Review of Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

When my children were young one of their favourite questions, “What’s your favourite… colour, animal, type of chocolate, singer, television series?” It didn’t matter what it was, they wanted to know my favourite.

And I’d sit there, saying, “Um… I don’t know. I don’t really have a favourite.”

“But which one do you like the best?” They’d add, as if I didn’t know what favourite meant.

However, if they’d asked about my favourite book on writing, I could have given them a list of three, and Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg would have been right at the to, along with Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Stephen King’s On Writing.

Writing Down the Bones was on the reading list when I did my MA in Creative Writing and I found it in the university library. No sooner had I returned it than I bought my own copy.

So what makes this book so helpful, so good?

I love Goldberg’s writing style. That helps. I don’t want to read a book telling me how to write in a style that bores me to tears. Goldberg doesn’t bore. There’s an intense energy in her writing, almost as if there’s a whirlwind blowing through it. The first two sentences of the book are: I was a goody-two-shoes all through school. I wanted my teachers to like me.

In those two sentences she doesn’t say that she no longer is a goody-two-shoes. But you know. This is the essence of good writing: what you leave out is as important as what you put in. That’s also Goldberg’s message. If her advice could be condensed into two sentences they would probably be: Write without censoring and then cut out everything you don’t need. Show, don’t tell.

Of course you can’t really condense a book into two sentences, otherwise nobody would bother writing books. So why else do I like Writing Down the Bones?

Goldberg is witty, wise and compassionate. She writes in a way that makes you feel as if you have a friend. You feel understood: she knows what it’s like to feel fear as you struggle to put thoughts onto paper. She doesn’t tell you (as you’ve told yourself): “It’s only writing, don’t be such a wimp.” Instead she says: If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right in.

Reading Writing Down the Bones for the first time felt like being given permission to write how I wanted to write, permission to be me. Goldberg encourages writers to break rules, especially in first drafts. But she also encourages rewriting, and particular cutting, cutting and cutting. She likens this to being a Samurai – tough, but never mean, and honest. If in a whole page of writing there’s only one good line, that’s absolutely fine. It doesn’t mean the other thirty lines are wasted; it means that’s what it took to get that good one. And maybe it’s not just good, but great. That is possibly the most important lesson I learned from Writing Down the Bones. It changed I how I wrote. I no longer agonised over each line, no longer felt so attached to my words, and so could cut and revise more easily.  I love her suggestion to: see revision as envisioning again.

As with any book, it is wise to start at the beginning of Writing Down the Bones and read through to the end. However, each chapter stands up pretty well on its own so it is possible to pick up the book and read any chapter at random. And Goldberg’s chapters have good titles: Writing is Not a McDonald’s Hamburger (about how it takes time to become the writer you can be) or Fighting Tofu (about how pointless it is to try to force yourself to write, since it only creates an internal struggle between the bossy and lazy parts of you. And yes, she offers suggestions for what to do instead.) There’s also a chapter on why you shouldn’t use writing to get love, on how to listen and on uncovering your deep dreams.

If you are a beginning writer, Goldberg has plenty of exercises to get you going. If you have been writing for a long time, she has plenty of wisdom to keep you going, to help you keep yourself and your writing filled with energy. Whatever stage you are at, buy Writing Down the Bones. You’ll still be re-reading it years from now.