If you love the idea of writing, but your spirit is crushed with expectation and doubt every time you sit down to try, then I’d like to prescribe Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, to be taken once daily until your symptoms of fear, self-doubt, loathing, and constipation are nothing more than a memory. I’m kidding about that last one, of course — less cheese and you should be good to go1 — but I’m serious about this book. I’ve read a quarter of it and I’m hooked.
Writing is like any other discipline in that the only way to improve is through repetition. Reading about how someone else trained for a triathlon won’t instill in your body the internal knowledge of how hard to push through the bike phase in order to finish quickly and still have gas in the tank for the excruciating run to the finish. The only way to get that knowledge is to pound it into your muscles, one sweaty mile at a time.
Similarly, you’ll never transform into a great writer by reading about how this or that successful author organizes their day or captures their bursts of inspiration on a table napkin. Sure, it can be helpful, just like dissecting your language of choice will never hurt you, but you’re only going to learn how to put words down effectively by doing so over and over and over. And that’s what this book is all about. It exists to communicate to you that irrevocable truth that you must do want you want to become capable of doing.
Accordingly, Writing Down the Bones is not a manual of rules and style guides. It’s a permission slip to the suffering would-be writer to unleash their mind and recover their sense of adventure. Sometimes you need to know it’s ok to do and not require success or even the attention of others. As Natalie states in her chapter We Are Not the Poem,
The power is always in the act of writing. Come back to that again and again and again.
Will you fail? Yes. Will you write rubbish? Look no further than this site for evidence of that. Yes. Of course you will. Will you cringe every time you revisit your past works? Maybe not every time, but certainly more often than you’d like. Success demands failure. You’ll be wonderful, you’ll be terrible, you’ll write the best pieces ever and things no one should ever read, and you don’t have to let them. I know all this, because this extraordinary writer tells me so, page after page.
Read, write, breathe. And sleep. Never forget sleep.
- See what I did there? ↩