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Writing Down the Bones


Being Present with First Thoughts

Yesterday morning, I took a cue from Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones in the “First Thoughts” chapter and wrote in my notebook, pen and paper, in five minute bursts. I used the timer on my iPhone and I started it up two times more. I spent a total of seventeen minutes more or less, which doesn't seem like too much time. However, five minutes or a group of five minutes is more than none writing.

Goldberg offers these guidelines for any timed writing session:

  1. Keep your hand moving.
  2. Don't cross out.
  3. Don't worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar.
  4. Lose control.
  5. Don't think. Don't get logical.
  6. Go for the jugular.

I used a pen and notebook because it kept my hand moving. I figured this would be a good way to start on some fiction I've been meaning to write. If I try to start on Microsoft Word, I freeze up. There's something about how it gives you a virtual page layout that makes it daunting to even start and helps reinforce the terror of the blank page. Even sitting down with a notebook with pen in hand can induce this anxiety, so having the timer on pushed me to get my hand moving.

As much as I like using the Notes app to write things out, it doesn't get my hand moving the same way. It does get my thumbs moving and the predictive text adds an element that's not present when I sit down with pen and paper, which brings me to editing issues.

I have to admit I still crossed out words in my brief morning writing session. It's a hard habit to kick. Most of the time it was the wrong form of the word or even one that was misspelled. And yes, I worried about writing down the wrong word and spelling.

I usually don't have much problems with punctuation. However, I do get fixated on sentence structure and worry about how elegant or inelegant they come out. When I am writing more quickly, my sentences do run on more. They can be long and unwieldy, which is the opposite of being in control.

It's not just spelling, punctuation, grammar, and sentence structure regarding control. It's scary to reveal things in writing, especially when it's deeply personal. Even when it's not so personal, it's easy to get caught up o in what someone might think about me based on what I say, what I present about myself. Also, style and execution at this stage can stop the process altogether.

On her guidelines for a timed writing session, regarding “Go for the jugular,” Natalie Goldberg adds the note “If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.” This where giving control comes in. In avoiding what's scary or naked in my writing, I avoid what's awkward or uncomfortable, but I also avoid material that can later on be what lets the reader in. This is the type of thing that makes personal essays compelling, but it can also add deeply to fiction. I should not avoid the things that may be difficult to discuss or things I'm ashamed of in these writing sessions. Emotions too as they can be very scary, especially in naked form.

I've often use emotion to put off writing. Most of the time, it's that I might be feeling drained or sad, so I tell myself that I will write when I'm in a better state of mind. Then I'm in a better state of mind later and I still don't get around to writing.

For this and just sitting through the writing, Natalie Goldberg discusses Zen discipline and then applies it to writing: “ may feel great emotions and energy that will sweep you away, but you don't stop writing. You continue to use your pen and record the details of your life and penerrate to the heart of them.”

In my desire for stability and control, I found it easy to stagnate and not move. There isn't room for the energy of first thoughts, so letting go of what she describes as the ego, “that mechanism in us that tries to be in control, tries to prove the world is permanent, logical, enduring, and logical,” helps. Then there is room for the energy of the first thoughts.

I can go into my timed writing exercises knowing the value of first thoughts. I can also approach untimed writing in the same way. And being present compared to living in the past helps. This makes writing active.



Writing Tools

A long time ago, when I first read Writing Down the Bones, I soon got caught up with fountain pens. At the time, Sheaffer still made fountain pens that were still writing pens, not just calligraphy, and they were really cheap. I remember getting clear colors like red, blue, or green, and some opaque ones like in marbled green or blue. They leaked a lot, so I took the inkstains on my hands as a badge of being a writer.

I wasn't simply content with my fast writing fountain pens, I bought fancier Cross pens several times over the years and I lost all of them. They were nice props to have.

I have consistently used Uniball pens. They are good rollerball pens, but I think I picked them up in bulk from Office Depot or in singles from art supply stores because I have gotten myself branded on them. While they're not fountain pens, they still make nice props and I'm not inclined to share them.

I should switch it up, go with the Staples or Office Depot store brand and be less fixated on what I'm writing with.

There are all the times I bought hardbound notebooks or Moleskines and never finished them. The nicer the notebook, the more daunting I find them to use.

I understand the point of the Beginner's Mind chapter in Writing Down the Bones isn't about developing writing fetishes. However, I have to admit that I have gotten caught up in some because there is symbolic value in these things. I had often hoped to benefit from their magic.

A couple of days ago, I stopped by Target and I bought a few composition notebooks for 50¢ each.

I got them for the purpose of doing timed writing and/or to get those first thoughts down quickly. They aren't great looking and they remind me of middle school and high school, so I don't take it too seriously. It's a medium where I have permission to write the worst stuff in the world. I can fail amidst all the verbal doodling.

I've never taken to using typewriters to write stories or poems. It's a much more writerly symbol (more like icon) and I have come across some attempts to recreate that experience for our high tech age, such as a word processing machine built to provide the sensory experience of the electric typewriter keyboard with an e-paper screen. One gets to have an experience that is both analog and digital. However, it's greatest appeal is that one can write without the distraction of the Internet, whether it's random Google searches or Facebook.

I have also come across keyboards on shopping searches that offer the feel of typing, like clacking keys, for use with the computer or tablets. Unlike the e-paper typewriter, it's still easy to get caught up with the Internet, especially social media. However, the typewriter-style keyboard is a seductively sexy prop that has tempted me a few times. No, I've never bought one.

Weirdly, I find it easy to thumb it out with the Notes app on my iPhone. While it's something that's bundled up in a very expensive smart phone, it doesn't feel that expensive to me. It is the software equivalent of those 50¢ composition books. Whatever I write doesn't feel so important that I get bogged down in what to say or how it looks. Also, it's something I don't take as seriously as Microsoft Word, which makes me freeze up.

After having smartphones for the past few years, I still have trouble taking them seriously. It is what I tweet and post Facebook statuses with and those are very artless mediums, no matter how clever one is on them. I have to admit I have spent too much time on those social networks and I have even felt at times that they have taken some of my best words and thoughts. So in a weird way, to use the smartphone as a writing tool is a way to reclaim my time and my energy writing.

However, I'll still go with the idea that using the phone to write is liberating because I don't take it seriously as a medium. It's not like a journal book or even Microsoft Word. It just works.

What works is going to be constantly developing. I haven't tried using any voice recording or voice typing yet. It might be a good way to get these thoughts out during a walk or if I'm doing something like making something on a sewing machine. There is still room to experiment and see what's right.



Writer's Guides: Writing Down the Bones

Ever since I resolved to get myself back into writing, I reached into my bookshelf for the books on writing* I've bought over the years. Some I have read and used and came back to over and over while there is a lot that simply became my writer's reference section. Suddenly, they all seem very useful.

The now classic Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg is a good place to start and I have referenced this wonderful book in my entries from the past few days.

I was a young man taking a poetry writing class when I bought the first of several copies I've bought over the years. The professor had us use it as a guide and I remember reading it and being completely blown away with what Goldberg had to say.

Natalie Goldberg doesn't offer technical advice. There isn't anything about how to plot or how to structure. Instead, she teaches the reader about practice, trusting one's own mind, and letting go. It is Zen for writers.

Additionally, there are prompts and discussions of process and Goldberg's stories about teaching and her own practice. As a teacher and a writer starting back into my practice, I appreciate them, but I'm also opening the book and looking at it fresh.

It's coming back to that beginner's mind and letting go of those previous readings and getting something new out of it. It's not just about the reading, but the practice, whether it is putting pen to paper or using some other tool. Creating the space and being present are very basic yet essential no matter how far I go into this practice.


*Here is the list of writing books:

  1. Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down The Bones
  2. Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
  3. Julia Cameron, The Artist's Way
  4. Rachel Simon, The Writer's Survival Guide
  5. Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer
  6. Jeff Vandermeer, Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Writing Imaginative Fiction
  7. Jessica Page Morrell, The Writer's I Ching (with card deck)
  8. Naomi Epel, The Observation Deck: A Toolkit for Writers (cards and guide)
  9. Jamie Cat Callan, The Writer's Toolbox: Creative Games and Exercises for Inspiring the “Write” of Your Brain (game kit)

There are more titles I can name, maybe later.



Beginner's Mind

In the first chapter of Writing Down the Bones, “Beginner's Mind, Pen, and Paper,” Natalie Goldbergtells the writer who picks this book up, "In a sense, the beginner's mind is what we must come back to every time we sit down and write." It's easy to think about how profound this sounds. However, its a reminder of no matter how much you've written or what you have achieved, it's always a starting over when one writes. As I haven't really written in a while, this is a good place to come back to.

It's also very challenging. In my case, I've taken many creative writing workshops in my youth and thought getting into an MFA program would validate me as a writer and then I could step my way into breaking out into the literary world. Sometime later. I got a portfolio together and applied for to program and got the MFA. It didn't make me a literary star, but I did get work as an adjunct instructor teaching community college English courses. I also taught English as a foreign language. In these jobs, I've reached people in their beginner minds. It's easy to as a teacher. However, with experience and even some measure of authority, it can be difficult to get into this mindset.

With all the experience and education I can discuss, there is baggage that comes with it, whether it's the times I had a case of the Dunning-Kruger (being too confident of my abilities) or the complete opposite where I felt completely destroyed in workshops. Also, I've been frustrated with feeling that I wasn't understood by my peers from an artistic standpoint. This is all stuff that can be let go.

I can let go of my pride and my fear and my frustration. I can also let go of the experiences, good or bad. I can let go of the bad teacher who built me up until he decided to destroy me. I can let go of that student who thought she could teach my class when I was a TA. I can let go of the guy who liked nothing better than to tear his classmates down. I can let go of everything from those times.

I can check these inhibiting factors and others as I become aware of them.

Having a beginner's mind gives me the permission to fail, to make mistakes, to have what Anne Lamott calls "shitty first drafts."

I can also check whatever writer fetishes that I may have picked over the years like Moleskines and fountain pens and any other trappings and do away with them. I once had the perfect writerly apartment and it was a struggle to work in, just like those nicely bound notebooks.

I have to admit I find the Notes app on my iPhone very good for getting thoughts out similar to how Natalie Goldberg suggest cheap spiral bound notebooks. It's not an app I take too seriously as a writing tool. I can also experiment with the cheap notebooks too. Overall, whatever tools I use, it's important to have the beginner's mindset.

In conclusion, I can look at any start to writing as starting again. I may knock it out of the park, but there will be false starts and things that don't work and things I still need to learn. And if I have to learn something again or learn something I feel I should know, but don't, that is OK.