Thursday, April 3, 2014

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

A few weeks ago, I finished teaching a ten week fiction workshop at Grub Street. The class met every Wednesday night, from early January until mid-March, an extra week tacked on at the end due to a canceled class during one of the storms. I have been teaching for a couple of years now, and I've noticed that teaching three hours once a week for ten weeks makes me acutely aware of time. As the instructor I had to divide our three hour sessions into 40 minute intervals, each interval focused on discussion of a student's story, and then those 40 minutes were split in half so the student being workshopped could redirect our conversation. I began to count Wednesdays as numbered weeks. Week 1, Intro to Workshop, Week 2, Characterization, Week 3, Plot - until the weeks began to take on the color of whatever craft element we were discussing: stranger's quirks became character traits, conversations overheard on trains examples of direct dialogue. And then there was the season. What a winter to teach. But as each week passed by I noticed that the sun lingered a bit longer. First, accompanying on my walk, then waiting with me for the bus, eventually trailing me up Boylston Street on my way into class. Pretty soon it was spring, no major snow storms were forecasted, and I had to send twelve people back out into the world hopefully a little wiser about writing fiction.

I bring up time because nearly every workshop the question came up - how do you find the time to write? when do you write? Predicting this question, I tried something new. Periodically throughout the course, I assigned excerpts from Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg.

Natalie Goldberg preaches only one thing in Writing Down the Bones: writing practice. To her, writing practice is like a warm-up. Timed writing sessions where you don't lift your pen, where you don't pause to think, where you just let the act of writing - of translating thoughts to page, of shifting what is in your mind to your hand and onto a piece of paper - take over.

Goldberg spends the first few chapters discussing writing practice and then the rest of the book contains two-three page personal essays about her own experience with writing. In that way, Writing Down the Bones is less of a guide and more like a companion. She's become my friend this past year, as I try to steal hours away for my own work. I have this enormous desk. It's a dining table, really, that my husband and I bought at a thrift shop down the street and then hauled up and down our hill to our apartment. I love having a big desk, and on it I have short stacks of books for research, for inspiration, scribbles, stories and essays covered in red ink.  Those mornings when I'm sitting at my desk, tempted by the novel that I'm currently reading (reading is my favorite form of procrastination), I instead reach for Writing Down the Bones. Almost every time, I put the book down after reading less than ten pages and start with my daily writing practice. 

I'm not sure why, after all these years, she's the one who gets me to the page faster than anyone else. Maybe it's how she talks about filling spiral notebooks with writing. Spiral notebooks - the kind that you get at the supermarket during back to school shopping, with cartoon covers. She doesn't take herself too seriously, or what comes out during practice too seriously, because it's about "keeping in tune, like a dancer who does warm-ups before dancing or a runner who does stretches before running." Or maybe it's because she answers that question about when and how do you write most simply: you just do it, you find the time, you make the time, and if all you can give is 15 minutes that day then make them a good, focused, fifteen minutes. Her style and method are not for everyone. But there are plenty of books on writing for all different styles of writer. And, if you're a (struggling) (young) writer, I think it's important to find that book. Ultimately, when you're alone at your desk, they will be the sole advocate for what you're doing, the only book that will encourage you, gently, to put them down and to pick up your pen.

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