Thoughts (Loosely) Based on Natalie Goldberg’s Creative Writing Primer Writing Down the Bones
There are two critical creative concepts that will help you be a more captivating speaker and writer.
To explain them, I’ll describe a few activities I do in my Creative Writing class, share a few inspirational and heartwarming stories, and utilize a couple of excerpts from Natalie Goldberg’s book Writing Down the Bones.”
I hope this will motivate you to be more artistic, to write and think more creatively, and to see the world through different lens.
You’re in for a treat: some very edifying and elevating content.
Although . . . you should never trust the first person narrator . . . especially on the internet.
If you’ve read any of my other posts, you might notice that I’m a bit suspect in this realm of the motivational and the inspirational.
As usual, you are going to have to be the judge.
Anyway, if you decide to trust me, I believe there are two ways of being that are fundamental to being a good storyteller and a good creative writer and communicator.
You need these two things at the start. Then, of course, there’s lots of technical stuff. Narrative structure and narrative voice and perspective and certain templates. Perhaps I’ll get into that stuff in another post (or another episode of my podcast). But before you tackle any of the technical stuff, if you want to be a more compelling writer, you need two principles running in the background of your brain, like the operating system of a computer.
To discuss these principles, I’ll refer to a couple of chapters from Natalie Goldberg’s classic creative writing primer, Writing down the Bones. This book has been in print since 1986 and it’s still popular today. It’s a great little book to get you inspired to write. It’s especially good for young people. I use both these chapters in my high school Creative Writing class.
Natalie Goldberg is a little bit cheesy, but maybe you have to be a little bit cheesy to be motivational. She’s a Zen practitioner, and she wants to free you from your monkey mind– the unsettled, anxious, howling animal in your subconscious that impedes your creativity. She wants you to access your raw first thoughts– she wants you to remove the editor, get rid of the filter, so that you get in tune with your senses and become present in the moment.
Writing Down the Bones is easy to digest. It’s 50 or 60 chapters, and each chapter is a page or two. They have catchy names like “Obsessions” and “Writing is not a McDonald’s Hamburger” and “Man Eats Car” and “We Are Not the Poem.”
You can browse around, pick any chapter, read it, and you’ll learn some technique, lesson, or idea. You’ll finish the chapter and then write something.
The first chapter I’d like to discuss is “Original Detail.”
I do this chapter on the first day of my creative writing class, and I tell my students:
“Step one: the opening attitude for being an artist. You need to be on a quest for original details. If you don’t think there are original details out there . . . if you think every book has been written, every movie has been filmed, every painting has been painted, if you don’t think there’s anything new under the sun, then there is no reason for you to take this class. There’s no reason for you to pursue any artistic endeavor. You have to believe there’s new and original and interesting stuff happening in the world, in YOUR world– in the world YOU inhabit– and that these details are going to have a creative effect on your brain and your artistic sensibility.”Professor G. Truck
This is how Natalie Goldberg begins the chapter.
“Though this is a short chapter, it is an important one: use original detail in your writing. Life is so rich, if you can write down the real details of the way things were and are, you hardly need anything else.”Natalie Goldberg
Then she talks about how the imagination is capable of “detail transplants,” so you don’t have to be rigid. Once you have this bank of original details, you can use them whenever and wherever you need. These details give your writing a good solid foundation from which you can build.
You need to turn this switch on in your brain that’s reminding you to collect details from the world. Writers eavesdrop, writers look over people’s shoulders, writers are nosy and listen to gossip and ask people questions. Writers pay attention to nature and technology and conversation and everything else. You’ve got to be open to all this stimulus, and you’ve got to have a method to record and remember it.
Natalie Goldberg has some advice at the end of this chapter.
“Be awake to the details around you, but don’t be self conscious.”
She uses the example of a wedding. She explain that you can’t be like this:
“Okay, I’m at a wedding. The bride has on blue. The groom is wearing a red carnation. They’re serving chopped liver on doilies.”
Instead, she reminds us to:
“Relax, enjoy the wedding, be present with an open heart. You will naturally take in your environment, and later, sitting at your desk, you will be able to recall just how it was dancing with the bride’s redheaded mother, seeing the bit of red lipstick smeared on her front tooth when she smiled, and smelling her perfume mixed with perspiration.”
Cheesy? Sure. BUT it’s a great reminder that to be an artist, you’ve got to be two different people at the same time.
First of all, you’ve got to be a normal person, present at the wedding, enjoying yourself, making conversation . . . being a regular human.
Second, you’ve got to be an artist– a seeker of original detail– registering all this stuff for later use when you write.
I used to do this experiment in my creative writing classes to get them motivated to go on this quest for original detail– to be two different people.
I don’t do this experiment in the same way any longer for a couple of reasons that I will explain soon enough.
The kids come into my room on the first day of class, I quickly take attendance, and then we skim the Goldberg chapter on “Original Detail.”
Then I hand each student an index card. On this index card is a title. Every student gets a different title. The titles are from this list I made– here’s a link to it.
The list contains movie titles, poem titles, lines from books, etc.
Eighty titles in all.
Advice to a Girl . . . A Life Lesson . . . Where the Wild Things Are . . . The Age of Innocence . . . The Big Sleep . . . Of Mice and Men . . . etcetera.
Each student gets an index card with a unique title on it.
I let kids trade with each other, or select a new one if they hate the one they received.
This particular incident happened a little over a decade ago.
Back then, Creative Writing class was always in the middle of the day. There was always a lunch period happening at the same time as class. And I work in a giant high school, so there were at least 600 people eating lunch each lunch period.
We read the chapter, I handed out the index cards, and I said, “Ok, you’ve got fifteen minutes. I’m going to walk you down to the lunch room and set you free. Wander around for fifteen minutes and collect original details that fit your title. Then come back to class and you’re going to put your title at the top of a page and then you’re going to write something inspired by your title and your quest for original detail in the lunchroom.”
This was a fun and wacky and exciting way to start class and the kids loved it. They were in class for fifteen minutes and then we went on a field trip.
So I was doing my thing, handing out the index cards, and this kid walked in late.
I did my normal grouchy first day of class teacher thing and, without even looking up, said, “Okay, now you know where the class is, don’t be late again.”
The kid walked behind me and then headed to the back row and found a seat. I finished handing out the index cards, swapped a few with kids who were unhappy with their titles, and told them the deal. Time to go to the cafeteria, fifteen minutes, etcetera . . .
They were all very excited and rushed out of the room with their pens and index cards.
And then the kid who came in late got up, and I noticed he had a brace on his wrist.
I said, “Did you hurt yourself in gym class or something? Is that why you were late?”
I noticed he had a brace on his other wrist. And he had elaborate metal braces on his legs.
I saw the whole picture.
He was disabled.
He looked at me like I was an idiot and said:
“Mister, I didn’t hurt myself in gym class. I was born this way.”
I was like Holy shit, how did I not notice this?
I was so wound up with the first day of class stuff– handing out the photocopy of the Goldberg chapter, handing out index cards with titles, that I didn’t see the braces on his arms and legs.
So we took this long, slow walk to the cafeteria.
There was some awkward chit-chat, but mainly I was thinking about what a terrible human being I was and how I had to start paying attention to things. That was my job! Pay attention to the children!
The next day I got a note in my mailbox that explained that this student could be up to ten minutes late to class. Because his legs didn’t work properly.
Perhaps the worst part of this story: because I was such a jerk on the first day, he was never late to my class again. Every time he arrived on time, I felt guilty.
So that’s one of the three reasons I don’t do this “original detail” experiment the same way anymore. You never know what kind of students are going to walk into your room on the first day of class and if a field trip will run smoothly.
The second reason is logistical. The way the schedule works now, Creative Writing class is never during a lunch period.
But the main reason I don’t do the field trip on the first day of class is that the experiment didn’t quite work correctly. When random students walk into the cafeteria, holding index cards and pens, and they start awkwardly walking around, talking to people and jotting things down, it looks weird. They’re not supposed to be there, and they’re certainly not supposed to be looking around, listening, and jotting things down.
This behavior freaks people out.
An artist needs to be more surreptitious. An artist needs to be two people at once: a normal person and a person registering things for later use.
Try this with a friend: ask them a normal, innocuous mundane question, and then write down what they say.
“What do you think about this weird weather?”
Then take some notes.
It will make them anxious.
Now I do the experiment in a more sane way. You should try this too. I give them the title. And I give them the weekend to look around the world and find things that fit the title.
I tell them:
“Don’t carry the index card around with . . . you just remember this title, have it in the back of your head, and then go about your business and notice things and register them for later.”
I recently did this new version of the experiment with my students and one of the students had the title “We Wear the Mask.” It’s the title of a poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar. The student wrote a good piece inspired by the title, and so the phrase was rattling around in my head.
Later that day, I heard a student say to another teacher, “You’re fake. You just pretend to be nice.”
Because I had that title in the back of my brain– “We Wear the Mask”– when I heard the student say this, it triggered a whole cascade of thoughts:
Yes, we ARE fake . . . teachers DO pretend to be nice . . . because that’s our job. When you don’t turn in your assignment, even though we’ve reminded you fifty times, our job is not to curse and scream and call you lazy and good for nothing. Our job is to wear the mask. Every day we put the mask on. Otherwise we’d flip out and get fired. Our job is to pretend to be nice. We get paid to be patient and calm.
Having this title in the back of my head really helped me to frame things, to put my job in perspective.
You should try this yourself. Choose one of those titles from the list or just go online and look up a list of famous first lines of poems or great movie titles. And then, for a couple of days, have that title in the back of your head, and see what original details gravitate toward that title.
Then write something inspired by that title. I promise it will be interesting. You’ll see the world in a different way.Y
That is basic creative writing lesson number one, be alert for original details, and have some method of storing this stuff. Use your phone notes, use Google Docs, write things down in a little notebook or on scraps of paper . . . whatever.
I write one sentence a day on my blog. That’s my method. No matter what. It can be a long run-on sentence or a short simple observation. This habit forces me to notice something every day and sit down and record this thing. It makes me pay attention to the world (a habit I need to improve upon).
You have to write this stuff down every day because you need to offload the information. This frees your brain up to notice new things. Otherwise, you’ll fill up. If you write these details down, then you can forget about them and begin anew.
You can focus on the moment and your senses and all the interesting experiences and thoughts you’re having every single day.
The next big lesson sounds easy, but it’s fairly difficult to implement. You may have heard this before:
Show, don’t tell.
Here’s how Goldberg describes it in her chapter “Don’t Tell But Show.”
“There’s an old adage in writing: ‘don’t tell, but show.” What does this actually mean? It means don’t tell us about anger (or any of those big words like honesty, truth, hate, love, sorrow, life, justice, etcetera). Show us what made you angry. We will read it and feel angry. Don’t tell readers what to feel. Show them the situation, and that feeling will awaken in them.”Natalie Goldberg
Showing instead of telling is a tough habit to break. Especially when you’re speaking. When you’re writing, at least you have the chance to write something and then go back and revise and remove all the telling and replace it with showing.
If you listen, you’ll notice that many people have the habit of starting their stories with a “telling” topic sentence.
This was so funny.
This fourth-grade teacher on my team is so annoying
This person in front of me in line was so rude.
Honestly, my wife does this all the time. I used to point it out, but it just pissed her off.
I decided I would rather have a happy marriage than teach my wife to be a better storyteller.
But if you really think about this and try to notice how often you start a story with a telling topic sentence, you might be able to occasionally catch yourself and slowly break the habit. You will definitely notice OTHER people doing this, but like I said: point this out at your own risk, for some reason people get really annoyed when you point out that they are committing a grave creative error.
This is why it’s a grave error.
When someone starts a story: “You’re not going to believe this! I was driving and there was this dog in the road and I had to turn really quickly and . . .” it’s going to be a story of fast reactions to a wacky situation.
Now I’ll be polite and pretend to listen intently to this story of fast reactions to a wacky situation but since I know exactly where the story is going, I’m not fully paying attention. I’m not fully compelled. So what I’m doing is waiting my turn.
I’m not fully invested in your story because now I’m trying to think of something more unbelievable than the thing you’re describing. An even faster reaction to an even wackier situation.
You’re actually inviting people to be in competition with you when you preface your story with the theme– you’re almost goading your audience to be one-uppers. Being a one-upper is not good behavior, but you’re actually forcing this bad behavior on your audience because you’ve given away the theme of your story.
So when you say, this was unbelievable . . . this is what I’m thinking about:
I was waiting in line at the Wawa and I had this giant fancy coffee that I bought for my friend Stacey– it was 20 ounces and I had to fill it halfway with some frothy extreme caffeine Mocha Wake Up out of a big multi-multi-nozzled machine, then 1/3 cup of dark roast from the regular coffee urn, and then a dollop of Irish Creme coffee creamer.
So I made this complicated thing– I actually had notes on how to make it so I was very proud of it– and I’m standing in line, and there’s a lady in front of me guy behind me, and I’m holding the coffee, and I’m holding it by that little cardboard band that keeps you from burning your hand. And the little cardboard band that keeps you from burning your hand BROKE– it was damp and came apart– and the 20 oz. coffee slid through the broken band and fell and– without even thinking– I dropped my hand two feet down, lightning fast, fucking lightning fast– and I caught the cup– and did not spill a drop– I caught the cup with exactly the right amount of force so that it fell no farther but I didn’t crush it– it was a fucking miracle– and– Testify!– the guy behind me in line saw the whole thing and he was like, “That was unbelievable” and I said, “Yeah, that would have been a big mess”
So that’s what I’m thinking about when you say, “This was unbelievable.”
I’m thinking of my own incredible and unbelievable coffee grab. I’m barely focusing on your story.
Or you could have an even worse result than that.
If you tell them what to think, people might not buy your story at all. “
Today has been the worst day ever! I dropped my phone in the toilet and then my dog peed on the rug . . .”
Someone could hear this and be like: the worst day ever? There’s a war in the Ukraine. There was just a devastating earthquake in Syria. What are you, an idiot?
So it’s best not to tell people what to think. This is the disaster of trigger warnings . . . a trigger warning ruins a story because that’s all the audience is going to think about. They’re mulling over the warning instead of enjoying the story.
Goldberg continues explaining how to show, not tell:
“Writing is not psychology, we do not talk ‘about’ feelings. Instead, the writer feels and through her words awakens those feelings in the reader . . . when you are present at the birth of a child, you may find yourself weeping and singing. Describe what you see: the mother’s face, the rush of energy, when the baby finally enters the world after many attempts, the husband breathing with his wife, applying a wet washcloth to her forehead. The reader will understand without you ever having to discuss the nature of life.”Natalie Goldberg
A number of years ago, I was teaching this chapter to my new Creative Writing class, and I was reading the part about the birth of the child and the weeping and the singing and the husband breathing with his wife.
So I decided to model “showing not telling” and tell the story of the birth of my first child, my son Alex.
My wife and I drove to the hospital in the middle of the night because she was having major contractions, but then nothing happened for a long while. The next morning, I took a walk, I got a sandwich, and then my mother-in-law came by to visit.
The doctor was thinking about giving my wife some Pitocin to speed things along, but then she left to attend to someone else. My mother-in-law and I were chatting, my wife was lying there in the bed, prone, and then the monitor that was attached to my wife’s giant belly started beeping: beep beep beep . . .
A couple of nurses rushed in, and they started talking with one another.
Then the OB-GYN came in, the lady we had been meeting with, the lady who was going to deliver the baby and she said:
“I think the umbilical cord is wrapped around your son’s neck. He can’t breathe! You’re going to have to push this baby out in the next ten minutes, or we’re gonna have to do an emergency C-section!”
Then the nurses grabbed my wife’s knees and pushed them together– despite her giant belly– and they started slamming her knees all the way to the right, then all the way to the left. They were trying to make room in my wife’s womb, so Alex could breathe.
This was NOT the stuff we did in the pregnancy class. I wore that weighted belt that simulates a pregnant belly. I practiced breathing with my wife. No one told me that the nurses might start slamming her legs back and forth while yelling “PUSH! PUSH! Or we’re going to have to cut you open!”
So I was in the midst of telling this story to my class and I was thinking: I am doing a great job here, showing not telling. These kids are hanging on every word. They don’t know if this baby is going to live or die, they don’t know what’s going to happen! Because I didn’t start with a topic sentence or a trigger warning! I’m a great teacher! They say “if you can’t do, then teach”– but I’m doing it. I’m modeling what I teach!
I glanced at the class, enjoyed their anxious faces, and I noticed this girl in the back of class– a chubby girl– and she was kind of pale. She almost looked like she was going to faint.
So part of me thought: Yes, I’m doing such a good job telling this story that a girl is going to faint!
But the other part of me was like: I hope she’s okay, I hope she doesn’t faint . . . I don’t need that to happen on the second day of class.
Then I realized that she wasn’t chubby, she was very pregnant. And I was scaring the shit out of her with this terrible birth story.
Once again: how did I not notice this?
So I pulled out of the story completely. I wrapped it up in ten seconds.
My wife pushed the baby out, Alex was fine, yada yada yada . . . it actually wasn’t a big deal. The umbilical cord was wrapped four times around his neck, but they unwound it and he’s happy and healthy to this day.
No worries. Super-competent medical staff at St. Peter’s. No worries.
I saw the pregnant girl later that day in the cafeteria and apologized for frightening her. She was fine, and turned out to be a diligent student– even after she gave birth and became a mom.
While I didn’t intend to frighten a pregnant teenager, this anecdote does illustrate the power of starting a story without explaining where it’s going. You can really pull people in if they don’t know if it’s going to be a funny story or a sad story or a coincidental story.
If they don’t know the theme, they’re not busy thinking of a similar story.
They are listening to your story.
The other fascinating and powerful thing about letting people think on their own is that when they respond to your story, you might learn something about how people perceive you. It’s a little scary– to let other people decide how to interpret your story– but it’s a lot more unpredictable and compelling for everyone.
When you tell someone what to think, you’re influencing them. They might buy your take on the story, or you might anger them. They might take a contrary position.
You thought THAT was rude? That wasn’t rude!
And then you’re in an argument over something silly, instead of enjoying a narrative.
But when you just tell the story, and then hear what people have to say, this is an excellent way to reflect, hear advice, learn lessons, and hear other people’s perspectives and ideas.
Here’s a quick example.
When we practice “show don’t tell” in class, I have the kids describe an anecdote, a little something that happened to them, and I really stress that they have to remove all the telling words. Just describe the details.
Then they read the anecdote to a partner and the partner decides what the story is about.
I give the kids this list of thematic words so they have some ideas about what to say about their partner’s story.
Virtue, disappointment, spookiness, misunderstanding, vengeance, gullibility, honesty, embarrassment, fate, deception, morality, self-reflection, knowledge, melodrama, cunning, manipulation, ignorance, love, religion, mysticism, hope, humility, bravery, evil, fear, cowardice, decisiveness, competence, heroism, duty, honor, responsibility, happiness, contentment, humor, integrity, jealousy, talent, wisdom, friendship, insanity, anxiety, regret, forgiveness, reality, education, innocence, oblivious, mundane, stupidity, awkwardness, cleverness, triumph, initiation, disgust . . .
I always model this first. I tell a story, but I don’t preface it. Then the students look at the list and tell me what it’s about.
With this particular story, I thought it was about one thing, but my class taught me something. From their perspective, it was about something completely different.
Years ago, when my boys were little– maybe Ian was three and Alex was four– we went to this museum in Newark. It’s a multi-story museum, and there are different exhibits on each floor. Fire engines on the bottom floor, then galleries of paintings and other fine art, one floor has a mini-zoo, another has natural history displays.
It was the middle of winter and the museum was empty.
The three of us were wandering around, making our way to the mini-zoo. To get to the mini-zoo, we needed to wind through the maze of the art galleries to the elevator. My kids were enjoying all the corridors full of paintings and sculptures, and the museum guards– who were bored because the place was desolate– were fooling around with my kids, chasing them here and there . . . we’re sort of playing hide and seek.
Alex disappeared around a corner and I heard an alarm go off: BEEEEEEEEP.
I caught up to him and saw he had touched one of the paintings– that’s what set off the alarm.
I said, “Hey buddy, these paintings are for looking, not touching, okay?”
He understood, and the guards were laughing about it– since they had riled my kids up in the first place.
We made our way through the last gallery to the elevator, which would take us to the mini-zoo.
The elevator was situated in an open room, a lobby or sorts, and there was an art installation next to the elevator.
I wish I could show you a picture of it, but I couldn’t find one. I’ll just describe it as best I can.
There were six or seven old time boxy TVs, stacked on top of each other. TVs with wood cabinets. The tower was taller than me.
Next to the tower of TVs, there was a Buddha head rotating on a vertical metal pole. The head of the Buddha was going round and round and round, and there was a video camera on a tripod filming the rotating head.
So stack of TVs, rotating Buddha head, video camera.
On each TV, except the one at the top of the tower, the Buddha head was rotating round and round. But each TV was a different tint: red, yellow, purple, blue. Then the top TV was a loop of the Buddha head floating in the ocean.
And my question in my head was: is that video camera live? Is it taking live pictures of the Buddha head and transmitting them to these old TVs in all these weird psychedelic colors?
Obviously the Buddha head floating in the ocean was a pre-recorded loop. But was the video camera ACTUALLY filming the rotating Buddha head and sending it to those other TVs?
I decided to insert my hand between the Buddha head and the video camera, and see if my hand appeared on all the TV sets, colored variously on each set.
I leaned over the velvet crowd control rope and stuck my hand between the camera and the Buddha head and– lo and behold!– my hand appeared on all the TV sets!
And the alarm went off: BEEEEEP. The same sound as when my four-year old son touched the painting.
I pulled my hand away from the camera.
Then one of the guards walked into the elevator lobby to see why the alarm was going off.
I turned to my son Alex and said, “I told you buddy, you can’t touch the artwork.”
Then I grabbed his hand and we went over to the elevator and up to the mini-zoo.
So I told my students this story and then projected the big list of theme words on the whiteboard.
And I asked them what words fit the story.
I was thinking “triumph” and “cunning” and “decisiveness.”
This was one of the most magical moments in my life. Finally, I thought of the right thing to say at the right time. We all got away scot-free. The guard wasn’t mad at my son, because he was a cute little kid. I got to see my hairy knuckles, in various shades of the rainbow, on a bunch of TVs. A perfect moment.
But the students thought it was a story of “cowardice.” A story of “betrayal.” They thought it was absolutely shameful behavior to throw a little kid under the bus like that.
They saw it from a child’s perspective and I saw it from a parent’s perspective.
So that is lesson number two: stay connected to your senses, show don’t tell, don’t tell people how to feel, don’t tell people what to think. Describe the scene, use original details, and see what happens.
No one comes out before the movie begins and tells the audience: “This is a film about a guy who seems like an obnoxious drunk but that’s because he’s been betrayed by his family– he actually has a heart-of-gold but he just needs to meet the right woman . . . hang in there and you’ll see.”
In fact, most of the time in a compelling story, if there’s some obvious characterization at the, it’s usually deceptive.
If someone seems especially nice at the beginning of a movie, they probably have bodies buried in the basement.
Horror movies often start with a positive, adventurous tone– we’re going camping! We’re going to the beach! But then we hear something dissonant in the music and we know that this is a trick.
Think about the beginning of this post: I fooled you.
I promised some heartwarming stories and some inspirational writing lessons. And then I told you a story wherein I chastised a disabled student, another in which I frightened a pregnant teenager, and– finally– when I betrayed my pre-school aged son.
Despite my atrocious behavior, I hope you learned something. I hope you embrace these two lessons.
Number one: go out there and seek original detail. Or look deep into your brain. Write this stuff down for later use, offload it.
Number two: try your best to “show not tell.”
This isn’t always going to happen when you are speaking– but even if you catch yourself once in a while, you’ll be a more compelling storyteller.
The wonderful thing about writing is that you can revise. So take the time to remove the telling sentences from your narrative writing, the sentences that reveal the theme or tell people what to think.
Or be deceptive with those telling ideas.
It’s a little scary to let people interpret your life and your art and writing– instead of chaperoning them to the meaning that you prefer– but the results are more unpredictable, more interesting, and more creative.
Let people defy augury.