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Natalie Goldberg
"I remember one student whose mother had died of cancer. She would write one side of a page about it - simple, good prose - and then she would quit. When she read those pieces in class, I always felt there was more and told her so. She smiled and said, "Well, the ten minutes were up." Write to the eleventh minute if you need to. I know it can be frightening and a real loss of control, but I promise you, you can go through to the other side and actually come out singing. You might cry a little before the singing, but that is okay. Just keep your hand moving as you are feeling. Often, as I write my best pieces, my heart is breaking.
--Natalie Goldberg,, Writing Down the Bones


Natalie Goldberg was a poet for 13 years before she completed Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, (1986), a book that broke open the world of creativity and started a revolution in the way we practice writing in this country. The book has sold more than 1 million copies and been translated into fourteen languages. Goldberg has been practicing Zen meditation and teaching seminars in writing as a practice for the last 25 years. People from around the world attend her life-changing workshops and she has a reputation as a great teacher. The Oprah Winfrey Show sent a film crew to spend the day with Natalie for a segment on Spirituality that covered her writing, teaching, painting, and walking meditation.

Ms. Goldberg has generously offered to share excerpts from her work with the readers of the Survivor's Review.

The Basics of Writing Practice

The basic unit of writing practice is the timed exercise. You may time yourself for ten minutes, twenty minutes or an hour. It's up to you. At the beginning you may want to start small and after a week increase your time, or you may want to dive in for an hour the first time. It doesn't matter. What does matter is that whatever amount of time you choose for that session, you must commit yourself to it and for that full period:

  1. Keep your hand moving. (Don't pause to reread the line you have just written. That's stalling and trying to get control of what you're saying.)
  2. Don't cross out. (That is editing as you write. Even if you write something you didn't mean to write, leave it.)
  3. Don't worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. (Don't even care about staying within the margins and lines on the page.)
  4. Lose control.
  5. Don't Think. Don't get logical.
  6. Go for the jugular. (If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.)

These are the rules. It is important to adhere to them because the aim is to burn through to first thoughts, to the place where energy is unobstructed by social politeness or internal censor, to the place where you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel. You must be a great warrior when you contact on first thoughts and write from them. Especially at the beginning you may feel great emotions and energy that will sweep you away, but you don't stop writing.

Your List of Writing Topics

It is a good idea to have a page in your notebook where you jot down, as they come to you, ideas of topics to write about. It could be a line you heard. It could be a flash of memory: your grandfather's false teeth; how the lilacs smelled last June; who you were in your saddle shoes at eight years old. It could be anything. Add to the list anytime you think of something. Then when you sit down to write, you can just grab a topic from that list and begin. But until you get your own list, here are some writing ideas:

  1. Tell about the quality of light coming through the window. Jump in and write. Don't worry if it's night and your curtains are closed or you would rather write about the light up north - just write.
  2. Begin with "I remember." Write lots of small memories. If you fall into one large memory write that. Just keep going. Don't be concerned if the memory happened five seconds ago or five years ago. Everything that isn't in this moment is memory coming alive again as you write. If you get stuck, just repeat the phrase "I remember" again and keep going.
  3. Take something you feel strongly about, whether it is positive or negative and write about it as though you love it. Go as far as you can, writing as though you love it, then flip over and write about the same thing as though you hate it. Then write about it perfectly neutral.
  4. Choose a color - for instance, pink - and take a fifteen minute walk. On your walk notice whatever there is pink Come back to your notebook and write for fifteen minutes.
  5. Write in different places - for example, in a Laundromat and pick up on the rhythm of the washing machines. Write at bus stops, in cafes. Write what is going on around you.
  6. Give me your morning. Breakfast, waking up, walking to the bus stop. Be as specific as possible. Slow down in your mind and go over the details of the morning.
  7. Visualize a place that you really love, be there, see the details. Now write about it. It could be a corner of your bedroom, an old tree you sat under one whole summer, a table at McDonald's in your neighborhood, a place by a river. What colors are there, sounds, smells? When someone else reads it, she should know what it is like to be there. She should feel how you love it, not by your saying you love it, but by your handling of the details.
  8. Write about "leaving." Approach it any way you want. Write about your divorce, leaving the house this morning, or a friend dying.
  9. What is your first memory?
  10. Who are the people you have loved?
  11. Write about the streets in your city.
  12. Describe a grandparent.
  13. Write about:
    • swimming
    • the stars
    • the most frightened you've ever been
    • green places
    • how you learned about sex
    • your first sexual experience
    • the closest you ever felt to God or nature
    • reading and books that have changed your life
    • physical endurance
    • a teacher you had
    Don't be abstract. Write the real stuff. Be honest and detailed.
  14. Take a poetry book. Open to any page, grab a line, write it down, and continue from there. A friend calls it "writing off the page." If you begin with a great line, it helps because you start right off at a lofty place. "I will die in Paris on a rainy day...It will be a Thursday," by the poet Cesar Vallejo...... "I will die on Monday at eleven o'clock, on Friday at three o'clock in South Dakota riding a tractor, in Brooklyn in a delicatessen," on and on. Every time you get stuck, just rewrite your first line. Rewriting the first line gives you a whole new start and a chance for another direction - "I don't want to die and I don't care if I'm in Paris or Moscow or Youngstown."

More from Writing Down the Bones

  • It is important to separate the creator and the editor or internal censor when you practice writing, so that the creator has free space to breathe, explore, and express. If the editor is absolutely annoying and you have trouble differentiating it from your creative voice, sit down whenever you need to and write what the editor is saying; give it full voice - "You are a jerk, whoever said you could write, I hate your work, you suck, I'm embarrassed, you have nothing valuable to say, and besides you can't spell..." Sound familiar. The more clearly you know the editor, the better you can ignore it.
  • The ability to put something down - to tell how you feel about an old husband, an old shoe, or the memory of a cheese sandwich on a gray morning in Miami - that moment you can finally align how you feel inside with the words you write; at that moment you are free because you are not fighting those things inside. You have accepted them, become one with them.
  • Let go of everything when you write, and try at a simple beginning with simple words to express what you have inside. It won't begin smoothly. Allow yourself to be awkward. You are stripping yourself. You are exposing your life, not how your ego would like to see you represented, but how you are as a human being.
  • Be awake to the details around you, but don't be self-conscious. "Okay. I'm at a wedding. The bride has on blue. The groom is wearing a red carnation. They are serving chopped liver on doilies." Relax, enjoy the wedding, be present with an open heart. You will naturally take in your environment, and later, sitting at your desk, you will be able to recall just how it was dancing with the bride's redheaded mother, seeing the bit of red lipstick smeared on her front tooth when she smiled, and smelling her perfume mixed with perspiration.
  • Push yourself beyond when you think you are done with what you have to say. Go a little further. Sometimes when you think you are done, it is just the edge of beginning. Probably that's why we decide we're done. It's getting too scary. We are touching down onto something real. It is beyond the point when you think you are done that often something strong comes out.

Natalie Goldberg has written nine other books, including the novel, Banana Rose, Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life, a book of reflections and writing exercises; Living Color: A Writer Paints Her World, about painting as a second art form; and Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer's Craft, which takes readers beyond writing practice to forming finished work. Top of My Lungs (Overlook Press), contains forty poems, twenty of her paintings in color and an essay, "How Poetry Saved My Life." In her memoir, The Great Failure: My Unexpected Path to Truth, Goldberg attempts to come to grips with her feelings about two influential figures in her life. Look for her newest book, An Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir. She currently lives in Northern New Mexico. More information on Natalie's work and workshops is available at www.nataliegoldberg.com.

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