Monday, November 12, 2012

Revisiting Natalie Goldberg’s "Writing Down the Bones"

            It’s good for writers to go back to school every once in a while, even if that “school” is an old book on technique. Writing Down the Bones has been around for a long time and has attracted its core of disciples. Natalie Goldberg calls her series of exercises  ". . .the practice school of writing." (p.11) "This writing practice is also a warm up for anything else you might want to write. . .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." (p. 13) 

While this sounds fairly practical, there are "out there" aspects to Goldberg's book that I find harder to deal with. The author says things like ". . .writing does writing" and "You accept what is and put down its truth." (pp. 45 and 46)  For the down-to-earth person these kinds of statements might sound a little “woo woo.”

For someone who earns his/her living with the written word, doing "writing exercises" seems like a busman's holiday. Why just play with words when you spend your life working with words?  Why waste time writing things you will never use when you spend so much time re-writing things you will need?

            Rather than attempt to use Goldberg's advice as a series of separate exercises, I used some of her techniques while re-writing  a work-in-process. Goldberg tells us to give ourselves permission to write junk and, later says "Allow yourself to be awkward." (p. 36) 

I have never really suffered from writer's block, but I have suffered from writer's hesitation. I define this phrase as knowing what I want to say while mentally hemming & hawing my way until the right words appear. In the process of a rewrite I decided to allow myself to write anything, not worrying about whether I was making the writing better. I'd been plugging along, a page at a time and wanted to pick up some speed. I knew what the story was. I knew what I had to say and what kind of sensory details I needed to add, but the going was slow.         

            I attempted to let myself write without self-editing. This practice was difficult as I have for years written at a very deliberate pace, constantly adding, subtracting, re-organizing as I work along. I used Goldberg's technique for about three pages worth of text. And, when I reread it, I found Goldberg was right: it was junk. I didn't touch it, however, I let it be so I could continue getting to the end. I'd allow myself to re-write only when I got to the end of the story. Goldberg says we should let ourselves learn to trust our own voice. After this exercise, I thought my "voice" was pretty disorganized and rotten. Still, I've been around long enough to realize that sometimes you have to let first impressions go. More often than not, you can learn a thing or two. I was willing to give Natalie’s methods a few more tries.

            There is a lot of time spent in Writing Down the Bones, discussing Zen Buddhism, quoting this religious thinker or that, and how their method of thought applies to writing. I found this interesting, but not, at first, useful. I didn't want to think about spiritual beliefs, I wanted technique, a cookbook on writing, a set of directions. Natalie Goldberg doesn't look at her writing life in that way. So how, I wondered, could her methods help me sort out the mess I was trying to revise?

            "Writing is not psychology. We do not talk "about" feelings. Instead the writer feels and through her words awakens those feelings in the reader. (p. 68)

            "Several years ago I wrote down a story that someone had told me. My friends said it was boring. I couldn't understand their reaction; I loved the story. What I realize now I that I wrote "about" the story, secondhand. I didn’t enter it and make friends with it. I was outside it; therefore, I couldn't take anyone else into it. This does not mean you can't write about something you did not actually experience firsthand; only make sure that you breathe life into it. Otherwise it is two times removed and you are not present." (p. 69)

            Here was the reminder I needed when I revised my non-fiction. It isn't enough to simply re-tell or report a story. I must be sure to bring the audience with me so that the reader experiences the same feelings as the protagonist. In my case, I was writing about a sled dog team attempting to reach the summit of Mount Washington. One sentence could tell what happened. That wouldn't bring my reader into the story. I had to show the danger, the challenge, the adrenaline and, even, the foolishness of the stunt. The first way was just a sentence. The second could turn it into story.

            While doing this re-write, I was also researching a project on forensic anthropology. I found Goldberg's advice about making the story feel "first hand" had made me reading differently. I found new appreciation for the way in which some of the authors brought me into their world. In Witnesses From the Grave, Christopher Joyce and Eric Stover describe various cases forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow has examined. The authors did a wonderful job of bringing me into Snow's story. Here they describe a case in Brazil:

            "While his companions drowsed in the backseat [of the cab], Snow gazed out of the open window at the passing show. In the wide doorway of a shop, boys in sweat-stained T-shirts twisted hot glass for neon tubing into large letters. A few blocks farther on, two bare-chested boys played on a dirt lot by an old church, . . .sending tiny clouds of red dust into the air. . .On either side of the road, new skyscrapers loomed, while at their curbed feet, well-dressed business people and beggars shared the sidewalks." (Joyce, Stover, pp. 166-167)

            The authors added so much sensory detail, they practically gave me a seat in the back Clyde Snow's cab. As you work on your projects give readers a "seat in the cab" too. Golberg says "Writers write about things that other people don't pay much attention to." (p.99)  But it is these mundane details that give life to story. While we might not pay attention to the clutter surrounding us, the color of a wall, the background noise, we are still aware of all these things. The writer's job is to include the mundane enough to give the reader that same awareness.  

 One difficulty I have is "writing through the junk." Maybe this sort of thing happens to you, too. You have an idea for something. You know what it should be like in the end but it takes many, many tries before you get even close to the idea you had.  After so many years as a writer, why can't you go from idea to final copy in one try? Why doesn't your head do all the revisions?  Why do your hands have to be involved with the middle steps at all?  Goldberg offers advice:

            "Don't worry if you come back six months later and the piece you weren't sure of turns out to be terrible.  The good parts are already decomposing in your compost pile.  Something good will come out.  Have patience." (p. 158)

            It’s a challenge to bring your reader into the story.  It’s difficult to be patient with the process.


Sally said...

Wow, Mur - excellent distillation. I've always gotten hung up on Bones, this makes me think about picking it up again.

I'm Jet . . . said...

Yeah, I'm not so woo woo, so Goldberg's book never really spoke to me

Good post on how to make someone else's advice your very own.


Karin Huxman - Romance Author said...

Writer's "hesitation", I love that!