Here is a chance to bring your reader deeper into your heart. You can explain with deep knowledge what it means to be a human being. You know it better than anyone else. In knowing who you are and writing from it, you will help the world by giving it understanding. – Natalie Goldberg
After almost a year of being in hiatus from this platform, and 2 months of procrastination – no, I’d call it rest, a break, or even a celebration, because my dear friends, I’ve just finished writing another book! Weeeeeee! It’s going to be my first local book once it gets published here in the Philippines.
And so while I’m very much excited for that, I’m just as thrilled to get back here and share with you valuable insights from books I read, starting off with this writing manual: Bones, as Natalie often calls it.
What I love about this book is how it ties up with spirituality, wherein Natalie talks about writing from a Zen perspective. Or maybe, it’s the other way around: spirituality from a writing perspective. She then provides practical, actionable steps so we can integrate writing, like any other spiritual practice, into our everyday lives.
First thoughts have tremendous energy. It is the way the mind first flashes on something… So if you express something egoless, it is also full of energy because it is expressing the truth of the way things are. You are not carrying the burden of ego in your expression, but are riding for moments the waves of human consciousness and using your personal details to express the ride.
One of the dilemmas in writing is getting through the “writer’s block” to the state of “flow.” How can we break the barrier? We write down whatever comes to mind. First thoughts out. We let them out uncensored by the ego, the inner critic that’s blocking the writer inside us.
In order to be in the flow, we have to get into the flow. A surfer knows that he has to swim first towards the waves before he can actually ride the waves. Same is true of a writer. We have to go through the waves of first thoughts, write them however they want to be written, so we can get into the flow of writing and ride.
To our advantage, Natalie has tips for us so we can swim our way through the first thoughts:
- 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.)
- Don’t cross out. (That is editing as you write. Even if you write something you didn’t mean to write, leave it.)
- Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. (Don’t even care about staying within the margins and lines on the page.)
- Lose control.
- Don’t think. Don’t get logical.
- 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.)
Surf’s up! Write first thoughts down!
When your writing blooms out of the back of this garbage and compost, it is very stable. You are not running from anything. You can have a sense of artistic security. If you are not afraid of the voices inside you, you will not fear the critics outside you.
Then, out of this knowledge, we are better equipped to make a choice for beauty, kind consideration, and clear truth.
“Composting.” When I read that word, it struck a chord and I thought to myself, “Yeah, that’s what it is.” It’s the process we go through before we can write about something of real value.
Natalie says it takes a while for our experiences to sift through our consciousness. It’s hard to write about being madly in love while you’re madly in love. You won’t have any perspective other than being madly in love. While we can journal it, what comes out of our journaling is mostly waste material. Take a look at your journal entries… See? Garbage. 😛 And that becomes part of your compost.
Then, what happens? Your compost makes your soil fertile. From it bloom your garden of words, which become poems and stories, a collection that creates a masterpiece.
It will take time, Natalie adds. In my own experience, I never thought that my childhood experiences more than 2 decades ago were piling up as compost, from which the materials for a book sprung up.
So give it time. Allow the experiences to permeate your life. “Soak in,” as I call it in The Path to Awesomeness. When the mud has settled down, you will see a clear reflection of the water. That is the clarity you will have when you write.
Writing, too, is 90 percent listening. You listen so deeply to the space around you that it fills you, and when you write, it pours out of you. If you can capture that reality around you, your writing needs nothing else.
We know the common advice for writers: read, read, read. And write, of course. But in Bones, Natalie stresses importance on another, often overlooked, essential part of the equation: listening – “The deeper you can listen, the better you can write.”
I couldn’t agree more. Listening is like breathing. No matter what you do, you cannot not breathe. Whether you’re reading or writing, you cannot not listen.
Our task is to put as much effort as we can into listening; to be attentive to the details of everything we hear; to be aware, especially, so we can receive the way things are without judging them and write about them as they are.
Listening is the bridge between reading and writing. It bridges every other thing.
Want to become a better writer? Heed Natalie’s personal advice: “Read a lot, listen well and deeply, and write a lot.”
Steal Like A Writer
We are not separate from everything else. It’s only our egos that make us think we are. We build on what came before us, even if our writing is a reaction to it or we try to negate the past. We still write with the knowledge of what’s at our backs.
Okay, okay, I’m stealing.
But the idea’s not mine. Probably, not even Austin Kleon’s. Because writing is a communal act, says Natalie. She tells us not to worry that we are copying someone else, that we are not an original. In fact, she argues that it’s even arrogant to think that we are. It’s the kind of thinking that separates us from the rest, which defeats the purpose of writing – connection.
When I write poems, Rumi is at my back. And sometimes, there’s also Flo-Rida.
You, too, are influenced by your past and present, at all times. Maybe, you’re part Ernest Hemingway, part Ed Sheeran. When people read your words, they don’t just recognize you alone. They recognize everyone.
Notice that Eckhart Tolle influence on the last line?
That’s actually Eminem…
A writer’s job is to make the ordinary come alive, to awaken ourselves to the specialness of simply being.
Learn to write about the ordinary. Give homage to old coffee cups, sparrows, city buses, thin ham sandwiches. Make a list of everything ordinary you can think of. Keep adding to it. Promise yourself, before you leave the earth, to mention everything on your list at least once in a poem, short story, newspaper article.
One big takeaway I had from the book is an exercise we can incorporate into our writing practice. Natalie presents a structure we can follow and use it deliberately so it becomes a second nature whenever we write. It’s how we can make the ordinary come alive, how ordinary words can turn into poetry.
Write a list of ten nouns in one column. Then choose an occupation, say a cook. Now, in another column, write verbs associated with a cook:
We then combine them with any nouns you have listed into one statement. The outcome? Quite extraordinary:
The fiddles boiled the air with their music.
The lilacs sliced the sky into purple.
Here’s what I came up with:
Stir my soul with your laughter.
And let me taste the joy of your succulent smile.
One scoop of you and I’m already full. 😊
Here’s a love letter from a toothbrush to a bicycle by Sarah Kay:
And I have prepared a dessert for you, too. From a mathematician, a poem called “Algebra.”
In order to improve your writing, you have to practice just like any other sport. But don’t be dutiful and make it into a blind routine. “Yes, I have written an hour today and I wrote an hour yesterday and an hour the day before.” Don’t just put in your time. That is not enough. You have to make great effort. Be willing to put your whole life on the line when you sit down for writing practice. Otherwise you are just mechanically pushing the pen across the page and intermittently looking at the clock to see if your time is up.
This has got to be my favorite chapter! It’s where the greatest insights in Bones converge. Natalie says that writing is just like any sport – you need practice. If you’re a basketball player, you prepare before the season starts. You prepare for weeks or months prior to the official games. And how do you prepare? You practice. Consistently.
Do we need to practice at least an hour every single day? Most writers strongly suggest so. But Natalie begs to differ. (Whew! Thank you, Nat.) With writing, we’re not just putting in the time. We have to put in our whole heart, our entire being, when we write. Otherwise, in Nat’s words, we’re just being “Goody Two-shoes just to be a Goody Two-shoes.”
We don’t write just so we can be a “writer.” That’s another role-playing act of the ego. And we condemn ourselves if we don’t follow the rules.
I love writing. And if I could, I’d write every hour, every single day. But writing is not my life. I also love reading, listening to music, playing songs on the guitar, watching movies with my family, bonding with friends, and playing basketball among many other things I love doing. If I get to do all these things with love, then there is a greater chance for love to be present in my writing too.
Instead of following the rules, Nat poses a greater challenge: “to let writing teach us about life and life about writing. Let it flow back and forth.”
In the ability to connect with one people lies the chance to feel compassion for all people.
So go home… so you can penetrate quietly and clearly into your own people and from that begin to understand all people and their struggles.
The latest book I wrote titled Ganito Kami Noon, which translates as “This is How We Were,” is about the life growing up in the 90’s era. It was the context I used to convey topics on happiness and realizing one’s full potential.
If Filipinos read words like Law of Attraction, ego, pain-body, meditation, creative visualization, and other consciousness jargon, 99.9% of them would roll their eyes and think I’m from another planet.
So instead, in the hopes of reaching a wider local audience, I went back to my roots, to my hometown in Calamba, Laguna where I spent my childhood, and used the 90’s language in my writing. I then started posting excerpts on my Instagram account and (I think) it made the connection. People are able to relate because they found themselves in my stories.
And to my delightful surprise, people from other countries who don’t even understand the Filipino language are reacting too (following my account as well). There’s the translation feature, but it’s still a bit incomprehensible. Yet, they’re getting the message.
It’s the point that Natalie is saying. Go home to who you really are and write from that place. When you go back to your roots, different branches of people will understand you because you’re writing from the same root where we all came from.
Be willing to look at your work honestly. If something works, it works. If it doesn’t, quit beating an old horse. Go on writing. Something else will come up. There’s enough bad writing in the world. Write one good line, you’ll be famous. Write a lot of lukewarm pieces, you’ll put people to sleep.
Haha! If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, use a Samurai and cut it out. Stop wasting time dwelling over a bad writing. Natalie says it’s like beating an old horse into running again. Just cut it out and keep on writing. Eventually, a good line will come up. That one line can be a poem by itself.
Natalie adds that we have to be tough with a Samurai. Not mean, but with the toughness of truth. For ultimately, the truth can never hurt. Cutting out only makes the world clearer and more alive.
This is Important
What is important is not just what you do—“I am writing a book”—but how you do it, how you approach it, and what you come to value.
We are a part of everything. When we understand this, we see that we are not writing, but everything is writing through us.
Before I started writing Ganito Kami Noon, I set an intention. While I was committed to finishing it, I did not promise myself that. What I promised myself is to enjoy the writing process. And that, I was able to keep down to the last word.
How we relate to writing is important. Natalie wants us to bear in mind that writing is good and pleasant; to make it our friend. When we do, we build the same relationship with everything else around us. Not just people, but also inanimate objects.
Because how we are as a human being is how we are as a writer.
Someplace in us should know the utter simplicity of saying what we feel. Not in anger, self-recrimination, or self-pity, but out of an acceptance of the truth of who we are. If we can hit that level in our writing, we can touch down on something that will keep us going as writers.
Natalie shares what she learned from her Zen master about the distinction between a spiritual person and an artist, which is essentially inseparable. “An artist exudes vitality; a spiritual person exudes peace. But behind the peace of the spiritual person is tremendous liveliness and spontaneity, which is action in the moment. And an artist, though she expresses vitality, must behind it touch down on quiet peace; otherwise, the artist will burn out.” Loved that!
Creativity is the expression of Life. And peace, though quiet, is full of Life. Which is why peace is the source of creativity.
Natalie says that while we are busy writing, everything that we wish to express should come out from a place of peace. And we can come from that place only from an acceptance of who we are and what we feel in any given moment.
Writing is a doing that is rooted in being. Because like any form of art, writing is an expression of who you are.
You are an artist of Life.
Let It come alive in you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
NATALIE GOLDBERG is the author of fifteen books, including Writing Down the Bones, which has sold over one million copies, has been translated into fourteen languages, and started a revolution in the way we practice writing. She has led workshops and retreats for forty years nationally and internationally. She has also painted for as long as she has written. She lives in northern New Mexico. For more information, please visit nataliegoldberg.com