Reading ‘Writing Down the Bones’ Twenty Years Later

My God, I was an arrogant writer when I was younger. I knew my work was good, and I reacted to criticism the way flat-earthers respond to the inconvenient truth. I was hot stuff, they were wrong/moronic/picking on me, and the world would have to catch up with my genius sooner or later.

But I wasn’t arrogant enough not to learn my craft. I’ve always read compulsively, and can neck a tall book on the craft of writing in one sitting. I’ve always been devoted to being the best I could be, but that didn’t mean that I was realistic, and I wonder how far I ever really pushed myself into the uncomfortable space where the real magic happens. I loved books that taught me about character and plotting, finding inspiration, pacing, all the components of a good book, all the things I trusted to move me forward as a writer, all the safe spaces, but I was less sure about the ones that pushed me out of my comfort zone. One of which was the classic Writing the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.

If you haven’t read it, I suggest breaking out of quarantine and ramraiding a library. It will see you through. I promise.

It recently came back into my life when I was exploring approaches to teaching and writing more authentically, and as the Buddhists say, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

It is a beautiful rumination on what it’s like to be a writer, to trust what’s inside you and tell your story honestly and vividly, to communicate in full colour, and spill something of your essence on the page.

True happiness is realising that you have everything you will ever need, and when you know this, it frees you up to simply write the bones.

As a younger writer (and even as a not-so-younger writer) this wasn’t something that mattered to me as much as crafting a good story, entertaining and sometimes showing just how clever I was with nifty twists and turns that kept readers guessing. There is nothing wrong with any of that, per se, except I started to question why I was doing it. What’s the point in writing when there’s already so much book in the world? Why does any of this matter to me? Am I connected at all to anything I’ve ever written? Have I ever written a word of truth? I would turn up to my desk less and less when I couldn’t answer a single one of these questions.

Writing Down the Bones came back into my life at just the right time, and I will share with you the analogy that formed in my mind while I was reading it, as it encouraged me to spill my insides with daily free-writing sessions and let go, to tap into what was really inside of me. I realised that I had been approaching writing from the completely wrong angle.

A tree starts with a seed.

It doesn’t come into the world fully formed.

I had always brainstormed for ideas, found my tree and then worked on replicating it in book form in its fully finished state. I left room for just enough creativity to keep myself interested. I could colour the leaves as I went and sketch the intricate detail of the bark. A feral squirrel might occasionally jump out of it unannounced, but essentially, I knew what it looked like before I began, and I was never going to be too surprised by the outcome.

A seed.

That was what I needed.

A daily writing practice, not knowing what I was going to write and sitting back as the beautiful shoots emerged. Rejecting the idea of shape and form, of neatly packaged ideas, of creating something that fits neatly onto a bookshelf. Getting in touch with my authentic self to see what was there. Using my own obsessions, passions, preoccupations, loves, hates, hopes and dreams to create art, rather than writing with a market in mind that I might be able to capture if I crafted the right character, chose the perfect theme and tapped into an elusive zeitgeist.

As I write this, I realise that I am being too hard on my younger self. It was fear more than arrogance. Diving into the subconscious is terrifying, and the rewards aren’t guaranteed, which isn’t a great sell for a young writer hungry for success, fame and money, none of which matters to me anymore. I have let go of so many things that were once important. True happiness is realising that you have everything you will ever need, and when you know this, it frees you up to simply write the bones.

@hayleystories

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