Saturday, February 16, 2013

Reflections on the Bones: A sort-of Review

Natalie Goldberg's book, Writing Down the Bones is a classic to read again and again.
Image by Carol Rucker

For those who aren't familiar with Natalie Goldberg's classic book on writing, Writing Down the Bones, I highly recommend it, as well as her other books, including Wild Mind. As part of a my college writing class, I'm required to read books on writing by various authors. This has been an interesting exercise for me as a writer, because I've read so many books on writing, but years have passed since I picked one up. Once you've read four or five books on writing, they can start to feel repetitive... and I, like most writers who've been in the game a while, have long abandoned the habit of devouring books on writing on a regular basis.

Reading Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones for the second time was like visiting an old childhood haunt. It made me realize how much I’ve “grown up” as a writer. The book itself is a timeless classic that I recommend to any beginning writer, or anyone who hasn't yet had the privilege of reading one of her books. Goldberg’s sense of fun and the tossing off of the fetters of formality are freeing to many writers who might have become a little too bogged down with the "rules" of good writing and the discipline of "writing every day". While daily attention to the craft is part of Goldberg's philosophy, she gives writers permission to break all the rules and write selfishly, something we often forget in our endless pursuit of craft and writing "to the market". 

Reading the book again, after over ten years of growth and change as a writer, there were many memories I smiled over, recognizing how much influence this book had on me. Natalie Goldberg’s Zen philosophies are universal in many aspects. The resonance I felt with her ideas and perspective hasn’t changed. In fact, I laughed when reading her thoughts on metaphor, because the idea is one of those that stayed with me after all these years. 

Natalie Goldberg wrote:

 “If you think big enough to let people eat cars, you will be able to see that ants are elephants and men are women. You will be able to see the transparency of all forms so that all separations disappear.
This is what metaphor is. It is not saying that an ant is like an elephant. Perhaps; both are alive. No. Metaphor is saying the ant is an elephant.” 

The superimposition of ants and elephants, the way the two words fit together, short, wriggling, determined little ants, and lumbering, majestic, indifferent elephants, settled into my heart and eventually bubbled up in the idea that lead me to write a short poem for children; An Ant is An Elephant:

An ant is an elephant
                        If you’re a flea.
                        You might not even notice me
                        If you were an ant
                        And I, a flea.

Although I wrote the poem over six years ago, in 2007, I can still remember the way the words came, the battle I had re-arranging and trimming and fussing over them, and how many drafts I wrote to perfect those few, rather silly lines. I rarely write poetry these days, simply because it’s difficult to make much of a living from it. Reading this book again, I remembered where I was as a writer the first time I read it, and those memories have left me feeling anchored, and considering taking up poetry again. I'm satisfied, in some ways, to see how far I've come as a writer, and anxious, in others, to see how much further I have to go.

Joseph Campbell, the famous comparative mythologist, wrote;

 “God is the experience of looking at a tree and saying, 'Ah!”

Reading Writing Down the Bones again, I came back to a familiar tree, loved, lost, forgotten and found. For me, writing is an integral part of who I am, so finding my way on the page is more than just a professional process. It is, in fact, the first step toward finding a new way in a life that has recently undergone some earth-shaking changes. Re-reading books like Writing Down the Bones, I'm re-discovering who I am as a writer, and taking stock of my place on the map. Bones has been part of my journey, and I owe a debt of gratitude to writers like Natalie Goldberg.

What book on writing has been life-changing for you, if any? To whom do you owe your writing debts?


  1. I, too, have been a writer for more than 10 years. I, however, have never heard of Writing Down the Bones. This makes me want to track it down and read it! Thanks for the post!

    1. I love Goldberg's books, though I admit I smiled over her reference to using a typewriter.
      I think it's a great book for those of us who've been at it a while to re-visit because she encourages writers to get back to the basics, down to the reasons we started writing in the first place. It can be a good thing, to stop and re-examine ourselves as writers.


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