Books for Writers: Writing Down the Bones

Whenever I face a writing roadblock, I turn to my bookshelf for help. Most recently, in an attempt to overcome my self-doubt, I went to my bookshelf and pulled down Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. There are a lot of things I can share about this book, but I will focus on the things that were most helpful for me.

Goldberg emphasizes writing as a practice, one that we should live out daily. She attunes daily writing to a runner who warms up before a race: just as a runner must stretch and warm the muscles, the writer must stretch and warm up the voice. It’s part of what Goldberg calls “composting.”

“Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat and very fertile soil. Out of this fertile soil bloom our poems and stories.”

Writing down our observations, thoughts and memories is what leads us to our poems, our short stories, our settings, our characters. Not all of what we write will be good or usable but that’s why it is practice. Write about everything, write whatever moves you to put pen to paper. This is one bit of inspiration I am trying to incorporate into my writing life.

Another great takeaway from Writing Down the Bones is the importance of detail. Details breathe life into our stories. Goldberg says to be specific: “Give things the dignity of their names.” Details bring us into the present, into the moment. Plus, she adds, “Tossing in the color of the sky at the right moment lets the piece breathe a little more.” She goes on to say, “It is important to say the names of who we are, the places we have lived, and to write the details of our lives. …We have lived; our moments are important. This is what it is to be a writer: to be the carrier of details that make up history, to care about the orange booths in the coffee shop in Owatonna.”
The short chapters in Writing Down the Bones can be read sequentially or not, as they all stand alone so that you can open to any chapter and read it if you wish.

If you are feeling stuck, unsure of yourself or uninspired, open to any chapter that is of interest to you. You are sure to find inspiration within this book’s pages.

 

My all-time favorite book on writing is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. You can read my post about it here.

Writers, what books have been most helpful to you?

Books for Writers: Writer with a Day Job

As writers, many of us dream of the day we’ll be able to give up our day jobs to write full time. We struggle to find time to write between, work and/or school, family, and the other obligations that fill our time. We often find (or make) excuses. How do we find the time to write when writing isn’t our full-time job?

I first read Writer with a Day Job by Aine Greaney in preparation for NaNoWriMo. I was grabbed by the title and subtitle: “Inspiration & Exercises to Help You Craft a Writing Life Alongside Your Career.”

This book lists challenges (read: excuses) writers with day jobs face and ways to overcome them. It offers suggestions to find time to write during your day. For some writers, that might mean waking an up an hour early to write before the workday starts, during your lunch hour, or at the end of the day.

Aine believes the two attributes which distinguish real writers from the wannabe are desire and discipline. It’s not enough to want to write, we must have the discipline to sit down and write day after day. That means we must find the time in our daily lives to grab that writing time whenever we can. Write something, anything in the time you have. Jot notes about your characters, map our your next scene. Make observations about the people/places/things around you.

I love her suggestion to “visit your writing.” On the days we can’t write, she suggests mentally logging out of other tasks to simply think about our writing. The best time for me to do this is on my drive home from my day job. I can think about my next scene, about my characters or work out  a plot problem in those few moments of solitude.

The greatest takeaway from this book for me is that having the discipline to write regularly, doesn’t mean writing dozens of pages every day. It means making the most of our day to find time for creative expression, and to have a productive writing life no matter how busy we may be.

Many of us will never be able to quit our jobs and write full time. Let’s face it, with exception of a very luck few, publishing a book will not allow you to quit your day job. But changing your attitude and the way you approach those extra few minutes of your day can make all the difference to finding balance between work and writing.

Are you a writer with a day job? How do you make the time in your day to write?

Check out my For Writers page to find other great books for writers and resources I have found helpful .

An Ode to Shitty First Drafts

We’ve all heard the quote from Hemingway: “The first draft of anything is shit.”

What an empowering thing for any writer. How liberating to be reminded that when we sit down to write, our first draft is probably going to be awful, but that’s okay. It’s part of the process.

When I sat down a few weeks ago to write an assignment for a local newspaper, I was reminded of this quote. The blank document stared at me and every time I started to write a sentence, I deleted it or worse – stopped myself before I even put any words on the page. I was too focused on wanting it to sound good.

Finally, I said to myself (out loud) “Okay, this is going to be shitty, but I’m just going to do it.” It got a lot easier after that.

Once I gave myself permission to write badly, I was able to get out of my own way and just write. I simply had to remind myself that what I was writing didn’t have to be perfect. I had to tell myself that no one was going to see this draft but me, and that I just had to get the words down and I could figure out the order of them later.

Fortunately, writers have a lot to say about first drafts. Natalie Goldberg says, “If every time you sat down to write, you expected something great, writing would always be a great disappointment. Plus, that expectation would also keep you from writing.”

I can’t talk about first drafts without talking about Anne Lamott. She wrote a very helpful, very reassuring chapter on Shitty First Drafts in her book, Bird by Bird, my favorite book on writing which I wrote about here.

She reminds us that all writers write bad first drafts. She says, “All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” No one sits down to write and gets it right effortlessly on the first try. She says the only way she can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts. I find the same is true for me, too.

Lamott insists that the first draft is where you let it all pour out onto the page, no matter how childish or silly or terrible it may seem. She says to just get it all down on paper because, “There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go – but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.”

The key is to not let that terribly written first draft stop you from going back to it and writing a second, and a third.

For me, the first draft is for figuring out what the story is really about, what story I’m really trying to tell. It’s about getting the ideas down, discovering who our characters are, their motives, and their flaws. Who are they and what do they have to say? Anne Lamott says, “Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can’t – and, in fact, you’re not supposed to – know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing.”

I find that sometimes the story that comes out on paper is very different than the story I imagined I was sitting down to write. It’s easy to dream up an idea, to have a plot in mind, but it doesn’t always work out the way we imagine it would.

Jack Dann says, “For me, writing is exploration; and most of the time, I’m surprised where the journey.” So while first drafts can be a struggle, they can be surprising.

Check on my For Writers page to find other great books for writers and resources I have found helpful .

Books for Writers: Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

The first book on writing I ever owned is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I received it as a Christmas gift from my aunt when I was in high school and dreaming of becoming a bestselling novelist. I read the title and thought, “Why is she giving me a book about birds??” But when I read the full title I noticed it said: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

It’s a book I didn’t fully appreciate for a long time until I finally sat down and really read it. I have since re-read it many times and often pick it up to reference particularly helpful passages. I find that I discover something new each time I read it. Now, my copy of Bird by Bird is well worn. It has so many markings and underlined passages I couldn’t even begin to share them all.

Lamott starts by reminding us that, “Good writing is about telling the truth.” She says, “The good news is that some days it feels like you just have to keep getting out of your own way so that whatever it is that wants to be written can use you to write it.”

Lamott offers this bit of advice about getting started:  write about your childhood. One of the first times I read this book, I took Lamott’s advice and I recently came across those writings I had written years ago, reflections about my turbulent years in junior high, a recounting of my awful first kiss. I was grateful to find these pieces, grateful that I had recorded these parts of my life that I’d much rather forget because let’s face it, it makes great material!

Lamott writes about the writing life, and issues like writer’s block, and perfectionism. She offers ways to silence your inner critic (see the chapter on Radio Station KFKD.) She writes frankly and honestly about getting published (and the myth of publication) about which she says, “…if what you have in mind is fame and fortune, publication is going to drive you crazy. If you’re lucky, you will get a few reviews, some good, some bad, some indifferent.” She reminds us the real payoff is the writing itself.

She offers advice, like writing short assignments, carrying around index cards, and one of my favorite bits of writing advice, shitty first drafts (More on that in a future post!)

She writes about character, – it takes time for you to know them –  plot, – Plot grows out of character – and dialogue, – good dialogue gives us the sense that we are eavesdropping.

So much of that advice, so much of what I have learned about writing the hard way, is all written here in this book.

Anne Lamott is funny and honest, sharing her own triumphs, tribulations and humiliations. Reading about her experiences reminds me that I’m not alone in those moments when I sit at my computer staring at the cursor blinking back at me, feeling as though I should just give up on writing altogether. Her stories have stayed with me, and have offered solace and humor in my own writing tribulations.

If you are a writer this book is an absolute must-have.