If you haven't read Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones, you need to run out immediately and find a copy. It shouldn't be too hard: if you have writing friends, chances are one or two of them will have it among their book stacks. The question is whether they will be willing to part with it while your eyes are opened.
Most writing books are about strict rules that all writers should follow. They are full of great advice, but I am often left dumbstruck at their tone. They act as if it is easy for a writer to wrap her mind around characterization, grammar, plot structure, syntax, dialogue, point of view, back-story, sentence structure, and poetic discourse before she sits down to write. It is easy enough to take writing books such as those in small doses, but does every writer truly master each and every topic underneath the heading of writing?
Despite their sometimes overwhelming qualities, I've lately been strangely addicted to writing how-to books. This is partly because I want to learn more about writing and its nuances, partly because they are interesting, quick reads, and (confession time!) partly because they are just one more excuse to put off doing the hard work of writing itself. They give me an opportunity to think about the specifics of what I am writing in different terms, and, with the elements of my novel in mind, the authors can give me advice and pointers. But, if I read them all in one go, their plethora of advice can make me tense, and, more often than not, a bit discouraged. Maybe this is why I enjoyed Writing Down the Bones so intensely: the book is not about rules; it is about freeing yourself of them.
I went back home to visit my mom on Monday because I had to work all day on Sunday, and wasn't able to see her for Mother's Day. It was a long day, and while I always enjoy seeing my mom and spending time with her, lately she has been going through a lot, and as I was staring out the window on the bus back to Boston, I realized just how much I had let it all affect me. I felt sad for what she is going through and overwhelmed that there is little I can do to help, and I spent most of the bus ride extremely contemplative, sunk into myself in a way that is strangely gratifying in its selfishness, but also, I know, a dangerous path towards sadness and grief.
There were only a few of us on the bus, and I always wonder about the many combined lives a bus can hold. The rough-looking teenager next to me had a tattoo that said 7-31-09, also mirrored in sharpie on the strap of his backpack. There were a husband and wife who had allowed their two sons to have their own seats spread out throughout the bus, and one of them fell asleep in the back row. There was an older couple obviously on their way to the airport, traveling clothes chosen carefully. How did I fit into the picture of that bus's passengers? Did I fill the role of single, white, female? The role of artistic aspiring-novelist? Jaded recent college-grad?
Buses put me into a very strange mind-set, different from taking the subway or riding in a car. I think about the lives around me and the utter randomness of our being thrown together. I wonder what would happen if we were in some catastrophe together. Would we bond so much that we would forever feel a connection to each other? Would we all take care of ourselves, leaving the strangers to do the same? It's a morbid thought (what do you expect? I work in a graveyard), but what if these were the people surrounding me in death?
It was most likely part of the mood I was in from both my day visiting my mom and the bus ride back to Boston that left me restless and thoughtful. I did not want to hop onto the red line and go back to my apartment, so I decided to walk from South Station to downtown crossing, and spend some time at Borders. I'm a bit paranoid when I go into a store without much of a purpose: I always assume I'll be targeted as a shop lifter if I wander around too aimlessly. Just one of my strange neuroses, I guess. I tried to shove these thoughts down and just let myself enjoy being in a bookstore. I wandered around looking at a few different things, but lately I haven't been wanting to spend $15 on a book when I can most likely find a used copy online for a fraction of that price. Nevertheless, I asked where I could find a book on writing, and a salesperson pointed me to the Reference section.
I scanned through the section, and eventually left with two: Writing Down the Bones and Roy Peter Clark's Writing Tools. I chose them based on (I won't lie) their cover art, and the reviews on the back cover. Despite graduating with a Writing degree, very few of my professors used writing books to aid their teaching, choosing instead to let us learn through experience, so I am on a mission to read the quintessential books on writing in order to round out my education. I paid for the books and left with a mental note to find used copies of Into the Wild and anything written by Hermann Hesse (who I have wanted to read more of since High School). I walked to the Common and got on the red line, pulling out Writing Down the Bones as I waited for the T.
The book was immediately refreshing, and the author's voice instantly clicked with me (perhaps it was the shared sentiment of: "It never occurred to me to write, though I secretly wanted to marry a poet"). I was laughing out loud within the first pages, and by the time I got off the T, I was on my way to Family Dollar to carry out some advice. Goldberg, in talking about a writer's tools, mentions that buying an expensive, fancy journal puts too much pressure on you to write something great. "...you should feel that you have permission to write the worst junk in the world and it would be okay," she says. "...Garfield, the Muppets, Mickey Mouse, Star Wars. I use notebooks with funny covers...I can't take myself too seriously when I open up a Peanuts notebook." It was wonderfully simple advice, but I suddenly wanted a goofy notebook of my own, realizing how many times I didn't want to write in my expensive, leather journals for the simple reason that I needed to save them for something truly inspired.
Family Dollar didn't have a huge selection, but I found what I needed: a colorful notebook obviously made for boys, with one of the characters from the Pixar movie Cars on the cover underneath orange block letters that say, "I Love Donuts." I bought some $1 pens to go along with it, and started home, glad that my aimless wandering had ended in a mission, albeit a small one.
I read Writing Down the Bones from the time I got home around 8pm into the early morning. It is written simply and beautifully, with beautiful lines such as, "Own anything you want in your writing, and then let it go." The book is about finding your true voice through writing practice (based on zen techniques), not worrying so much about structure that you are left drowning in your own pieces of fiction. True, it is sentimental and full of feel-good encouragement that some may find out of place for a book on writing (one reviewer on Amazon called it "akin to watching Oprah pull at an audience's heartstrings), but in the midst of how-to books filled to the brim with rule after rule, the touching memories and advice in Writing Down the Bones inspired me to trust myself just a bit more in my writing, and encouraged me to keep filling up the pages. It doesn't matter if it's the next Pulitzer Prize winning piece or, "the worst junk in the world."