Search This Blog

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Free The Writer

By Kristy McCaffrey

While not everyone is set on writing the next great novel, we all want to tell our stories. A wonderful book to help get you started, or to reignite a passion that may have become stagnant, is Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg. First published in 1986 and rooted in Zen methodology, her advice is simple: trust in what you love, trust in your own mind, and everything else will follow.

“Writing is a path to meet ourselves and become intimate.”

Goldberg points out that people often write from a mentality of poverty, thinking they need a teacher to tell them what to do or how to do it. The opposite is generally true. We learn writing by doing it. And to write well one must read a lot, listen well and deeply, and write a lot.

We live in a society that rewards being busy, but that often isn’t fruitful or soul-fulfilling. Beware of monkey mind, says Goldberg, since it likes to create busyness that can keep us from our true heart. She believes that everyone has talent, but it’s obviously easier for some to tap into it than others. Human effort is necessary, so don’t shy away from doing the work. But it’s also more than just the work, it’s allowing and recognizing that the effort has awakened us. This lets a writer become aware and mindful, to shape the talent into something useful, something that resonates.

“Finally, one just has to shut up, sit down, and write. That is painful. Writing is so simple, basic, and austere.”

Develop a writing practice, a writing workout each day. A runner doesn’t improve without consistent running. The same is true for a writer. So, carve out this space, but know that it’s okay to write without a destination. Expectation can freeze the process. It also takes time to reflect on certain ideas, certain experiences, before they can be put down on paper. Goldberg refers to this as composting. These things can’t be rushed, so best to cultivate patience and acceptance. It can make the writing life less anxiety-provoking.

She offers techniques to stop fighting yourself (and the endless distractions that keep you from writing) such as: give yourself free time in the morning to do whatever, but at 10 a.m. you must sit down and write something; or you must fill at least one notebook a month, not with quality but quantity; or, as soon as you wake up, go directly to your desk and write (eating and teeth brushing can wait). Another technique is timed writing and first thoughts. This can remove the critic filter than often shoots down an idea before it can be fully crafted.

Need a writing prompt? Take five minutes to write down your deep dreams. And then? Don’t ignore what you wrote. Actually, it will likely be difficult to avoid your thoughts now that they’re laid out before you. Simply said, it will change your life.

This book can be read straight through, or sporadically when needed. I guarantee that at least one of Goldberg’s many suggestions and insights will spark something inside yourself and may just lead you to write down the bones.
* * * *

Kristy McCaffrey has been writing since she was very young, but it wasn’t until she was a stay-at-home mom that she considered becoming published. She’s the author of several historical western romances, all set in the American southwest. She lives in the Arizona desert with her husband, two chocolate labs, and whichever of their four teenage children happen to be in residence.

Connect with Kristy


  1. Kristy, I really needed to hear this today--I've been working on the last scene of Sidetracked in Silver City for two weeks. One scene! Two weeks! Gah.

    Oh, that inner critic. I wonder how many novels haven't been written because if it. I'd put my score at about a dozen. The interesting thing for me is that the faster I write (without thinking too much) the better I write. It's the hard-won slogging scenes that leave something to be desired. Also, the faster I write, the less editing is required. Sometimes you just have to let the wind blow your hair wherever it wants to, without restraint. Maybe I better do that.

    1. Jacquie,
      The inner critic is an insidious little thing. Sometimes the more experienced you get, the worse that voice is. I agree that when you can just sit and write, without expectation, you can often get pretty good stuff. But near the end of my latest book, I went soooo slow through some of the end scenes. It was outrageous! But there's nothing to be done except to keep moving forward, even if it's only an inch that day. I look forward to reading the new Honey Beaulieu, but only when it's ready!! No pressure LOL.

  2. Kristy, you are quoting a writer's bible for me. Great book. I give the Thursday improv writing group credit for getting my story ideas on paper.(timed writing, flow of consciousness) I sure works for me.Thank you! Doris

    1. Doris,
      It is a great book. I was so happy when I found it. Your writing group sounds wonderful and it no doubt helps to keep you accountable.

  3. Kristy,

    Students in my creative writing classes often struggled with the freedom of writing, because they were so ingrained with writing from a writing-specific mindset: research paper, science paper, history paper, etc. (just the facts,ma'am writing). The first time I turned a group of seniors loose to write during National Novel Writing Month they were deer-in-the-headlights paralyzed.

    Where am I going with this? The quote you shared...

    "Goldberg points out that people often write from a mentality of poverty, thinking they need a teacher to tell them what to do or how to do it. The opposite is generally true. We learn writing by doing it. And to write well one must read a lot, listen well and deeply, and write a lot."

    These seniors experienced a type of cognitive dissonance. because I didn't read their NaNoWriMo stories until after November 30th. I didn't give feedback along the way. I didn't edit. I didn't grade the work, either. They were out of their writing element. What they learned was they didn't need a teacher, they needed permission to create.

    That's what writing is all about for me: creating without boundaries. The tidying-up comes later.

    1. Kaye,
      Well said. If anything, the more you write, the more you realize that what you really need to do is write. It's great to take classes and hobnob with other writers, but at the end of the day, you must sit alone and write. Dull (and sometimes frightening LOL) but that's where the magic happens. Do you still teach creative writing? That's wonderful!

    2. My teaching days are in the past. I've been retired for three years.

      The solitary aspect of writing is simultaneously frightening and exhilarating for me.:-)

    3. Exhilarating and frightening -- an apt description.

  4. Years ago a friend of mine gave me Natalie Goldberg's book, Writing Down the Bones. If I had known what a difference it would have made for me and my writing I would have read it that very day. Since then I've read every book of hers I could get my hands on. I particularly like Wild Mind, Living the Writer's Life. At the end of each chapter she has a section titled "Try This..." in which she presents writing exercises that can really get creativity flowing.
    I'm so glad you presented her book, Kristy, because this book is a writer's gold mine. Just when I think I'm struggling all alone, well, I find that the rest of you are struggling, too. That's such a comfort. Thanks!

    1. I haven't read her other books. I'll have to check them out. Sometimes we all need a little support and books like these are hidden treasures. Thanks for stopping by, Sarah.