Over the years I have acquired many books about the craft of writing. They fill one tall bookshelf and spill over into a second. When I visit a bookstore, I head straight to the writing reference section. In my favourite local bookstore, Blue Heron Books in Uxbridge, the writing books are located in a cosy little nook at the back of the store. I’m always looking for new titles that may offer unique approaches and ideas about the craft and the journey.
As I survey the colourful spines of all the writing books lined up on my bookshelf at home, I feel grateful for all I’ve learned from the authors of these books, over the years. While a book can’t take the place of a real live teacher, these volumes have guided me on my writing journey. But out of all these books, two stand out as being extra special. They have both touched me deeply and inspired me greatly; they are ones that I re-read for inspiration, encouragement and advice. They also guide my approach when I facilitate writing groups. I thought everyone knew about them, but I still run across people who haven’t read them.
What I offer in this post are introductions (not book reviews). I’d like to introduce each of these books and their authors to you in the same way I might introduce old acquaintances to a new friend over coffee. At the end of this post I have provided details about these books, along with the authors’ most recent offerings and links to their websites.
Writing Down the Bones – Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg
I bought my copy of this book in the late 1980’s on the recommendation of a friend. I wasn’t part of a writing community at the time, and when I read Natalie’s words, and I felt as though she was a companion at my elbow who whispered encouragement as she introduced me to the world of writing practice.
Natalie is a writer, poet, teacher and artist who lives in New Mexico. Her focus over the past thirty years has been writing and publishing books, teaching writing workshops, and painting. She has also been a student of Zen Buddhism.
At the core of Natalie’s work is writing practice. In its basic form, this process involves setting a timing device and writing until it sounds, without stopping to correct spelling or grammar; it means following the energy of what comes up. When we write like this, there is less likelihood that the critic can keep up with us. It also allows us to access what Natalie refers to as “first thoughts”; those impulses buried deep within that we often miss when we take too much time to think about what we’ll write next. Writing practice helps us bring our own true voice and our inner wisdom to the page.
From Natalie I also learned the importance of observing life closely and capturing
those small details that bring our writing to life. I felt as though I was with her in Costa’s Chocolate Shop in Owatonna, Minnesota as she wrote with a friend. She captured the orange booth and the street scene beyond the window so clearly, I was transported to that place. As I began to observe the small details of my life more closely, and to write about them I developed a greater appreciation for my life, and for all life. And my writing became more vivid.
Natalie covers many more topics in her book such as: beginner’s mind, don’t tell – show, be a tourist in your own town, and what to do when you bore yourself. These examples give just a taste of the wisdom Natalie shares in this valuable companion for anyone who wants to write. But still it is her work related to writing practice and the value of details that touched me most deeply and informs my own writing.
Writing Alone and With Others by Pat Schneider
I had the pleasure of writing with Pat during two five-day retreats she conducted in Canada, in 2011 and 2012, and came away from those experiences feeling transformed, and with an even greater commitment to my writring.
On her website, Pat is described as a “poet, playwright, librettist, and author of ten books of poetry and non-fiction.” Based in Amherst, Massachusetts, Pat is also the founder of Amherst Writers and Artists (AWA), a worldwide network of workshop leaders who use the writing method described in Pat’s book, Writing Alone and With Others. Based on personal experience, I would add “wise teacher, and compassionate and passionate human being” to describe Pat.
I read Pat’s book long before I met her, and as I absorbed her words, I sensed a wise, caring, respectful presence was guiding me. In the first section, dedicated to the writer who is writing alone, Pat provides sound advice for dealing with fear, getting started, using writing practice (both keeping a journal and mastering craft), voice, growing as a writer, choosing the form your writing wants to take, plus ethical questions. In addition to sound advice, this section is filled with anecdotes, writing samples and countless writing exercises.
In the second section, Pat focuses on writing with others as she outlines the Amherst Writers and Artists workshop method for creating a healthy, safe, non-hierarchical group writing environment. In Pat’s workshop model, the group leader writes and reads what they have written alongside the participants. All writing is treated as fiction and the feedback focuses on what is strong in the work. Manuscript review, writing in a classroom setting and using writing to empower and silenced are also covered in this section. Again, numerous exercises are included.
In my first retreat with Pat I observed that she completely embodied the principles she outlined in Writing Alone and With Others.
I felt nervous as we sat in a circle in the large, comfortable room where we would write. Pat introduced us to the guidelines for writing as a group, and we wrote two pieces in response to prompts. Pat then then invited us to read one of the pieces aloud. My heart was pounding as I read, but I felt buoyed by the respectful, encouraging tone of the group. I could feel the safe container Pat had already begun to create; one in which we could take risks with our writing. I am fortunate that I am able to write regularly, using this method, with AWA-certified workshop leader, Sue Reynolds in the Writers’ Sanctuary groups she facilitates. This method has helped me develop both my skill and confidence as a writer.
Pat’s book is essential reading for every writer, whether they prefer to write alone, want to write with others or want to facilitate writing groups.
If you haven’t already read these great books by Natalie Goldberg and Pat Schneider, I hope you’ll consider purchasing them. They would make a great addition to your writing library. Independent new and used bookstores are always great places to look for them. I’d love to hear about the writing books that have guided your journey.
Until next time,
Resources for Natalie Goldberg
Writing Down the Bones – Freeing the Writer Within, Natalie Goldberg, Shambhala, Boston and London, 1986
Natalie’s newest release: The True Secret of Writing – Connecting Life with Language, Atria Books, A division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. 2013
Website: http://www.nataliegoldberg.com. CLICK HERE to be taken to Natalie’s website.
A quote from Natalie: “Nobody cares much whether you write or not. You just have to do it.”
Resources for Pat Schneider
Writing Alone and With Others, Pat Schneider, Oxford University Press, 2003
Pat’s newest release: How The Light Gets In – Writing as a Spiritual Practice, Oxford University Press, 2013
Website: http://patschneider.com CLICK HERE to be taken to Pat’s website.
A quote from Pat: “A writers is someone who writes.”
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