I first read Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within back in the late 80s, and I’ve reread it quite a few times since then. Natalie Goldberg’s writing is clear and uncluttered; it’s a style I enjoy. The book’s contents are divided into very short chapters, some less than two pages. She teaches through little stories and anecdotes, informed by her Zen Buddhism, and full of kindness and generosity. She encourages writers to treat themselves with that same kindness and generosity, and rather than outlining strict rules for writing, she shows how even setbacks or doubts can be approached from another angle and made useful.
I like the book’s easy, intimate, conversational style, and I very much appreciate that Goldberg does not presume to have the One True Path to writing success. She does push for writers to actually write, to write as often as possible, to write in many different ways and places, but she also discusses the times of not-writing as something for which we shouldn’t be hard on ourselves.
I like, but can’t really identify with, the book’s optimism. I am interested in, but can’t really identify with, Goldberg’s Buddhism. I appreciate that she doesn’t assume that being optimistic and Buddhist are the only ways to be in the world. This book strongly contrasts with Julia Cameron’s book Finding Water in which she prescribes one-size-fits-all rules for writing, and presumes Christianity and AA (by which I mean she writes from that standpoint without ever acknowledging it is not universal).
The only real problem I have with this book is Goldberg’s attitude toward food and eating, and her occasional fat-shaming. It’s not that she points fingers at fat people; in fact, I’d be surprised if she did, since her general attitude is so generous and accepting. But food and eating have a moral weight (see what I did there?) for her, and she will say things like “X is better than getting fat” or “X is better than eating a dozen cookies,” for example. She sometimes uses food as a reward for herself (with the connotation of guilty pleasure). It’s a small thing in the larger context of a lovely, kind, and helpful book, but I found it jarring.
I’d recommend this book not only to writers but any artists. Just do it, she is telling us. Don’t worry about the rules. Do it lots and get better and here are some ways to get going. Makes sense to me.
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg. 1986. ISBN 0877733759.