Dem Bones

Nancy Flynn Apostrophe Blog Archive, Wisdom, Writing

The Apostrophe Blog

Musings on Writing and Life.

It’s been over twenty years since Natalie Goldberg urged us to “free the writer within” in what seemed, at the time, her groundbreaking (well, in some circles) book, Writing Down the Bones, first published in 1986. Yep, Reagan was still President.

During our recent Pacific Northwest heat wave—when the outside temperatures turned our normally temperate summer into a baby version of Death Valley or Phoenix, Arizona and going outside felt like walking into an open-air sauna—I hid in the sanctuary of my hermetically sealed bubble, a.k.a. air-conditioned house, and revisited what Ms. Goldberg had to say. I thought she might be especially relevant given that, these days, it often seems every person I meet has become some kind of writer, or at least has something he or she feels compelled to try and say via blog or Facebook or Twitter or a mobile phone text message (hopefully not while driving a car).

This time I took her advice from the introduction and skipped around the various sections, like a flat skimming stone. The chapter called “Composting” insists that our poems and stories bloom from the fertile garbage dumps of our minds and life experiences. Another one, “Fighting Tofu”—a phrase from Goldberg’s Zen teacher, Katagiri Roshi—somehow equates the dense, bland and often boring taste of the soybean curd with the way our egocentric minds fight us whenever we get serious about discipline and wanting to write. (Maybe you had to be there.) Need more? How about “Writing Is Not a McDonald’s Hamburger?” Or “Blue Lipstick and a Cigarette Hanging Out Your Mouth?” Really, you don’t know what you are missing! Her mantra? Keep your hand-with-writing-pen moving at all costs.

After this latest read, I have decided that Goldberg’s book is the perhaps peculiar marriage of Eastern la-la spirituality and twelve-steppish therapy-speak. I’m paraphrasing but here’s a random sampling of some of what she offers up:

There is no separation between writing, life, and the mind.
We are seeking purpose in our writing work as well as our daily lives.
We write to inform ourselves.
We are free to write junk, with no expectations.
We must trust in our own voices, and the process.
We are important, magnificent and the details of our lives are worth recording.

You get the picture.

With its perky exercises, its cheerful encouragement to write ever onward, and its can-do recipes for filling a notebook a month even if it’s all junk, Writing Down the Bones may be just what the doctor ordered to get you back into the rhythm and confidence of regular writing. For Natalie Goldberg, the “bones” means the essential awake speech of our minds. That is what we are trying to get at when we engage with writing as a kind of spiritual practice. But it’s physical, too—that moving hand again—as we work to capture the thoughts and ideas that are streaming through us 24/7.

Goldberg is also big on writing with a friend in a coffee shop or a restaurant; she’s gung-ho about story circles and doing four-hour sometimes even daylong group writing marathons. She’d love the shared space at our Writers’ Dojo. Throughout Writing Down the Bones, she dredges up anecdotes from her own life—as Zen student, as cook, as writing teacher—translating these personal experiences into some sort of received-wisdom nugget that can be spread like soft butter on all of our writerly souls. For me this time through, it seems that she’s obviously a very extroverted person trying her darnedest to never have to confront the solitary, solo, lonely act of doing the work of a writer, alone with her words.

The book—well at least the first edition I have—is humorously dated. I chuckled when Goldberg talked with awe about the way a computer does an automatic carriage return at the end of the line! Wow, we really are back in the veritable personal computer dark ages, 1986, two years after the first Macintosh was introduced. Times. Have. Changed.

So read this book if you want to feel free to scribble, if you want to a refresher course in how to keep the nasty-minded self-editor/internal censor from creeping into your first-draft work, maybe even if you want to have some kind of meditation practice that doesn’t involve sitting on a tiny black cushion getting cramped knees. Or if, like me, you find it’s good to be reminded every now and then that writing, indeed, “splits you open and softens your heart to the homely world.”

Because Natalie Goldberg is right—in so many ways, “writing is a whole lifetime and a lot of practice.” And, as we all know, practice makes perfect. And fills a lot of cheap, five-and-dime spiral-bound notebooks.

The public domain 1554 engraving above is “The Vision of Ezekiel; a group of corpses and skeletons emerging out of tombs, above them five winged putti holding a banderole” by Giorgio Ghisi.

About the title of this post:

Learned where else but on Wikipedia the following facts about my blog title:

“Dem Bones,” “Dry Bones” or “Dem Dry Bones” is a well-known traditional spiritual song, used allegedly to teach basic anatomy to children (although its description is not anatomically correct). The melody was written by James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938), an African-American author and songwriter. The lyrics are based on Ezekiel 37:1-14, where the prophet visits the Valley of Dry Bones and causes them to become alive by God’s command. The chorus of the song will be familiar to many—

   Toe bone connected to the foot bone
    Foot bone connected to the leg bone
    Leg bone connected to the knee bone…

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