I just got back together with Natalie Goldberg. Even though I don’t know her, she changed my life. At some point last year, I ran out of steam on my current work in progress. (I got back to it — all good for the moment, thanks.) Still, I kept on writing almost every day, thanks to Natalie’s sensible and transcendent first book, Writing Down the Bones. Because of that book and her wisdom, even in the throes of a creative dry spell, I developed a writing practice that got me through that fallow period and that has also has stood the test of time. The practice brought me a connection to Natalie — I often addressed what I was writing directly to her — and also to myself.
She can tell it better than I can, but what she has to say kind of boils down to this:
- Find a cheap notebook and a fast pen
- Write every day
- Keep your hand moving
- Don’t edit, don’t censor yourself, just write
- Be specific
This approach appeals to me in part because I enjoy writing longhand. I think differently when I do. Yes, I use a computer for blog posts and book drafts, which suits the purpose but is not the same. Possibly the single best piece of advice as it applies to the content of writing is Natalie’s direction to “be specific.” For whatever reason, I’m pretty good at not editing on the first pass. The rest is more about process and process is highly personal. This is what works for me.
I went through that book at the rate of about a chapter a day. When I finished, I decided to try a different author as my writing guide. She’s as well-known as Natalie, maybe more so, and I believe her approach and techniques have been successfully adopted by many writers. But I found out, after working through a few of these new chapters and exercises, that I could not make a connection with this other writing guru. As a result, my writing practice fell off. I regretted that and felt guilty about it. I went back to my manuscript and let my writing practice become intermittent. Then one day not long ago, I picked up another of Natalie’s books, Wild Mind, which is about the writing life as well as writing practice. Or so it seems; I’m not through it yet.
What I can say is that beginning to read the Introduction to Wild Mind felt like a homecoming. Not so much the kind where you are greeted with open arms as a long lost relative, but more the kind when you walk in your front door, slip off your tight shoes, sink into your most comfortable chair, put your feet up, and silently shout, “Hallelujah!”
I’ll certainly explore other writing books and teachers, but I think I’ll always come back to Natalie. Thankfully, she’s given writers quite a few resources. Even if she hadn’t, I bet I could pick up Writing Down the Bones and work my way through it again one chapter at a time to find new insight, inspiration, and encouragement along the way.
It’s Natalie who speaks to me, but the list of writers and teachers sharing their gifts is long, varied, and rich. I would love to learn about your favorites in the comments.