Thursday, April 28, 2011

Book Review: Writing Down the Bones

Wow, three book reviews in one week?! Well, not really. The Selenium one was written a couple of months ago, but I definitely have two for this week. It’s been awhile since I’ve done a retro review, and I’m in the process of clearing the deck of some titles that I’ve been reading here and there over the past few months, so this seems as good a time as any for this one.

Merlin Mann started me on a series of books related specifically to writing. Three of his suggestions have made their way into my hands. I’ve already reviewed one of them (Stephen King’s “On Writing”) and the third title I’m hoping to have a review for early next month. This time, though, I’m reviewing a book that’s 25 years old and in some ways feels its age, and yet in others, feels timeless.

Natalie Goldberg’s book “Writing Down the Bones” was originally published in 1986. Some of the topics and the world view is steeped in that time, but the advice and the theme of the book is timeless. The purpose of the book is to get you, ostensibly the wannabe writer, to roll up your sleeves and get to it. There are multiple short chapters that encourage you to do exactly that.

“Writing Down the Bones” is not really a how to write book so much as it is a cheerleader’s guide to aspiring writers (or fill in the blank creative work, as this book can apply to many endeavors, not just to writing). Each chapter is a standalone exercise or inspiring section, meant to give you a tool, a tip or a method to use to get more inside of your technique. Natalie’s focus is informed a great deal by her study and influence in Zen Buddhism, which adds for an interesting level of insight (some of which can be maddening, but it certainly gets one to think about things in a different manner).

Many of the ideas described are exactly as the titles describes, they are ways to get you to think in a different way, to get a skeletal structure down so that you can hang the meat on the bones as the story/essay/poem develops. Methods include writing down ten nouns and then writing down ten verbs, without referencing the other list, then matching nouns and verbs in different ways, some of which might not make any sense at first. Taking a look at the tone of voice used when we write sentences, are we ambiguous or are we direct ((Natalie prefers being direct, for those interested).

What interests me is that this book has more of a cheer-leading and an encouragement feel than it does a mechanical aspect. This is good, as there are a number of books that cover the mechanics quite well. This fills a niche for the reader who is struggling with what to write about and wants to have someone encourage them to write just a bit today. Find a place, find your motivation, take a tour of your town, imaging you are seeing things for the first time, but write.

There are many interesting ideas to take from this book, and many of them feel like performing meditation on the act of writing (which, coming from a professed Buddhist, should come as little surprise). The steps are small; the ideas are easily consumed in a few minutes in most cases. Even if you do not sit down to physically write out the idea, the mental process of envisioning the practice offers new insights and suggestions.

Bottom Line:

For those looking for a book on structure, technique, style and syntax, this isn’t book for you (though it does delve in those areas in places, just not in great depth). If you would like to have a book that will encourage you and give ideas to branch and stretch in ways you weren’t sure you could, then this book is well suited to that task. Really, the bottom line is… just write. Do it often, do it actively, do it from your heart, and do it because you love it, but at some point, the books have to give way to the practical advice of “sit down and write something”. It’s good advice, and the short meditations give you an object lesson and an approach to chew on. If that style seems interesting, then “Writing Down the Bones” may be just the book to help you get into the groove to “just write” and give you enough motivation and ideas to make that a reality.

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Shambhala Library)

1 comment:

Markus Gärtner said...

I lost track of the multiple book reviews you put up, but I am sure that you will love Weinberg on Writing. If you haven't read it yet, do so now. :)

Keep up the good work.