I usually don’t like books about writing, because they make it seem too easy. To my mind, Red Smith said it best: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

Natalie Goldberg takes a different approach, which doesn’t deny the difficulty but doesn’t romanticize it, either. Her new book, Writing Down The Bones: Freeing The Writer Within, is a lively, honest, and compassionate guide — and a pleasure to read. There’s a graceful, simple lucidity to her style that probably owes something to her experience with Zen meditation. She likes to tell stories about her meditation teacher, Katagiri Roshi, of the Minnesota Zen Center:

“There was a period last fall when every time I began to write, I went into a perfect blank-minded euphoria, where I stared out the window and felt a love for and oneness with everything. I sat in this state, sometimes for the whole time I had planned to write. I thought to myself, ‘Lo and behold, I am becoming enlightened! This is much more important than writing, and besides, this is where all writing leads.’ After this had gone on for quite a while, I asked Katagiri Roshi about it. He said, ‘Oh, it’s just laziness. Get to work.’ ”

Getting to work, “writing down the bones,” means capturing the “essential, awake speech” of our minds. Goldberg encourages an attention to first thoughts, “where energy is unobstructed by social politeness or the internal censor,” so that “you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel.”

We’re thankful to Shambhala Publications for permission to reprint these excerpts.

— Ed.

© Copyright 1986 by Natalie Goldberg

 

Composting

It takes a while for our experience to sift through our consciousness. For instance, it is hard to write about being in love in the midst of a mad love affair. We have no perspective. All we can say is, “I’m madly in love,” over and over again. It is also hard to write about a city we just moved to; it’s not yet in our body. We don’t know our new home, even if we can drive to the drugstore without getting lost. We have not lived through three winters there or seen the ducks leave in fall and return to the lakes in spring. Hemingway wrote about Michigan while sitting in a cafe in Paris. “Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan. I did not know it was too early for that because I did not know Paris well enough.”

Our senses by themselves are dumb. They take in experience, but they need the richness of sifting for a while through our consciousness and through our whole bodies. I call this “composting.” Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat, and very fertile soil. Out of this fertile soil bloom our poems and stories. But this does not come all at once. It takes time. Continue to turn over and over the organic details of your life until some of them fall through the garbage of discursive thoughts to the solid ground of black soil.

When I have students who have written many pages and read them in class, and the writing is not all necessarily good but I see that they are exploring their minds for material, I am glad. I know those people will continue and are not just obsessed with “hot” writing, but are in the process of practice. They are raking their minds and taking their shallow thinking and turning it over. If we continue to work with this raw matter, it will draw us deeper and deeper into ourselves, but not in a neurotic way. We will begin to see the rich garden we have inside us and use that for writing.

Often I will stab many times at something I want to say. For instance, you can look in my notebooks from August through December 1983 and see that I attempted several times a month to write about my father dying. I was exploring and composting the material. Then suddenly, and I can’t say how, in December I sat transfixed at the Croissant Express in Minneapolis and a long poem about that subject poured out of me. All the disparate things I had to say were suddenly fused with energy and unity — a bright red tulip shot out of the compost. Katagiri Roshi said, “Your little will can’t do anything. It takes Great Determination. Great Determination doesn’t mean just your making an effort. It means the whole universe is behind you and with you — the birds, trees, sky, moon, and ten directions.” Suddenly, after much composting, you are in alignment with the stars or the moment or the dining-room chandelier above your head, and your body opens and speaks.

Understanding this process cultivates patience and produces less anxiety. We aren’t running everything, not even the writing we do. At the same time, we must keep practicing. It is not an excuse not to write and to sit on the couch eating bonbons. We must continue to work the compost pile, enriching it and making it fertile so that something beautiful may bloom and so that our writing muscles are in good shape to ride the universe when it moves through us.

This understanding also helps us to accept someone else’s success and not to be too greedy. It is simply that person’s time. Ours will come in this lifetime or the next. No matter. Continue to practice.

 

We Are Not the Poem

The problem is we think we exist. We think our words are permanent and solid and stamp us forever. That’s not true. We write in the moment. Sometimes when I read poems at a reading to strangers, I realize they think those poems are me. They are not me, even if I speak in the “I” person. They were my thoughts and my hand and the space and the emotions at that time of writing. Watch yourself. Every minute we change. It is a great opportunity. At any point, we can step out of our frozen selves and our ideas and begin fresh. That is how writing is. Instead of freezing us, it frees us.

Telling how you feel about an old husband, an old shoe, or the memory of a cheese sandwich on a gray morning in Miami — aligning how you feel inside with the words you write — frees you, because at that moment you are not fighting those things inside. You have accepted them, become one with them. I have a poem entitled “No Hope” — it’s a long poem. I always think of it as joyous because in my ability to write of desperation and emptiness I felt alive again and unafraid. However, when I read it, people comment, “How sad.” I try to explain, but no one listens.

It is important to remember we are not the poem. People will react however they want; and if you write poetry, get used to no reaction at all. But that’s OK. The power is always in the act of writing. Come back to that again and again and again. Don’t get caught in the admiration for your poems. It’s fun. But then the public makes you read their favorites over and over until you get sick of those poems. Write good poems and let go of them. Publish them, read them, go on writing.

I remember hearing Galway Kinnell after his wonderful Book of Nightmares first came out. It was a Thursday afternoon in Ann Arbor. I’d never heard of him, much less could I pronounce his name. He sang those poems; they were new and exciting for him and a great accomplishment. Six years later I heard him read again at St. John’s in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He’d read that book so much in those six years that he was sick of it. He ran through the poems, put down the book, and said, “Where’s the party?” There was nothing dangerous for him in them anymore. The air was no longer electric.

It is very painful to become frozen with your poems, to gain too much recognition for a certain set of poems. The real life is in writing, not in reading the same ones over and over again for years. We constantly need new insights, visions. We don’t exist in any solid form. There is no permanent truth you can corner in a poem that will satisfy you forever. Don’t identify too strongly with your work. Stay fluid behind those black-and-white words. They are not you. They were a great moment going through you. A moment you were awake enough to write down and capture.

Writing is not psychology. We do not talk “about” feelings. Instead the writer feels and through her words awakens those feelings in the reader. The writer takes the reader’s hand and guides him through the valley of sorrow and joy without ever having to mention those words.

The Power of Detail

I am in Costa’s Chocolate Shop in Owatonna, Minnesota. My friend is opposite me. We’ve just finished Greek salads and are writing in our notebooks for a half-hour among glasses of water, a half-sipped Coke, and a cup of coffee with milk. The booths are orange, and near the front counter are lines of cream candies dipped in chocolate. Across the street is the Owatonna Bank, designed by Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright’s teacher. Inside the bank is a large cow mural and beautiful stained-glass windows.

Our lives are at once ordinary and mythical. We live and die, age beautifully or full of wrinkles. We wake in the morning, buy yellow cheese, and hope we have enough money to pay for it. At the same instant we have these magnificent hearts that pump through all sorrow and all winters we are alive on the earth. We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded. This is how writers must think, this is how we must sit down with pen in hand. We were here; we are human beings; this is how we lived. Let it be known, the earth passed before us. Our details are important. Otherwise, if they are not, we can drop a bomb and it doesn’t matter.

Yad Vashem, a memorial for the Holocaust, is in Jerusalem. It has a whole library that catalogues the names of the six million martyrs. Not only does the library have their names, it also has where they lived, were born, anything that could be found out about them. These people existed and they mattered. Yad Vashem, as a matter of fact, actually means “memorial to the name.” It was not nameless masses that were slaughtered; they were human beings.

Likewise, in Washington, D.C., there is the Vietnam Memorial. There are fifty thousand names listed — middle names, too — of American soldiers killed in Vietnam. Real human beings with names were killed and their breaths moved out of this world. There was the name of Donald Miller, my second-grade friend who drew tanks, soldiers, and ships in the margins of all his math papers. Seeing names makes us remember. A name is what we carry all our life, and we respond to its call in a classroom or at a graduation, or to hearing it whispered in the night.

It is important to say the names of who we are, the names of the places we have lived, and to write the details of our lives. “I lived on Coal Street in Albuquerque next to a garage and carried paper bags of groceries down Lead Avenue. One person had planted beets early that spring, and I watched their red/green leaves grow.”

We have lived; our moments are important. This is what it is to be a writer: to be the carrier of details that make up history, to care about the orange booths in the coffee shop in Owatonna.

Recording the details of our lives is a stance against bombs with their mass ability to kill, against too much speed and efficiency. A writer must say “yes” to life, to all of life: the water glasses, the Kemp’s half-and-half, the ketchup on the counter. It is not a writer’s task to say, “It is dumb to live in a small town or to eat in a cafe when you can eat macrobiotic at home.” Our task is to say a holy “yes” to the real things of our life as they exist — the real truth of who we are: several pounds overweight, the gray, cold street outside, the Christmas tinsel in the showcase, the Jewish writer in the orange booth across from her blonde friend who has black children. We must become writers who accept things as they are, come to love the details, and step forward with a “yes” on our lips so there can be no more “no”s in the world, “no”s that invalidate life and stop these details from continuing.

 

Don’t Tell, but Show

There’s an old adage in writing: “Don’t tell, but show.” What does this actually mean? It means don’t tell us about anger (or any of those big words like honesty, truth, hate, love, sorrow, life, justice, etc.); show us what made you angry. We will read it and feel angry. Don’t tell readers what to feel. Show them the situation, and that feeling will awaken in them.

Writing is not psychology. We do not talk “about” feelings. Instead the writer feels and through her words awakens those feelings in the reader. The writer takes the reader’s hand and guides him through the valley of sorrow and joy without ever having to mention those words.

When you are present at the birth of a child you may find yourself weeping and singing. Describe what you see: the mother’s face, the rush of energy when the baby finally enters the world after many attempts, the husband breathing with his wife, applying a wet washcloth to her forehead. The reader will understand without your ever having to discuss the nature of life.

When you write, stay in direct connection with the senses and what you are writing about. If you are writing from first thoughts — the way your mind first flashes on something before second and third thoughts take over and comment, criticize, and evaluate — you won’t have to worry. First thoughts are the mind reflecting experiences — as close as a human being can get in words to the sunset, the birth, the bobby pin, the crocus. We can’t always stay with first thoughts, but it is good to know about them. They can easily teach us how to step out of the way and use words like a mirror to reflect the pictures.

As soon as I hear the word about in someone’s writing, it is an automatic alarm. “This story is about life.” Skip that line and go willy-nilly right into life in your writing. Naturally, when we do practice writing in our notebooks, we might write a general line: “I want to write about my grandmother” or “This is a story about success.” That’s fine. Don’t castigate yourself for writing it; don’t get critical and mix up the creator and editor. Simply write it, note it, and drop to a deeper level and enter the story and take us into it.

Some general statements are sometimes very appropriate. Just make sure to back each one with a concrete picture. Even if you are writing an essay, it makes the work so much livelier. Oh, if only Kant and Descartes had followed these instructions. “I think, therefore I am” — I think about bubble gum, horse racing, barbecue, and the stock market; therefore, I know I exist in America in the twentieth century. Go ahead, take Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysic and get it to show what he is telling. We would all be a lot happier.

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 is 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.

 

Use Loneliness

Last night I was sitting with a very old friend in my living room. “You know, Natalie, I know you’ve talked about being lonely, but last week when I was really lonely, I felt that I was the only person in the world who ever felt it.” That’s what loneliness is about. If we felt connected to people, even other lonely people, we wouldn’t feel alone anymore.

When I was separated from my husband, Katagiri Roshi said to me, “You should live alone. You should learn about that. It is the terminal abode.”

“Roshi, will I get used to loneliness?”

“No, you don’t get used to it. I take a cold shower every morning and every morning it shocks me, but I continue to stand up in the shower. Loneliness always has a bite, but learn to stand up in it and not be tossed away.”

Later that year I went to Roshi again: “It’s really hard. I come home and I’m alone and I get panicky.” He asked me what I did when I was alone. Suddenly, it had a fascination. “Well, I wash the dishes, I daydream and doodle on pieces of paper, draw hearts and color them in. I pick the dead leaves off the plants and I listen to music a lot.” I began to study my own desolation and I became interested in it. I stopped fighting it.

Writing can be very lonely. Who’s going to read it, who cares about it? A student asked me, “Do you write for yourself or do you write for an audience?” Think of sharing your need to talk with someone else when you write. Reach out of the deep chasm of loneliness and express yourself to another human being. “This is how it was for me when I lived in the Midwest.” Write so they understand. Art is communication. Taste the bitterness of isolation, and from that place feel a kinship and compassion for all people who have been alone. Then in your writing lead yourself out of it by thinking of someone and wanting to express your life to him. Reach out in your writing to another lonely soul. “This is how I felt when I drove across Nebraska, late August, early evening, alone in my blue car.”

Use loneliness. Its ache creates urgency to reconnect with the world. Take that aching and use it to propel you deeper into your need for expression — to speak, to say who you are and how you care about light and rooms and lullabies.

 

I Don’t Want to Die

Suzuki Roshi established the San Francisco Zen Center and is the author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. I have heard that he was a great Zen master. He died of cancer in 1971. When Zen masters die we like to think they will say something very inspiring as they are about to bite the Big Emptiness, something like “Hi-ho Silver!” or “Remember to wake up” or “Life is everlasting.” Right before Suzuki Roshi’s death, Katagiri Roshi, an old friend, visited him. Katagiri stood by the bedside; Suzuki looked up and said, “I don’t want to die.” That simple. He was who he was and said plainly what he felt in the moment. Katagiri bowed. “Thank you for your great effort.”

Katagiri Roshi has said that when a spiritual person stands in front of a great art masterpiece, she feels peaceful. When an artist sees a masterpiece, it urges her on to create another one. An artist exudes vitality; a spiritual person exudes peace. But, says Katagiri, behind the peace of the spiritual person is tremendous liveliness and spontaneity, which is action in the moment. And an artist, though she expresses vitality, must behind it touch down on quiet peace; otherwise, the artist will burn out. Unfortunately, we have many examples of artists who have burned out through alcoholism, suicide, and mental illness.

So while we are busy writing, all the burning life we are eager to express should come out of a place of peace. This will help us and keep us from jumping around excitedly in the middle of a story and never quite getting back to our desk to finish it. Someplace in us should know the utter simplicity of saying what we feel — “I don’t want to die” — at the moment of dying. Not in anger, self-recrimination, or self-pity, but out of an acceptance of the truth of who we are. If we can hit that level in our writing, we can touch down on something that will keep us going as writers. And though we would rather be in the high hills of Tibet than at our desks in Newark, New Jersey, and though death is howling at our backs and life is roaring at our faces, we can just begin to write, simply begin to write what we have to say.