My first year of my second stint of homeschooling, the year I was fourteen, I was given Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones for Christmas. I was also given a huge stack of Enviromints. If you aren’t versed on ’90’s health food store candy, Enviromints were squares of minty chocolate wrapped in gold foil. Each one came with a trading card about an endangered species, hence the name. My sister and I collected the animal cards, and made paper cranes from the foil. We ate the chocolate.
Anyhow, I remember lying on the floor of my room, reading that book and eating that chocolate in treasured solitude, the pleasure of the two things braiding in my mind so that even now, wanting to write about the book I start to think about the chocolate. There was this feeling of immense possibility. I had so many gold foils of chocolate. My time, I was realizing, was my own. And I could write anything.
This is how Writing Down the Bones goes. She is sitting in a cafe in Minneapolis. She is studying Zen in New Mexico. She is watching and being and doing and it gets into her writing, and she writes about it getting into her writing. The book is about writing practice and Zen practice and how life and writing feed each other. I’ve never been drawn to Zen, but this book was a living model for me of what it means to have a writing practice. To trust my mind. To put in the time. To follow crazy threads towards unknown meaning. Mostly, the book did three things for me: it gave me a place to start and prompts to play with, gave me a role model of someone dedicated to the practice of writing as a practice of life, and it encouraged me to let craziness into my writing.
I’ve seen over and over again with my students that permission to write crazy things is permission to write well. To write with their whole lives behind the pencil.
Like Natalie Goldberg, I wrote in spiral notebooks. I wrote unfinished stories, poems, free writes. I spent one day, I remember, writing about velvet macaroni. Whatever that is. At that point, the phrase meant something to me and that is what I cared about. Then I put all of those notebooks in a box and kept writing.
And I’m still writing, and the practice has all the pleasures of discovery and solitude, glints of the infinity inside the human mind, the strange things that well up and turn out to mean something. And I still eat chocolate when I’m writing.
To hear Becca’s ideas on ways to encourage eager writers, come to her talk in the Conference Room of the Redmond Library, Wednesday January 20th at 7 pm.