Writing Down The Bones, or, How To Write Good

My last writing-focussed post on ‘The Editor’ was inspired by the wonderful Natalie Goldberg, whose 1986 book ‘Writing Down The Bones’ recently got me writing again—unleashing my inner creative and all that artsy nonsense. ‘Trouble with the Editor’ was just one page of the book though, and it seemed only fair to give the whole thing a little love and reflect on some of the other brilliant lessons between its pages.

I wanted to write a post about writing; or, more precisely, on not writing. It’s very easy in the age of Instagram to make life look glossy. We don’t have to show our workings like a high school math test, just the finished filtered result. We think it’s not as engaging to share the mundane or the everyday struggles, and I’m guilty of that as much as anyone, but if I can’t be honest in my writing, where can I be? So here it is—writing was damn hard for a good few months. But I’ve been working it out, with a little help from Writing Down The Bones.

I avoided thinking about the fact that I couldn’t write, or didn’t want to write, by procrastinating, working and generally getting on with life. A series of visiting friends and trips to China, Myanmar and Sri Lanka provided me with good excuses to not write. Except, as I’ve been learning, there is never a good excuse not to write.

Dashing out the door in April, en-route to the airport for my flight to Colombo, I decided to grab a book from the shelf. I wedged Writing Down the Bones into my suitcase. I’ve had this book since 2013, so I don’t know why I felt that this was the time. It had been a prescribed text on a Creative Writing module I did at university, which in classic student fashion, I never read. It remained at my parent’s house when I moved abroad after graduation, and it was only when I was home this winter I slipped it (along with another twenty unread books) into my luggage to bring back to Hong Kong.

I didn’t need the book back in 2013, or maybe I did, but I probably wouldn’t have taken Natalie Goldberg’s advice then. ‘I already knew how to write,’ was the reason I left the book on the shelf. But I needed the book now, in 2018. If you’ve ever had writer’s block, then you’ll know what I mean: it’s being inspired by the stars and finding you can only write about black holes.

I’m not going to recite the book to you because copyright laws, but for anyone stuck creatively, READ IT. Her approach to unlocking creativity is pretty special. I was unsure going into it—a lot of her principles are based around Zen Buddhism (full disclosure, I suck at meditating) but actually, a lot of it was extremely helpful, or at least an alternative point of view that helped me re-evaluate my own.

So what did I learn? As my university professor put it, “To be a writer, you must write,” and that is essentially the first, third and 80th rule of writing. Natalie Goldberg takes a similar line: no matter what, you must write. Even if it’s bad. Even if it’s terrible. Writing is like running: you have to exercise your muscle if you want to get better. I worry about not having objective measures as I do with exercise: there is no Strava to tell me when my writing gets particularly good. But just like running, if you don’t keep up a consistent practice, or push yourself harder, then you’ll plateau and coast.

    • Step away from the big projects: don’t intimidate yourself. As long as you write something, you’re still writing, and what you write in a journal may become useful later.
    • That intimidation goes for writing materials too: put back the beautiful but ridiculously expensive leather-bound journal and grab a biro and flimsy reporter-style spiral-bound notebook instead. The pressure of writing only lyrical, poetic prose in that fancy journal probably means you won’t write at all (which my shelf of beautiful but empty notebooks can attest to).
    • And on the topic of notebooks, Natalie’s personal recommendation is to fill one a month. This is a quantity over quality exercise—fill those pages, even if it’s rubbish.
    • Let experiences ‘compost’ (p.15): you might get more from something if you let it sit a while. Even shit can turn into flowers if you use it right.
    • Conversely, take an ‘In the moment’, stream-of-consciousness approach and write mindfully of your present surroundings to practice detail.
    • Apply pressure: ten-minute writing chunks, or topic limitations. The rule when doing this is that anything goes. Don’t re-read, don’t correct, and certainly don’t edit. 
    • If there’s something on your mind, write about it (aka, vent). And then write about what you intended to after.
    • Write with a friend. I’m very lucky to have a lot of super talented writers around me, and this can mean pitching up at a coffee shop together to do a few hours work or even collaborating on projects. Discussing ideas with another person is one of my favourite ways to spark new ideas.
    • Use simple language. You don’t need to complicate things by trying to be Shakespeare: say what you want to say, and worry about editing later.
    • Create a list of writing prompts: it can be anything that inspires you, from a quirky line someone says to a random memory. My favourites from Natalie’s list (p.21-24) were beginning with “I remember”, and taking the first lines of poems/songs and using it as a jumping off point.

So, for the last few months, I have been writing, which means I’ll hopefully be updating this blog at more regular intervals than I have been. My writing habit is far from perfect, but it’s improving—and these have been a few of the exercises that have helped me along the way. 

What are your favourite writing tricks and tips? Share them in the comments!

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