A couple of weeks ago I mentioned a book by Julia Cameron called The Right To Write. Since then I have been reading what I think of as its older sister, Writing Down The Bones, by Natalie Goldberg. I’ve been aware of it for a long time and in fact thought I had already read it, but it turns out that I hadn’t. It was a bonus coming to it for the first time.
Natalie Goldberg is a poet and artist and long-time practitioner of Zen meditation. She wrote the book, sub-titled Freeing the Writer Within, in 1986. It broke new ground in proposing writing not simply as a creative endeavour but as a practice for living and spiritual wellbeing. It has since sold over a million copies and has been widely translated.
Reading the book today I find much of what she says is familiar to me, but had I read it when it was first published I am certain it would have been a revelation. That is not to say her ideas have in any way lost currency. They are every bit as fresh and potent as they must have been three decades ago. It is more the case that my own experience has caught up with them.
In the years since I’ve been running writing courses, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen a look come into people’s eyes, a moment of dawning, that says, ‘Ah, so this is what it’s all really about …’ It’s the moment when something goes clang, there’s a shower of sparks and an almighty inner connection takes place. It’s the moment when the unwritten novel suddenly becomes irrelevant, those first scribblings of poems lose their menace, the pressure to be ‘a real writer’ disappears, and it’s enough to realise that here is a way of saying important, often unsaid, things to oneself, things that well up from some deep place, things whose purpose is to help you make sense of the muddle of your human life. It still thrills me every time I witness it, this Natalie Goldberg moment.
This is how she describes what she feels, in an excerpt from her writer’s notebook, dated July 1984:
I know this working with my tired, resistant brain is the deepest I’ll get on earth. Not the joy or ecstasy I feel sometimes or the momentary flashes of enlightenment, but this touching of the nitty gritty of my everyday life and standing in it and continuing to write is what breaks my heart open so deeply to a tenderness and softness towards myself and from that, a glowing compassion for all that is around me… And it comes from me naturally as I move pen across the page and break down the hard, solid crust of thought in my own mind and the way I limit myself. So it is very deep to be a writer. It is the deepest thing I know. And I think, if not this, nothing – it will be my way in the world for the rest of my life. I have to remember this again and again.
She is not saying that writing is the only way to be very deep, nor that it so for everyone who writes, but that it is so for her. I am sure that the fact it has also become so for me, and other people I know, is not unconnected with her having put her ideas out there in the first place, all those years ago. She writes with such passion and energy and honesty that I can well imagine someone feeling the ripples of her words without ever having read them.
There is so much to take from Writing Down The Bones that I wouldn’t attempt to summarise it, except to say that writing is the best way I know to provoke inner conversation, while great writing can only flow from great inner conversation. And who would not want to be having one of those, writer or not?
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