Tag Archives: Natalie Goldberg

Ego throws a mean left hook.

Ego is a funny thing.

Sometimes Ego is my driving force that gives me just enough courage to put my work out there. Other times, Ego whispers something that sends me spinning and knocks me out for a few days.

Several weeks ago, I had my eye on a couple of writing contests. I considered submitting a story I wrote, one that got some good feedback. As I wavered, Ego leaned into my ear and said –  all syrupy and sweet – “Oh, it’s good. Just do it.” She was so encouraging. I clicked “submit.”

Days later, I read a different story to a group of writers, my confidence still inflated. I received some good responses, but those weren’t the ones I heard. What I tuned into was one or two critiques that made me question my writing and myself, and then I focused on Ego’s quiet little whisper that followed.

“I’m not sure why you brought in that story anyway,” she said as we exited the studio. “You know they hated it. In fact, I’m fairly certain they don’t even like you.”

Knock out.

Man, she’s mean.

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg doesn’t call the problem Ego, but she writes about it just the same. She says “Do not be tossed away by your achievements or your fiascos.”

I have to take my successes for what they are: rewards for hard work done on a story. When I feel good about a story, I can relish the moment, even write a post about it, but I can’t play into a false belief that everything I write from that point forward will be perfect.

Then again, as Goldberg says, I can’t let my failures drain me either.

See beyond [doubt] to the vastness of life and the belief in time and practice. Write something else. Let go of your failures and sit down and write something great. Or write something terrible and feel great about it.

The problem with Ego is that, whether the words I hear are praise or a put-down, it’s always all about me. And, when I’m all into me, I’m not into writing. The best way to avoid that pitfall is to take Natalie Goldberg’s advice: Write something else. Through successes and failures, just write.

How do I do that?

1. I Keep it short. If I’m writing a short story or a first chapter (or if I’m knee-deep in a 50,000 word first draft), I don’t want to get stuck on perfecting one scene. I keep it short, get the first draft done, and then share it with writers who know what they’re doing. I can trust that a good roundtable session will help me filter through the parts that need more expansion and bump the sections that don’t belong.

2. I Pull out something old and rework it. I hate looking back, which doesn’t make for easy rewrites. But, after spending some time learning the craft, I might pull out an old story and apply some of those new techniques. That’s the best time to see how far I’ve come in my writing.

3. I Enjoy the process. This is especially important when I’m working through early drafts of a piece. Sometimes a whole page of writing reveals only one gem, but that gem may turn out to be the crux of my story. In a feedback session, I might hear the one suggestion that clears up the whole picture for me and brings that story into focus.

I love Jody Hedlund’s final comment in one of her recent posts, because it speaks to my struggle as well:

Perfection is unattainable. We need to guard against thinking we’re already close to perfect. And we need to guard against thinking we need to be perfect. Instead, we can begin to develop a quiet confidence in our writing abilities—seeing how far we’ve come, but knowing we still have room to grow.

So, whatever Ego mumbles in my ear today, I know what I have to do. Write.
Or, rewrite.
Whatever it takes.

Because, Ego isn’t going away.

*****

Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1986. Print.

[tweetmeme]

Writing with Tunnel Vision

For various reasons, I slowed down a bit with my NaNoWriMo novel this weekend. The decision to take a mini-break was easy, since this year’s NaNoWriMo experience has felt, in some ways, like I’m trudging through six inches of mud. I’m making progress, but it’s slow and sticky and I keep getting stuck.

I turned to Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones again and flipped through my December issue of The Writer magazine. In both the book and the magazine, I found crucial tips or guidelines – or maybe even rules of the trade – that I often miss when I write, whether it’s for NaNoWriMo or just in general.

In The Writer, I saw myself as I read Mary Miller’s “A Case for Plot.” She starts out by saying she never cared much for plot, because she “believed that in order for things to happen in [her] stories, they had to be happening in [her] life.” Like Mary Miller, I keep my life as level as I can, because I, too, am a lover of structure and routine. I prefer logical steps to accomplish any goal and minimal risks. But, when I write with my idiosyncrasies and philosophies in the forefront of my mind, I make it difficult to allow a character in a story to take action or risks.

For instance, in the first 10,000 words of my current NaNoWriMo draft, my main character observes way too much of life’s happenings from behind a window, either the kitchen window or the living room window. Maybe that’s her thing, her own idiosyncrasy. Or, maybe that’s more of me seeing the story through my limited vision.

Maybe my main character would rather step outside and press her nose up against the neighbors window, be more forthright in her snooping. I, myself, wouldn’t be quite so daring. I tend to hide behind the edge of a curtain or to open the slit of the blinds just a smidgen. But, that’s me. I’m only the writer. If I reconsider my main character in her own right, then maybe, as Mary Miller puts it, my main character will “step in and do something, or I’ll get to know her better and her lack of action will feel like a choice instead of just passivity.”

Natalie Goldberg’s chapters “Be Specific” and “Big Concentration,” complement Mary Miller’s article. First, Natalie Goldberg suggests we name things, like a specific flower or a tree, when we write. In naming an object with more specificity, “it takes us closer to the ground. It takes the blur out of our mind” (p. 70). Rather than show the reader a moment in a story from a general distance, naming things keeps the reader present, in the exact moment, and makes the experience more realistic. Second, Natalie Goldberg suggests we widen our concentration on a character and add environmental clues, like a sentence about the temperature or a background noise or even the color of the sky. In this way, we remind ourselves, and our readers, that “the universe moves with us, is at our back with everything we do” (p. 72). It all sounds simple, so simple that I forget to do it.

Each time I force my main character to stay behind the kitchen window (because that’s what I would do) and look straight across the yard to the neighbor’s kitchen window, I isolate her. I force the reader to decipher a story through tunnel vision, and I shortchange the experience. If, instead, I let my main character open up the front door, get hit by a brisk night air, sneak under the dark shadow of a large oak tree, and let goosebumps rise up on her arms, the reader has more to consider and is more vested in the story.  Are the goosebumps from the night chill? Or, are they in anticipation of what she might see once she climbs the front steps and presses her nose up against the cold, glass pane?

Tomorrow, I will have a little more time to spend on the story. By pushing my writer-self to the side and by widening my character’s perspective, I hope to travel easier along the plot line.

***

Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1986. Print.
Miller, Mary. “A Case for Plot.” The Writer Dec. 2009: 15-16. Print.

Gearing Up for a 30 Day Workout

nano_09_red_participant_100x100_1“[W]riting is physical,” Natalie Goldberg says in her book, Writing Down the Bones (p.50). I, along with many of my other NaNoWriMo participant colleagues (I think), would agree.

Last year at this time, I dove – head on – into writing. I’d been talking about writing all summer. I registered for a writing class that would take place just after the new year. And, in a rare move contradictory to my no-risk personality, I signed up for NaNoWriMo. Even more surprising, I wrote a somewhat lucid story that inched passed the 50,000 word count. Up until the moment the purple NaNo word meter hit the 50,000 mark and flashed “you’re a winner,” I authored only short, undeveloped stories that barely registered 1000 words.

This year, I signed up for NaNoWriMo by accident. Really. I logged on to my account to check up on an old message in my inbox. When a window full of legalese popped up and asked if I would accept, I thought, sure, I’ve been here before. Click.

Wait. Accept? Accept what? Oh, boy.

I tabbed over to my author info page. Sure enough, that little purple line was back down to zero. It stared me in the face, like a digital taunt, daring me to try again.

I’ve had to remind myself, as the days inch toward November 1st, that NaNoWriMo is another exercise in writing. Natalie Goldberg emphasizes the importance of exercise when she says “[t]he rule for writing practice of “keeping your hand moving,” not stopping, actually is a way to physically break through your mental resistances and cut through the concept that writing is just about ideas and thinking” (p.50). She, of course, means pen-to-paper. But, I believe, in translating her philosophy to hand-to-keyboard, NaNoWriMo offers a 30-day plan to whip my writer’s mind in shape: “cut through” my tendency to think too hard about a story, pound out 2000 words a day (on a good day), and see what becomes of the characters and the work.

NaNoWriMo is initiation by fire for those writers who want to come out of hiding. It’s a test of tolerance and discipline. And, it’s an intervention with your mind’s editor, a reason to send her away for the next 30 days. If writing 50,000 words of one story makes you want to take a nap, if you’d rather dream up your story than put it down on “paper,” remember writing is an art to be learned and practiced. No good story comes out perfect the first time around. I’ve heard it over and over, but my stubborn (sometimes egotistical) mind refuses to listen.

To combat that stubbornness, I’ll take on another 30-day challenge of late nights, fast typing, sweat, and a maybe a few tears. Oh, and fun. NaNoWriMo is supposed to be fun!

***

Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones (Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc, 1986), p. 50.

Bad Draft or Bad Writing Day?

The last time I sat down to work on my novel, the words read pale and lifeless. I’m only on chapter two. This can’t be a good sign.

I wrote a lot last week,on other pieces. My brain was too tired to rework any more stories. I decided I needed a break from writing, a chance to refuel. I dove into a book about writing instead: Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones.

I’ve read bits and pieces of her book before, but this time one passage struck me.

“If every time you sat down, you expected something great, writing would always be a great disappointment.”

My writing experience lies in short pieces: blog posts, articles under 1000 words, or short stories no more than five pages. In such a compact writing space, I easily devote time and energy to edit and re-edit a whole piece to the point of satisfaction, sometimes even pride.

Now I look at a novel and its end goal of 80,000 words or 100+ pages. Subconsciously, I expect myself to sit down and write a great second draft. When I couldn’t rework even one good chapter the other day, I did feel disappointed. And, discouraged.

Time is of the essence, I thought, this story is going to get old, and fast.

If I want to rush through a re-write just to get the story out, before it becomes a bore (before I lose my confidence), maybe the story should be shelved for a while. Perhaps even for good.

How do you know when the masterpiece you poured onto paper isn’t such a masterpiece after all? Sure, elements of the story show promise, but the story as a whole reads average, not great. And, how do you know the diffference between a weak premise and a bad writing day?

***

Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones (Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc, 1986), p. 11.