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Writing Down the Bones: Natalie Goldberg’s Creative Writing Tips

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Creative Writing Open Book

Natalie Goldberg is one of those authors who tries to explore the pitfalls of creative writing, providing helpful tips on how to tackle this seemingly insurmountable task.

I have always been fascinated with the idea of writing. So, having stumbled upon the book “Writing down the Bones” by Natalie Goldberg, I was immediately inspired to take a look inside. My curiosity was picked by the self-explanatory and, at the same time, poetic title that suggested the type of art that sends shivers down your spine. So, I grabbed the book, made a nice cup of coffee and embarked on a day-long journey of learning about writing.

Natalie Goldberg’s book is often ranked among the top most influential books on creative writing, and I could see why from the very first chapters. Her tone is extremely personable and engaging; she not only gives helpful tips on how to write, but also shares the story of her own ups and downs with the soon-to-be writers. The book itself is a prime example of how to compose a fine story that will keep the reader glued to your book.

So, without further ado, I suggest you plunge right into your chair and Natalie Goldberg’s book on creative writing.

How to Trick the Monkey Mind and Start Writing

It is natural for humans to shun writing and working in general. I bet you too sometimes find yourself mindlessly scrolling down a newsfeed when you were supposed to write a report on, well, let’s say global warming. Regardless of whatever writing task you have to perform, its sheer magnitude is looming over you like a hurricane cloud, forcing you into the shelter of your own laziness. Do not feel bad about yourself though. Even the greatest minds of the modern world are prone to it. It only matters whether you are going to fight it or let it go.

Everybody has their own Monkey Mind. Some pet it regularly letting it grow in their brains like cancer. Some try to ignore it, thus, turning it into a mere ghost of itself. The truth is that even the most productive and successful writers sometimes become its victims, so there is no getting away from it. Do not hate the Monkey Mind though – it simply reacts to your brain activating the pain hormones as a reaction to any type of work, including writing. The Monkey Mind is just guarding you from feeling that pain. It wants you to be eternally happy.

If it is more important for you to feel productive than happy though, you may try the simplest trick at your disposal – breaking out. You may go to a cafe, a co-working space, or your friend’s house. Run for your life, my friend! Although the Monkey Mind’s intentions are noble, it is still a warden of your inner prison that prevents you from writing.

You may also try setting time limits to expedite the writing process, or simply pretending that your Monkey Mind is dead. However, this will require a greater degree of willpower than just getting out of the house. Simply being surrounded by people who write or expect to see you write is almost guaranteed to spook the Monkey Mind away, deep into the farther crannies of your brain.

Monkey Inside the Brain

How to Tame Both the Ego and the Inner Censor

You probably have your own reasons for learning how to write. It may be a desire to do well in school or college, or something even more ambitious like writing a bestselling book. Whatever your objective, it is very likely that you will end up wrestling the two most common enemies of quality writing: the Ego and the Inner Censor.

It takes a great deal of time to knock them down completely. Almost as much time as to catch a ghost. Although disembodied, they are powerful enemies that should not be disregarded. So, you may be wondering, if they are invisible, how do I know when they attack? Elementary, my friend. It all has to do with your desire to succeed and be the best in whatever you are doing.

How many times did you hear people buy expensive fountain pens and hardcover journals, or state-of-the-art computers expecting to produce something phenomenal at their first try? When they obviously fail, they would abandon writing altogether, thinking that this is not their strongest suit. However, this is the hurt Ego talking. If you want to succeed in writing, you need to persevere despite the pain and the initial disappointment. Also, do not expect much in the first place. Writing is a skill that needs to be honed. It is not a product of talent; it is a direct result of everyday persistent efforts.

You may also be a perfectionist, thus, often referring to your Inner Censor for judgment. This is the other side of the same problem. Always trying to do your best is a praiseworthy quality. Unless trying to do your best, you do nothing. As Nike’s slogan goes: Just do it. Again, the more you practice, the better you become. Do not let your Inner Censor chain you.

Go Beyond Yourself. Embrace the World

One of the most unconventional tips Natalie Goldberg tenders is to stop using writing as a form of self-expression. This is truly mind-blowing for those literature majors who were taught to think in terms of what the author meant, and how the author felt instead of asking themselves what they themselves think or feel about the author’s writing. However, if you are a good writer, you are not going to advertise your thoughts, beliefs or inclinations. When you are a good writer, you create the world. It is the reader’s job to make sense of it.

Natalie Goldberg provides an interesting example of a farmer writer. Obviously, a farmer writer may talk about cows grazing on pastures, and roosters crowing in the morning and the overall feeling of pastoral idyll. However, it all is likely to bore the reader pretty quickly if the writer is not going to reflect their experience against the wider framework. You need to not only understand how your little community functions, but also perceive its ways vicariously through the global human heritage. It is important to remember your roots. However, it is even more important not to become entrenched in your ways, and see the bigger picture.

A writer is just one person. However, most literary works involve a list of characters with different sets of hopes, dreams and motivations. Goldberg argues that you need to go beyond yourself to portray them realistically. You need to not only see within yourself, but also within other people to write an engaging story.

Delve into the Details

There is no denying that a good writer is supposed to know the subject of their writing to a T. Providing meaningful details can go a long way in making your writing look professional. If you are a farmer describing a pastoral kind of life, make sure to learn the names of trees and flowers as well as facts on animal behavior. This will make your story look vivid and realistic. If you are writing about revolutions, make sure you are not only aware of the facts, but also can draw meaningful links between them.

Details is a powerful tool of immersion. Readers will sense that you are not true to yourself, if you are not supporting your story with a sufficient details’ inventory. However, it is important to strike a golden mean here. Providing too many details will make the story look cumbersome and reader-unfriendly. 

Try to attribute certain symbolic meanings to the details you employ. They do not have to be obvious; they can be ambiguous. However, give your reader a right to interpret. Your job as a writer is to provide food for thought; the reader’s job is to digest it.

Love Your Writing

Finally, you need to love your writing. You can force yourself to do it… once. Maybe, even a couple times. However, if you do not enjoy writing, sooner or later, you will find a reason or, better say, an excuse to stop doing it.

Creative writing is a way of delineating your place on the world map of thought. It enables you to better understand people, forcing you to look at everything through somebody else’s lens. It is also a kind of meditation that lets you go beyond yourself and embrace the world in its entirety. 

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