Freeing the writer within with Natalie Goldberg

If you are a writer — however you interpret that — then this book is for you.

I had never heard of Natalie Goldberg, until I read Tricia Lott Williford’s post “The Sparkling Moment” a few weeks ago, and then Writing Down the Bones immediately went onto my library holds list.

I devoured this book. Its chapters are short and digestible, sometimes just a page long, but each one brings its own treasures. Most helpful to me, probably, was the growing conviction as I read that if I want (need) to write, then that is something I need to honour and to make the time for. Yes, I have small children underfoot. Yes, I have other things on the go. Yes, I need to write anyway. If I care about it, I need to find the way. So I am trying to do just that.

Writing Down the Bones was a well-timed kick in the pants as far as my own writing practice — and I do mean, “practice,” as in doing a small amount of it every day. Julia Cameron suggests writing “morning pages” every day: three longhand pages, or about 750 words if you’re typing, that’s totally unfiltered and stream-of-consciousness. They should be the first thing that you write, and the idea is that it clears out all the gick that’s floating around in our minds and allows us to focus more fully, afterwards, on what we actually want to write. I did morning pages some years ago, briefly — probably less than three weeks’ worth all told. I didn’t see the value in them. But I love how Natalie Goldberg frames writing practice:

This is the practice school of writing. Like running, the more you do it, the better you get at it. Some days you don’t want to run and you resist every step of the three miles, but you do it anyway. You practice whether you want to or not. You don’t wait around for inspiration and a deep desire to run. It’ll never happen, especially if you are out of shape and have been avoiding it. But if you run regularly, you train your mind to cut through or ignore your resistance. You just do it. And in the middle of the run, you love it. When you come to the end, you never want to stop. And you stop, hungry for the next time.

That’s how writing is, too. Once you’re deep into it, you wonder what took you so long to finally settle down at the desk. Through practice you actually do get better. You learn to trust your deep self more and not give in to your voice that wants to avoid writing. It is odd that we never question the feasibility of a football team practicing long hours for one game; yet in writing we rarely give ourselves the space for practice. […]

One of the main aims in writing practice is to learn to trust your own mind and body; to grow patient and nonaggressive. Art lives in the Big World. One poem or story doesn’t matter one way or the other. It’s the process of writing and life that matters. Too many writers have written great books and gone insane or alcoholic or killed themselves. This process teaches about sanity. We are trying to become sane along with our poems and stories. […]

A friend once said that when she had a good black-and-white drawing that she was going to add color to, she always practiced first on a a few drawings she didn’t care about in order to warm up. This writing practice is also a warm-up for anything else you might want to write. It is the bottom line, the most primitive, essential beginning of writing. The trust you learn in your own voice can be directed then into a business letter, a novel, a Ph.D. dissertation, a play, a memoir. But it is something you must come back to again and again. Don’t think, “I’ve got it! I know how to write. I trust my voice. I’m off to write the great American novel.” It’s good to go off and write a novel, but don’t stop doing writing practice. It is what keeps you in tune, like a dancer who does warm-ups before dancing or a runner who does stretches before running. Runners don’t say, “Oh, I ran yesterday. I’m limber.” Each day they warm up and stretch. (11-13)

That’s a way of putting it that makes intuitive sense to me. I don’t do morning pages just to clear out my subconscious mind (or… whatever); I write morning pages because there’s something in me that isn’t happy unless I’m writing regularly, because I want to write more and write better, because it’s all grist for the creative mill, because writing begets writing. I write so that I will want to write. I write to understand the world, and to understand myself. I write because if you want to write, to be a writer, the only way to do it is to put your butt in your chair and your pen on paper (or your fingers on the keyboard) and do it. It’s both that difficult, and that simple.

And so I’m doing my morning pages again, nine days in a row and nearly 9,000 words so far. I do it while I’m drinking my tea before breakfast, and I use to do it since I type way faster than I handwrite. Sometimes I do a writing exercise, like trying to describe a house I’ve visited as completely as I can. Sometimes I just write whatever I happen to be thinking about. Sometimes I surprise myself. And the thing is, whether or not these morning pages are doing all that Julia Cameron promises, they are motivating me to write more during to day, to keep my notebook and a pen at hand for when I need them. My production is up. So is my enjoyment. Maybe even my sense of purpose, at least as far as writing is concerned.

I’ve read other books on writing before, and I’ve gotten useful things out of them. I wrote a three-part series on reading Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, which you can find on my Post Series page. I read Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, or most of it. And I read Stephen King’s On Writing (as one does) and got some useful things out of that too — most specifically his rule of thumb for cutting, which is that your second draft should be equal to your first draft minus roughly ten percent. Okay, that’s useful advice. I’ve used it. But Writing Down the Bones is the first book on writing that’s actually galvanized me to sit down and write — and that’s priceless.

Writing Poetry: Inspiration vs. Craft (pt. 1 — prompts)

I’ve been writing poetry this summer. Well, I’ve been writing poetry since I was around eight years old, but this summer has been different: I enrolled myself in a poetry workshop via Coursera, hosted by the poet Douglas Kearney out of CalArts. The course is a MOOC — Massive Online Open Course — open to anyone with an internet connection, and so it’s something one does for personal enrichment rather than any sort of academic credit. Every week we watch some short video lectures, take a comprehension quiz, and then are given an assignment, which consists of two poetry prompts. Every few weeks we submit a drafted poem for peer critique, and have the opportunity to critique our classmates’ work as well. Overall, I have enjoyed the experience.

The process of workshopping isn’t totally new to me. Two cities ago, I belonged to a small group of writer-friends who would meet every month or two to drink wine and scotch, talk about nerdy literary stuff, and share our writings (mostly poetry, with a few short stories thrown in). It was great fun, and I miss that group terribly — both as individuals, and as members of a lovely and congenial space for sharpening our writing. Halcyon days indeed.

The major difference with the Sharpened Visions workshop — besides the fact that none of us are interacting in person — is the process of working off of set prompts. When I’ve written poetry before, it’s usually been 100% at inspiration’s beck and call: I would write when the fancy struck me or when a poem started rattling around in my head asking to be born. But I don’t think I’ve ever before regularly sat down and said to myself, “Now I will write a poem about X,” or “now I will write a poem in the form Y,” or “Now I will use rhyme-scheme Z.” A poem, of course, may have ended up with a certain structure or rhyme scheme or what have you, as it came about. Historically, however, when I’ve sat down and tried to craft a certain type of poem it has tended to derail halfway through, as in this terrible (though aptly named) sonnet from a few years ago:

Unfocussed Sonnet

The passing moments take me by surprise:
Each second comes and suddenly is gone,
Then comes and goes the next, and time flows on,
And every minute flees before my eyes.

Here in this passing we are too soon spent.
Each passing hour touches eternity,
And never will return again — but we
Become subsumed in how to pay the rent.

The sonnet form is harder than you think!
When halfway through without a conclusion
The poet’s thoughts all turn to confusion
(Though she may take some solace in pink ink).

The last couplet is the grand finale:
In theory, it is a hot tamale!

“In theory, it is a hot tamale.” Oy.

Writing poems from Sharpened Visions’ weekly prompts has been a very stretching experience — but a good one. I have been learning to lean less on inspiration as the main driver behind what I’m writing, and to pay more attention to the technical specs of whatever form I’m using. Generally I only pick one of the two prompts each week to focus on, but after the class ends I will likely go back and try the rest, because I have found them to be such useful exercises. Overall, I’ve come to a better understanding that there really is no “vs.” in between inspiration and craft (despite the title of this post); they are partners, each contributing something important to the creation of a poem.

I’ve started trying my hand at sonnets again; I wrote one, for a friend, and the realised that it wanted to be something more, so I am expanding it into a sonnet redoublé. This is a group of fifteen sonnets in which the last line of the first fourteen sonnets becomes the first line of the next — with the first line of the first sonnet taken from the last line of the fourteenth — and the fifteenth sonnet  (the “Mastersonnet”) is made up of the fourteen linking lines from the first fourteen sonnets. So my initial sonnet has become a Mastersonnet, and I am slowly filling in the rest.

It’s difficult and slow going; I think I have been working on this for two or three weeks now, at a rate of one sonnet every couple of days, and have now finished nine of the fifteen. This is, without a doubt, the most technically challenging poem I have ever attempted — and it has given me numerous occasions to kick myself for choosing certain rhymes in the Mastersonnet which are just a pain to have to deal with over and over again. But I have been relishing the challenge. Inspiration provided the initial sonnet and the desire to expand it into something greater; craft is what’s moving me, slowly but surely, toward the finish line. I would never have attempted something like this before Sharpened Visions, and that alone is reason enough to make me glad that I enrolled.

Explore more: Sharpened Visions: A Poetry Workshop | Douglas Kearney | CalArts