and left the woman powerless. "Maybe I'll go." Again, not a clear statement like, "Yes, I'll go." . . . It is important for a beginning writer to make clear, assertive statements. "This is good." "It was a blue horse." Not "Well, I know it sounds funny, but I think perhaps it was a blue horse." Making statements is practice in trusting your own mind, in learning to stand up with your thoughts.

In the top margin of page 85, I had written, "I looked at it carefully and decided, yes, indeed, it is perhaps a purple cow." Compare that paradoxical drivel to Ogden Nash's poem "Purple Cow": "I never saw a purple cow/ I never hope to see one/ But I can tell you this:/ I'd rather see than be one."

[page 85, 86] After I read the article, I went home and looked at a poem I had just written. I made myself take out all vague, indefinite words and phrases. It felt as though I were pulling towels off my body, and I was left standing naked after a shower, exposing who I really was and how I felt. It was scary the first time, but it felt good. It made the poem better. . . . Writing is the act of burning through the fog in your mind.

Again I was inspired to write a poem, this time two stanzas on the theme of this chapter about standing naked. From the margins of page 86 and 87:

Standing naked
Stripped of words that covered me
Standing naked
Feelings ripple over me
Standing naked.

Standing naked
Fog lifts
Burned away by fire within
Words that power me
Standing naked

Words are warm.

Natalie's study of Zen Buddhism infuses her writing with life in many places such as this quote from Katagiri Roshi on page 156, "We are all Buddha. I can see you are Buddha. You don't believe me. When you see you are Buddha, you will be awake. That's what enlightenment is." To close out this review, I would like to offer you two haiku scribbled on the last blank page of this book on January 28, 1987, called, "Enlightenment":

I see you are Buddha.
When you see you are Buddha
You are awake.

Find the haiku hidden within
If you would know it
You must show it.

For more of Natalie Goldberg on writing and her life as a writer, see Long Quiet Highway — Waking up in America.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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