Annotation: Writing Down the Bones

I think it is worth mentioning, at least in passing, the similarities between what is discussed in Writing Down the Bones and what is brought up in Art & Fear. This is by no means a bad thing, as the similarities focus around a very important message: get out of your own damn way and let yourself be the creative person you truly are. When congealed down to a single statement like that, it may seem a little hokey, a bit like something a motivational speaker would say, but it is absolutely true: the biggest limitation in our creative growth is our fear of being creative. The sooner we realize this and stop being so self-critical (to the point of paralysis, in some cases), the sooner we will become what we hope to be.

The structure of Writing Down the Bones is simple and more useful through its simplicity. Rather than building upon each prior chapter in a linear fashion, this book can largely be read in any order you want. This is intentional, a design used to allow these brief (2-5 page) essays to be used on an individually encapsulated fashion, like a reference book. I really enjoyed this style of writing, at least partially because it kept any thought or message the author was trying to convey encapsulated into a small body of text. This really helps keep the “literary mental masturbation” to a bare minimum: in a five page essay, there is much less room for the sort of hoop-jumping and fluffing that occurs in most writing of this type.

One concept that Ms. Goldberg brought up repeatedly was the use of regular journaling as a technique to both get the creative juices flowing as well as to get you used to the concept of generating output every day, even if it is never seen by anyone else (or even if it’s material you don’t WANT anyone else to see). It gets the crud at the surface of the mind out of the way, allowing your deeper creative self room to express itself. Generally speaking, I agree with her: streaming consciousness is all well and good, but the “good” stuff is when we progress past that into the streaming unconscious. I disagree with her to some extent, however, concerning how much she uses that period almost entirely as warm-up, delineating it from any other writing she chooses to do that day. This disagreement, however, is roughly akin to whether milk chocolate or dark chocolate is best: both are good and perfectly valid choices, and which is preferred is entirely a matter of taste.

Something we are in complete agreement about, however, is the need (almost requirement) for passion. What makes a writer — or any artist, for that matter — good is the ability to see even the most mundane, ignored aspects of life in a passionate manner. Red wheelbarrows are glazed with rainwater all over the world, but it took William Carlos Williams to notice and appreciate it enough to write about one. Long before anyone suggested this to me, I was declaring to anyone who would listen how important the little moments were to me. I live for them, and cherish them so much. I feel emptier when I haven’t noticed any of these moments in a while, and I feel enriched every time I do catch it. The next step, a step I used to take but for some reason have become too timid to do now, is write about these moments.

Which brings us to the another subject Goldberg wrote about: validation. I used to write about the moments I had experienced, but did not receive any validation from my peers about what I was sharing. Most of the time, the most I could get out of anyone was “It’s good, I just don’t know what to say.” Finally, I just stopped writing, because I felt like I was ripping my heart out in my writing only to find out that no one was willing to take it. (I am aware that this is largely whining, crying over spilled milk, but that’s part and parcel with this subject: it is easy to get into this cycle of feeling under appreciated and then refusing to believe if even when you ARE appreciated or validated.) This, of course, is just another way we block ourselves: we should be writing for ourselves, not writing to be validated by our peers. By seeking validation, all we do is set ourselves up for disappointment, because a lot of the time, it simply won’t happen.

The final subject I want to bring up specifically from Writing Down the Bones (though not the final subject of the book) is that of coffee shops, restaurants, and other public spaces to write. Some people need their dens to write in, they need it quiet (or with their choice of music playing), and the door closed away from the world. Others — like myself, apparently, as well as the author — need public spaces. Borrowing a term from Ray Oldenburg, third spaces, places that are neither home nor work that serves a social function. Especially as an introvert, these spaces (generally coffee shops, personally) create a sort of insular bubble where there is activity around you, but that you are not required to participate in. I find this environment extremely motivating, and end up writing easily three times as much as I do at home (it took me over a day to write the first paragraph of this essay at home. I have written the entire rest of the essay in a little over an hour sitting in a Barnes & Noble Café). Some of her suggestions about new third spaces have a lot of promise, which I plan to look into at some point in the not too distant future (restaurants, for instance). Some might call third spaces a crutch, and that I should be able to write ANYWHERE. They may be right, but frankly I don’t really care. It is worth it to me to spend the $1-5 a session buying coffee, tea, or juice in exchange for the amount of creative output I gain over sitting at home for free. I’m inclined to believe that Goldberg would agree.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading Writing Down the Bones, and would definitely recommend it to anyone who wants to write (or to a lesser extent, create any sort of art). I finished the book very quickly, which is more a testament to the writing in the book than it is to the length. Originally, I was considering just borrowing this book from the library, but after reading it, I am glad to be able to have it on my shelf.

Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones. Boston: Shambala Publications, 1986.