Book Roundup: Writing Books

It’s no secret that I love reading and writing, so why not combine the two together? I thought I’d take a few moments to share a little bit about two very different writing books I, well, devoured. I won’t use my usual format – first lines of writing books tend to be rather bland, ironically – but will keep it easy: a few favorite quotes that I underlined as I read (What? They are books I own.)

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Golderg

I must be honest, I didn’t just read this one for the first time, but read it again over the winter, when I wanted to write but could not focus on it for the life of me. It’s written as a series of essays, some are direct commandments/lessons, others are illustrative stories. Her laid-back attitude is present, throughout, never judging you too harshly.

  • “Through practice you actually do get better. You learn to trust your deep self more and not give in to your voice that wants to avoid writing.”
  • “Often I look around the room as my students as they write and can tell which ones are really on and present at a given time in their writing. They are more intensely involved and their bodies are hanging loose.”
  • “You might have to be willing to write junk for five years, because we have accumulated it over many more than that and have been gladly avoiding it in ourselves.”
  • “(Making a list) makes you start noticing material for writing in your daily life, and your writing comes out of a relationship withy our life and its texture.”
  • “You can make up all kinds of friendly tricks. Just don’t get caught in the endless cycle of guilt, avoidance, and pressure. When it is your time to write, write.”
  • “Our tasks is to say a holy yes to the real things of our life as they exist – the real truth of who we are…”
  • “Be specific. Don’t say ‘fruit.’ Tell what kind of fruit- ‘It is a pomegranate.’ Give things the dignity of their names.”
  • “Make a list of the stories you’ve told over and over. That’s a lot of writing to be done.”
  • “Sometimes when you think you are done, it is just the edge of the beginning. Probably that’s why we decide we’re done. It’s getting too scary.”
  • “If you find you are having trouble writing and nothing seems real, just write about food….Where did you eat it, who were you with, what season was it in?”
  • “After you have filled a whole notebook in writing practice (perhaps it took you a month), sit down and reread the entire notebook as though it weren’t yours.

On Writing by Stephen King

I must admit I’ve never been the biggest fan of his novels, but I’ve always admired his ability to create horror out of little details in an overall vague environment. Misery? Yeah, saw the movie in tenth grade and it still haunts me. Matt bought me a copy of his writing book for my birthday last year and it soon became my before-bed reading material, pen in hand. He’s very honest that he has no idea about how to write well, but that his good friend, who happens to be Amy Tan, convinced him to write a book about it, anyway.

  • “We are writers, and we never ask one another where we get our ideas; we know we don’t know.”
  • “Stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginately, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all  you’re managing to do is shovel shit from a sitting position”
  • “You must not come lightly to the blank page.”
  • “Build up your own toolbox then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you. Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work.”
    • Related: “Put your vocabulary on the top shelf of the toolbox, and don’t make any conscious effort to improve it. One of the really bad things you can do to your writing it to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pent in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed.”
  • “Paragraphs are almost as importance for how they look as for what they say; they are maps of intent….When composing it’s best not to think too much about where paragraphs begin and end; the trick is to let nature take its course. If you don’t like it later on, fix it then.”
  • “While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writing, and while it is equally impossible to make a great write out of a good writer, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.”
  • “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all else: read a lot and write a lot.”
    • “Every book you pick up has it’s own lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to reach than the good ones.”
    • “I suggest a thousand words a day, and because I’m feeling magnanimous, I’ll also suggest that you can take one day a week off, at least to begin with.”
  • “Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex, and work.”
  • “Know what to describe and what can be left alone while you get on with your main job, which is telling the story…good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else.”
  • “The first draft – the All-Story Draft – should be written with no help (or interference) from anyone else.”
  • “All novels are really letters aimed at one person.”

Tell Me

What books on your craft, be it writing or something else entirely, inspire or teach you?

More Natalie Says…

Whenever I feel like I need to write but can’t come up with something to actually write about or need general inspiration, I turn to Natalie Goldberg and either my Kindle or paperback copy of Writing Down the Bones. I turn to a random chapter and start reading until I get inspired. She’s full of advice about how to write, what to write about, but there’s also something about her words themselves, how she describes things that pulls me in. It wants me to be like her, to write more but also to write in such a way that I have most accurately captured whatever it is I want to say.

With the month almost half over, I’m sure I’m not the only NaBloPoMo-er looking for things to write about. And, of course, Natalie has plenty of ideas. So, let’s see what Natalie says.

  1. Talk about the quality of the light coming in through your window.
  2. Begin with “I remember.” Write lots of small memories. If you fall into one large memory, write that.
  3. Take something you feel strongly about, whether it is positive or negative, and write about it as though you love it. Go as far as you can, writing as though you love it, then flip over and write about the same thing as though you hate it. Then write about it perfectly neutral.
  4. Choose a color – for instance, pink – and take a fifteen-minute walk. On your walk notice whenever there is pink. Come back to you notebook and write for fifteen minutes.
  5. Write in different places – for example, in a laundry mat, and pic up on the rhythm of the washing machines. Write at bus stops, in cafes, write about what is going on around you.
  6. Give me your morning. Breakfast, waking up, walking to the bus stop. Be as specific as possible. Slow down in your mind and go over the details of your morning.
  7. Visualize a place that you really love, be there, see the details. Now write about it. What colors are thee, sounds, smells?
  8. Write about “leaving.” Approach it any way you want. Write about your divorce, leaving the house this morning, or a friend dying.
  9. What is your first memory?
  10. Who are the people you have loved?
  11. Write about the streets of your city.
  12. Describe a grandparent.
  13. Write about:
    • swimming
    • the stars
    • the most frightened you’ve ever been
    • green places
    • how you learned about sex
    • your first sexual experience
    • the closest you ever felt to God or nature
    • reading and books that changed your life
    • physical endurance
    • a teacher you had
  14. Take a poetry book. Open to any page, grab a line, write it down, and continue from there. If you begin with a great line, it helps because you start write off from a lofty place.
  15. What kind of animal are you? Do you think you are really a cow, chipmunk, fox, horse underneath?
  16. Make a list of your obsessions. Now you have a list of things to write about.
  17. Make a list of the stories you tell over and over – write those stories.

Writing Practice

When writers are asked their one tip for writing better, they often say the same thing: write. Do it often. (The folks at WordPress talked about it on Day 3 of Writing 101).

Natalie Goldberg, in Writing Down the Bones, talks specifically about writing practice. She talks about being willing to “write the worst junk in the world” to, eventually, get to that good stuff that someone else may eventually want to read.Like others, she points out that no one thinks it’s strange that football teams or classical musicians practice, yet you never hear about writing practice (unless, you know, you read a lot of books about writing).
I’m not one to write in books, especially ones I read over and over again, but a single sentence (in the “Artistic Stability” chapter is underlined, twice:

You might have to be willing to write junk for five years, because we have accumulated it over many more than that and have been gladly avoiding it in ourselves.

She recommends, then, both a very structured and yet unstructured writing practice to get through that backlog of junk:

  • Fill a notebook a month. Do it by writing every day. (But don’t beat yourself up if you don’t accomplish this.)
  • Let yourself relax but remain focus on the writing. If you can, turn off the need to write along the lines, between the margins, with proper spelling and grammar. (This writing is for you, and only you, after all.)
  • Keep your hand moving – there’s no need to re-read what you just wrote
  • Don’t cross-out because that’s editing and a slippery slope
  • Consider starting your daily writing with “this moment” (I tend to use “at this moment” or “right now”)

Two to three times a year, I fully commit to a Natalie Goldberg-style writing practice. I get really excited, get myself a new notebook or two, find a good place to sit and write, buy a pen that feels good on the paper I’m using, and just go to town with my daily writing.Sometimes I even get into the zone Natalie talks about, where I don’t care (quite as much) about spelling and grammar and not sounding like a crazy person. I’m fully immersed in my writing.

Then, something happens and I stop. Maybe work gets stressful or it’s warmer out so I prioritize sitting with Matt on the porch for hours after dinner. Maybe we go away for the weekend and it’s enough to throw off my schedule. Maybe I just get bored.

And that’s okay, too, because I’m pretty sure even Natalie herself has had times where she’s walked away from writing for a little while. Because writing isn’t my whole life. I know I have to come back to it every now and then or I’ll go crazy with all of those thoughts pinging around in my brain. I can always come back to my writing practice.

Maybe one day I’ll even get through the backlog of junk that piles up.