Natalie Goldberg constructed Writing Down the Bones out of her failures and successes as a writer. Her writing is littered with Zen-like perceptions and common sense only acquired from years of diligent writing. Writing Down the Bones is a manual for the writer’s mind—a guide that instructs us on both how to approach writing in our diverse and different lives and how to approach our lives through our writing.
Goldberg divides the 170-page book into 66 concise chapters with groovy names like “Composting,” “Fighting Tofu,” and “Writing is not a McDonald’s Hamburger.” The non-traditional chapter titles reflect the non-traditional content of Goldberg’s writing philosophies. The book does not feature any chapters about proper syntax or comma usage.
In one chapter, “The Action of a Sentence,” Goldberg encourages writers to disregard normal sentence structure and verb use by listing random nouns in a column next to another column of random verbs. She tells writers to “try joining the nouns with the verbs to see what new combinations you can get…then finish sentences, casting verbs in the past tense if you need to.”
Exercises emphasizing different branches of literary construction, such as this one, appear throughout the book in slightly varying forms. Different from the sentence construction exercise featured in the chapter “The Action of the Sentence,” Goldberg suggests people try writing in different locations. In the second half of the book she returns to the idea of changing where a person writes about every five chapters. For most of the first half of the book Goldberg writes about actual writing, with chapters titled “Syntax,” “The Power of Detail,” “A List of Topics For Writing Practice,” and “Don’t Tell, but Show.”
,Goldberg talks about the effects of a restaurant atmosphere on the writer. In “The Writing Studio,” she reveals her philosophy for creating the perfect, peaceful writing space. In “Writing Anyplace,” she urges writers to try writing in all sorts of different places.
As evidenced by her obsession with the space in which she occupies as she writes, Goldberg focuses more on the act of writing instead of the writing itself. Many of the chapters focus on her trials and travails as a writer and as a person, but sometimes she forgets to connect these anecdotes to her own writing and, although always captivating, these asides seem random.
The great thing about the chapter structure of Writing Down the Bones is that the reader can read the chapters in any order and skip over ones that they feel are too random, instead focusing on those with topics more central to their own lives as writers. Goldberg does not tie the chapters together in any chronological order, nor does she organize them based on a topic.
Goldberg wrote about varying writing topics as they came to her, therefore readers should feel free to read the chapters however their curiosity inspires them.
Despite the random organization of the writing topics, Goldberg strings the book together with the mantra of “just write.” In her most prophetic, she tells the reader: “Take out another notebook, pick up another pen, and just write, just write, just write. In the middle of the world, make one positive step. In the center of chaos make one definitive act. Just write. Say yes stay alive, be awake. Just write. Just write. Just write.”
Simple diction and concise sentences, like those in the excerpt above, make Writing Down the Bones a fun and quick read. Goldberg often repeats important sentences, as seen by her repetition of the phrase “just write” seven times in a single paragraph. She focuses on the philosophical aspect of writing, answering questions like “why do we write?” and giving the reader general suggestions on how to approach their most confounding and troubling problems in their writing.
Thankfully, Goldberg approaches such broad and complex questions with simple, relatable wording and short sentences that make them understandable, without dumbing them down too much. When she talks about approaching intimidating topics such as personal insecurities and death, her Buddhist philosophy bubbles up and consumes her writing. In a chapter titled, “I Don’t Want to Die,” she asserts that, “[Some place in us should know the utter simplicity of saying what we feel—‘I don’t want to die’—at the moment of dying…out of an acceptance of the truth of who we are.”
Writing Down the Bones is a must-have for any writer who wants to improve their mental and physical approach to writing. It is wonderfully easy to flip to a chapter for advise on a certain aspect of writing. However, this is not a book for those who desire specific grammar and punctuation advice because Goldberg assumes that readers are already comfortable with these topics. Writers and anyone else who wants to learn how to master a skill should heed Goldberg’s advice and “just write,” or just keep doing whatever skill or thing they strive to master, every day, no matter what.