I love writing the bones and powerful, crappy drafts
Have you ever heard of the book, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg?
To tell the truth, I hadn’t when I purchased my copy. I was on a week long vacation, and I’d read through all the books I’d planned on reading.
I’d chosen a wide selection of fiction — some magic, some mystery, and mostly the kind of books you read as you snarf down a few bags of popcorn. So I wanted something different. And I was somewhat obsessed in my search. I needed to be challenged. And finding a book that would challenge me to be a better person … or better at something … suddenly became a life or death situation.
I don’t know why I get this way. When I can’t think about anything else, have any meaningful conversation, can’t even sleep until I’ve scratched my obsessive itch. And so I looked through some leadership and management books. But nothing drew me in. I was so desperate I even considered a book on organizing and cleanliness. Which, right now, sound nightmare-ish.
But then I started searching through books on creativity.
I remember thinking to myself, “Hey man. You’ve read some fun stories. Maybe you need a book to help you write them. Because — HEY! — you love writing stories. But you’re terrible … because what have you actually written lately?”
And then it became clear. I wanted a book about living a writer’s life. The downloads on my Kindle started immediately. One after the other. From The Writing Life and Bird by Bird to Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t.
But I was immediately intrigued by Writing Down the Bones.
I have a confession to make … well, two, actually
Here’s my confession. And it may help you better understand the nature of Writing Down the Bones better. I’ve read the entire book, but not sequentially from start to finish. I read the first few chapters. Skipped a few. Went back. Reread. Read the ending. And like a collection of devotions or short inspiring vignettes, I’ve even just randomly chosen a page and started reading. So, yeah, it’s that kind of book. For me, at least.
And, here’s another confession — I’m a little hesitant to give all the details of the book. In fact, I won’t. Because there are too many. And because it’s the kind of book you have to wrestle with on your own. Any detail I give here has been steeped in my own context and presuppositions. Which is part of the beauty of it. It meets you where you are, and lets you apply it for yourself.
Suffice it to say, Writing Down the Bones is about writing every day. Which is something I know to be both a challenge and beneficial. But it’s not just about WHY you should write every day — it’s really about HOW you should you write.
Here’s a little tennis analogy
I played competitive tennis in high school. Well, I showed up, at least.
But before I started a series of high intensity drills at practice, I’d run a mile or so. After a slow trot, I gradually picked up the pace as my body warmed up. But I never got to the point where I really pushed myself. Just enough to break a little sweat, stretch out my muscles, and get my heart rate up.
Then I’d hit the court for a challenging workout where I pushed myself to the very limits. During my tennis days, I earned the nickname “Hurley.” It doesn’t take too much imagination to understand why.
When you’re writing the bones, you’re preparing yourself to puke on the page
Something terrible happens the moment you get behind the computer to write the world’s next greatest novel. You get stuck. Many times, before you even type out “Chapter One.” Or maybe it’s just me …
I sit there. Staring into space — clueless about what to write. And the more I stare, the more frustrated I grow. So I take a break to cool my jets. I check Facebook. I check Twitter. I check Instagram. I check my email. I play a round of Angry Birds. And then, because I’m so distracted, I decide maybe this isn’t the right moment to write. I’m just not feeling … it.
But Writing Down the Bones, more than just the title of the book, is a pre-writing exercise to help you through the blank page stare. It’s the mile long warm-up run. A time of preparation.
When you’re writing the bones, you’re writing whatever comes to your brain — no matter how stupid it may sound. You just write as fast as you can for a predetermined time. Every thought. No matter how random or disconnected. And you don’t stop. Not to edit. Not to proofread. Not to even erase or delete. You just write and write and write until your time is up. It sounds easy. But yeah, just try it. You’ll find out just how tight a vice your internal editor has on you.
The power of writing the bones, is that it helps overcome our tendency to write sanitized stories. To curb our honesty in a way to please others — or at least, to not offend our mothers. Because through this exercise, you’re getting rid of all your bullshit words and thoughts first, cleansing yourself of all the lies you tell yourself and others. And then, when no half truths or false claims remain, you expose your very soul on the page.
Writing the bones helps to prepare you to write more honestly, more deeply — holding nothing back. To puke your guts up and out onto the page.
I started writing the bones … and I still do
After the first few chapters, I immediately launched into the practice. I didn’t bring a laptop or tablet with me on vacation, so I went old school — filling up my notebook with page after page of handwritten words in fifteen minute increments.
Most of it didn’t make sense. To tell the truth, I can’t read half of what I wrote on vacation. My handwriting is worthless as it is. And I struggled even remembering how to hold a pencil. But I wrote every day. Sometimes I went well beyond my fifteen minute time allotment I set for myself. Sometimes, I did two or three different sessions in one day. Whether I was in the hotel room, on the beach, or on the plane home, I wrote the bones.
And I’ve continued ever since.
But it’s different for me now. I don’t need to use a timer any more. I have an agreement with myself to write at least 500 words, but I rarely need to check my word count. I just write until I’m done. The hardest part is starting. I think it is for most people. But soon there’s a rhythm. Or at least most of the time. To be honest, there are days when every sentence — even every word — is a fight to write.
Writing the bones felt amazing, but then it felt like bullshit
After the first week or so, the romance of writing the bones started to wane. I’d written more consistently than ever before, but I grew annoyed because I didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere. On some level, I just felt stupid. But I soon got angry.
During my anger phase, most of my writing was spent bitching about the exercise — how pointless it was, how lame it was, how I was wasting my time. And then my anger morphed into despondency. I didn’t bitch any longer, but I started to mourn. And word after word, I went on and on about how the world had turned against me. I couldn’t do anything right. The cards I’d been dealt were a shitty hand. And all of it must mean God hated me.
It was pathetic.
And then, maybe you know what’s coming, my despondency morphed into resignation. The common refrain every day circulated around, “I don’t know” —
- I don’t know what I’m writing …
- I don’t know what to do …
- I don’t know what anything means …
- I don’t know who I even am any more …
- I don’t know why I’m even alive …
- I don’t know anything …
That was a tough writing season for me. No, it just sucked. Because I was torn between the maddening tension of a desire to develop as a writer, to create meaningful content — and a desire to just throw in the damn towel and quit.
But that’s when it happened …
Writing the bones is amazing again
One evening, I spent an hour or so, and about 800 words, going on and on about not knowing who I am, the struggle of living of purposeless life, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
But as I was putting away my tablet, for good in my mind, my eyes focused on a specific paragraph surrounded by a mess of drivel and tears. It read, “Sometimes I feel so close. Like I’m inching closer and closer. But never close enough. Maybe I don’t want to be close enough. I don’t know. Is it fear? I’m just tired of trying. Of waiting. Of hoping.”
Now, in that specific moment, I was struggling with coming up with a great idea for my writing — developing a platform and attaining fame and fortune. But when I read the paragraph again, I thought of my dad. So I paused for a moment. And I let myself think. The thought felt random, though immediate. And thankfully, I pressed enter a few times so I could capture those thoughts and put them into words on the screen as fast as I could.
A couple of hours later, I’d written almost 2,000 words exploring a some small fragments of my relationship with my dad — reflecting on a few childhood experiences. And it was a powerful time for me, exploring hidden feelings and discovering defining moments in my life by writing about them and recreating them on the page.
I remember going to bed feeling satisfied. And, even though this sounds overly dramatic, I felt whole.
Don’t get me wrong, the writing wasn’t pretty. It didn’t sing with a flowing melody. But a finished draft wasn’t the point. I’d finally done some real, raw, and honest fucking writing.
And that’s writing the bones.
Writing the bones isn’t about perfection
Sometimes writing the bones feels meaningless. Even today, I’ll write 500 words, without a single word of reason. And I don’t worry about strategy or rule or brand essence to capture. And I celebrate when I show up and finish my session. Even if I never look at it again. Because I know I’ve accomplished something. And I’ve met a goal.
So yeah, sometimes it’s just about going through the motions …
But there are moments when writing the bones sparks an idea to explore further. And, like writing about different experiences with my dad and our relationship, I’ll begin to unpack it. Without any pressure, I’ll just write everything I’m thinking and feeling in the moment. As fast as I can — as though I risk losing it all if I stop. Because I know I can always go back and revise it. I know I have time to make it tighter, cut the unnecessary crap, and hone the flow.
Here’s the point: writing the bones works because it keeps me writing. It keeps me showing up every day. But it also gives me freedom to vomit words and sentences without fear of beating myself up. I’m not trying to write a masterpiece, I’m just trying to put something on the page.
Writing the bones is about permission
As writers, I don’t think we give ourselves enough permission to just write. Because we demand ourselves to write with utter perfection on the first try. It’s weird. No, it’s tragic. Every time we start typing, we put pressure on ourselves to only use the best words, best phrases, and have absolute clarity immediately. On the first try. As though it’s possible for anyone to squat and shit gold without practice.
Then when we read what we’ve written, we’re frustrated by the quality. So we viciously berate ourselves because we don’t think we’re good enough. Eventually, we quit trying altogether. Because the self-flagellation is too much to endure any longer.
And the message the world needs, the story so many are longing for, will never be written.
When you apply Writing Down the Bones, you find space. Really, you get permission. Which is what so many of us need — permission to write a crappy draft, to rethink, to edit and revise, to rewrite, and to grow. Writing isn’t a race. There is no finish line. You don’t ever arrive and break the tape. It’s a process of uncovering endless layers of truth just waiting to be discovered.
And it’s always too soon to give up …