Review: Writing Down the Bones

My memories of reading Writing Down the Bones will always be tied to the beach. I read the book over several mornings on the Gulf Coast of Sarasota. It was early enough in the morning to beat the Florida-in-August heat, but late enough to let the truck rake the sand at the shoreline. I walked to the edge of the water, put my chair in the sand with my back to the sunrise, and settled in to read the wisdom of Natalie Goldberg. When I had about 50 pages left and didn’t have enough time to go out, I put my AirPods in and played some ocean sounds while I finished it.

Writing Down the Bones is a book about writing. It’s also a book about meditation. And, like many writing books, it’s a memoir. The three themes are intertwined in short, practical chapters that will get you writing.

It was written around the same time as Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, more than 30 years ago. Like Cameron, Goldberg recommends that you “practice” writing. Her timed writing exercise is a lot like Cameron’s morning pages, and since Cameron wrote a foreword for this book, I’ve imagined them as lifelong friends and cross-influencers.

The main difference in their daily practice is that Goldberg recommends that the writing be directed. Like Goldberg, I have come to the conclusion that I should try to guide my pages a little more. She has a chapter with some suggested prompts. My favorite is to start with “I remember” and then just write what comes to mind. Whenever you get stuck, just repeat “I remember” and start again. I have used this idea often since I read it.

Goldberg uses the name “writing practice” for her timed writing exercise to evoke the “practice” of meditation. She draws comparisons between writing and meditation throughout the book. A through line of work is her accepting her guru’s attempts to convince her that writing was meditation. She is a much more serious practitioner than I am, but I have meditated regularly for more than five years, so these comparisons made sense to me. I consider my morning pages a kind-of meditation.

Another chapter, “The Action of a Sentence,” is a practical way to find good verbs. First she lists 10 random nouns. Then, she picks a vocation (in this case a Chef) and lists all the verb associated with it (chop, mince, slice, cut, taste, etc). Then she matches a noun, a verb and completes the thought. As a poet, these serendipitous combinations might go right into her work. For me, just expanding the list of verbs in my mind makes it possible to avoid adverbs and make verbs exert themselves to describe the scene.

I reread books like this every so often, so I am sure I’ll read it again in a few years. But, right now, I’m going through the book again and trying to figure out how I will keep it fresh in my mind as I continue to write. I was too enthralled to take good notes the first time.

Perhaps it’s a book I just need to consult more often. Pulling it off the shelf when I need a boost. Or maybe it will be my perennial beach read—with me when the waves remind me to flip through it again.