We took a family beach vacation last week — an especially appreciated respite after the long winter we’ve had.
In addition to a pile of unread magazines and a couple of novels, I brought a book that has been on my shelf for about twenty-five years now: Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. I bought it when I was living in New Mexico, and the fact that Goldberg lived there too made me think of her as a kindred spirit of sorts — albeit an older and wiser one. Back then, I understood the book as being about journaling and self-discovery which, as a twenty-year old taking a hastily planned year off from college, I was all for.
More recently, I have been thinking about what it means to have “a writing practice”, generally mulling the question and assuming that it involves writing more, more regularly, with greater focus and structure. The book — which I remembered little of — looked like one that might offer some fodder.
Goldberg’s notion of ‘writing practice’ is rooted in her spiritual practice as a buddhist, and the book is direct and accessible. The chapters are short — four pages at most — each one offering a nugget or two: give yourself a set amount of time to write and don’t. stop. writing; trust the process; no editting (physical or mental); give yourself a topic — any topic — and just go; the power is always in the act of writing; stay present and fluid; keep a running list of simple ideas and prompts…
When I excerpt her points this way, they seem obvious. But reading them in the context of her writing, and from where I am sitting, they feel important and relevant and true. Each day over the break I let myself read one or two chapters, then I picked a topic, put pen to paper and just wrote for 20 or 30 minutes: non-stop, no editing. I’ve kept at it since coming back home too. No masterpiece has emerged, nor any great, formed story ideas. But surprising little things have begun to happen — remarkable, small moments.
One day I selected the cat I grew up with, Rimsky, as my topic. Writing from that simple beginning, forgotten moments and images came out that I did not know were in me. I have a terrible, terrible memory, with very little on-demand recall: about book plots, movies plots and, worst, details of my own life. My friend Amy and I used to joke that if I ever had grandchildren, she would have to tell them the stories of my youth. I laugh about this, but the reality is also a source of frustration and sadness. The idea that a writing practice could create a sort of a tap or a way in felt pretty radical. And excting.
The chapter I read yesterday was called “Obsessions”. In it Goldberg talked about the power and persistence of our individual obsessions, and how they unavoidably emerge in our writing. Per Goldberg’s direction, I began a list of my own obsessions. For this morning’s ‘practice’, I chose an article I’d read in the paper a couple of days ago that had been clinging to me — about an old fisherwoman. I surprised myself, first, by writing from her point of view. And then with the realization that one of my obsessions — with learnings we’ve lost touch with as our relationship with the ebb and flow of natural cycles has grown more detached — had emerged as if on cue in the voice of a salty old lady from an imagined world, haranguing a bunch of younger women with tales of a life of bodily labor in the sea.
I am up to page 41 (of 170) now, and am finding myself wanting to only read the book in tiny, bite-sized chunks, in order to make it last longer. One of the novels I took on our trip was Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. This book, too, had been lurking on my bookshelf for many years (coincidentally first suggested to me by my New Mexico friend, Deirdre) and I have ended up reading Robinson’s remarkable prose in much the same way, savoring rather than devouring. With my crummy memory, maybe by the time I finish both I can start them over again and they will feel like brand new books. Which, in either case, would be a real gift.