Now that I’ve put The Right to Write behind me – and am almost done with Bird By Bird – I thought it made sense to pick up another old favorite: Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. Goldberg begins her book by encouraging all writers – old and new – to start at the beginning.
That’s because, as Goldberg puts it, “Sometimes when you think you are done, it is just the edge of beginning. Probably that’s why we decide we’re done. It’s getting too scary. We are touching down onto something real. It is beyond the point when you think you are done that often something strong comes out.”
I know I definitely feel that way every time I start a new project, and even sometimes with an ongoing piece of work – like this blog. As Goldberg points out in her introduction, many times experienced writers are amazed to realize that what worked in the past will not necessarily lead to similar results in the future. In a sense, you have to relearn your technique every time. I know that sounds discouraging, but think of it as an opportunity – the only way to really know what you can do is by trying out new methods and trying on new perspectives.
Sometimes just one small tweak can land you in territory rich with inspiration and creative possibilities. Did you know that before she penned the bestseller The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins was primarily known for children’s literature? Ian Flemming, who introduced us all to 007, began as a children’s writer as well – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was one of his first books. EB White – author of Charlotte’s Web – turned around and churned out our favorite go-to style guide, The Elements of Style. Winnie the Pooh writer A.A. Milne, actually started out writing paperback potboilers and thrillers. And of course there’s Hemingway – who famously switched back and forth between fiction and journalism, and in the process changed the way we view “American” literature.
My early writing life focused on fiction – I wrote short stories and screenplays and always dreamed of one see one of my creations on a bookshelf. I loved the idea of identifying myself as a novelist. And while I’ve not given up that dream, right now I’m paying the bills and expanding my reach by working in nonfiction. Meanwhile, poetry and meandering descriptive prose is hitting my sweet spot, while plotting and characterization sit on the back burning; hopefully marinating and percolating into future greatness.
So how do you start at the beginning? Some tips from Goldberg include choosing a writing instrument – pen, typwriter, lap top etc – and a location. Take a moment to think about what appeals to your inner writer. Is it a Moleskine, ballpoint and a park bench? Maybe a legal pad, gel ink and a busy coffee shop. The beach and a Sharpie? The laptop in a comfy corner chair? Try out different combinations. See what works for you. It could be that different writing calls for different tools and backgrounds – I know that for me blogging works better at a desk, while poetry flows freely when I’m outside with one great pen and blank sheets of printer paper.
The trick is to accept that sometimes, in order to move forward, you must step back. Take a look at the big picture and remind yourself where you’re headed and why. Maybe you’re in need of a course correction. Maybe it’s time to pull out the map. Maybe you just need to turn off the highway and explore the back country roads. Let writing take you wherever you need (or want) to go.
“Anything we fully do is an alone journey.”
― Natalie Goldberg
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