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The Writing Life - The value of an empty mind

May 2, 2014
By Michael Tidemann - Staff Writer , Estherville News

This is a monthly column on the writing process. Topics will range from books and authors to writing conferences and workshops to the writing process itself.

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. Shambhala Publications, Inc. ISBN 1-59030-261-3

So whenever you sit down to write, you should have an outline in front of you, point by point, from A to Z.


Well, maybe not.

At least not according to Natalie Goldberg who offers a lot of good advice in her book, Writing Down the Bones, which incorporates zen Buddhism in the writing process.

For Goldberg, writing is a form of meditation. And as we should approach any meditative process with an open mind, so it is for writing.

"In a sense, that beginner's mind is what we must come back to every time we sit down and write," says Goldberg. "There is no security, no assurance that because we wrote something good two months ago, we will do it again. Actually, every time we begin, we wonder how we ever did it before. Each time is a journey with no maps."

The purpose of this, according to Goldberg, is to always keep ourselves open to the creative process - wherever and whenever it comes to us. That really puts the old adage of outlining your writing on the back burner - if not out the back door.

"Don't 'make' your mind do anything. Simply step out of the way and record your thoughts as they roll through you," says Goldberg.

This approach is actually quite consistent with character-driven versus plot-driven stories. In the plot-driven story, the writing follows some preconceived concept. The danger to this approach, of course, is predictability.

When we use the character-driven approach, we create characters who are naturally going to come into conflict with each other - or a character with deep inner conflict. Once we create those characters, we as writers simply get out of their way and let them write the story - because they know more about it than we do.

Goldberg's approach is also consistent with 'showing versus telling' - like trying to describe terror without using the word terror.

Says Goldberg, "The writer takes the reader's hand and guides him through the valley of sorrow and joy without ever having to mention those words."

Goldberg is also a good one for stressing finding great things in small things.

"Go so deep into something that you understand its interpenetration with all things. Then automatically the detail is imbued with the cosmic; they are interchangeable."

A great example of this would be in Graham Greene's novel The Human Factor in which a British double agent defects to the Soviets. The Russians renege on a promise to bring his family to Moscow since it would compromise his cover. Ironically, the reader feels the protagonist's pain most when he is unable to any longer buy Kit Kat candy bars.

Goldberg also offers some tips reminiscent of the book Steal Like an Artist when she encourages writers to take whatever tips they can from other writers.

"The parts of another's writing that are natural to you become you, and you will use some of those moves when you write," says Goldberg.

And if you're trying to describe something, Goldberg tells us to become the thing.

"Forget yourself. Disappear into everything you look at - a street, a glass of water, a cornfield."

Goldberg also emphasizes the importance of immediacy.

"If you begin too exactly, you will stay precise but never hit the exact mark that makes the words vibrate with the truth that goes through the present, past, and future."

Goldberg also urges us to cut, cut, cut, until all the fat is gone and all that's left is bone and muscle.

"Poetry is the carrier of life, the vessel of vitality. Each line should be alive. Keep those parts of a piece; get rid of the rest."

She also adheres to the theory that a writer should be able to write anywhere.

"Wherever you are is the place to be writing from. Don't use the excuse that you are not in the right place. There is no perfect place. Just pick up your pen, record the details of where you are. Waiting will show you that you are in the perfect place right now. Land is the earth. Earth is your life, moment by moment."

Whether you're suffering from writer's block, needing ideas to jumpstart your writing or just needing inspiration in general, this is a book that can help.



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