The following text is a remix using nothing but samples from Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones, a book the Real Cal recommended for me to start earnestly engaging with writing as a practice. While I struggled with an outline for what was then Part I of The Total Manageability of Everything, I read this book, practiced the techniques it recommended, and emerged with a regular journaling habit and a new writing voice.
Writers live twice. They go along with their regular life, are as fast as anyone in the grocery store, crossing the street, getting dressed for work in the morning. But there's another part of them that they have been training. The one that lives everything a second time. That sits down and sees their life again and goes over it. Looks at the texture and the details.
Recording the details of our lives is a stance against bombs with their mass ability to kill, against too much speed and efficiency. A writer must say yes to life, to all of life: the water glasses, the Kemp's half-and-half, the ketchup on the counter. It is not a writer's task to say, "It is dumb to live in a small town or eat in a café when you can eat a macrobiotic at home." Our task is to say a holy "yes" to the real things of our life as they exist – the real truth of who we are.
The secret ego truth is: I want to live eternally and I want my people to live forever. I hurt at our impermanence, at the passing of time. I write because I am alone and move through the world alone. No one will know what has passed through me, and even more amazing, I don't know.
I write because to form a word with your lips and tongue or think a thing then dare to write it down so you can never take it back is the most powerful thing I know. I write out of total incomprehension that even love isn't enough and that finally writing might be all I have and that isn't enough. I can never get it all down, and besides, there are times when I have to step away from the table, notebook, and turn to face my own life.
This is how we must sit down with pen in hand. We were here; we are human beings; this is how we lived. Let it be known, the earth passed before us. Our details are important. Otherwise, if they are not, we can drop a bomb and it doesn't matter.
WE LEARN by doing it. That simple. If you want to write a novel, write a novel. If it's essays you want or short stories, write them. In the process of writing them, you will learn how. Rather than following rules, have a friendliness toward existence. Rules were made so things won't be hurt or abused. If you are kind, you will naturally be doing the right thing without having to refer to legalities.
But the mind is a trickster. It seems that when I write, a hundred pleasurable activities come to mind that I would rather do. One has to shut up, sit down, and write. That is painful.
Writing is so simple, basic, and austere. There are no fancy gadgets to make it more attractive. If you want to write, you have to cut through and write. There is no perfect atmosphere, notebook, pen, or desk, so train yourself to be flexible.
Take out another notebook, pick up another pen, and just write, just write, just write. In the middle of the world, make one positive step. In the center of chaos, make one definitive act. Just write. Say "yes," stay alive, be awake. Just write. Just write. Just write.
No matter how big the resistance, there is one day, there is the next day, and the writing work ahead. You can't depend on its going smoothly day after day. It won't be that way.
You practice whether you want to or not. Once you're deep into it, you wonder what took you so long to finally settle down at the desk. Through practice, you actually do get better.
Be specific. Don't say "fruit," tell what kind of fruit – "it is a pomegranate." Give things the dignity of their names. Just as with human beings, it is rude to say, "Hey girl, get in line!" That "girl" has a name. As a matter of fact, if she's at least twenty years old, she's a woman, not a "girl" at all.
Learn the names of everything: birds, cheese, tractors, cars, buildings. A writer is all at once everything – an architect, French cook, farmer – and at the same time, a writer is none of these things. We must remember that everything is ordinary and extraordinary. It is our minds that either open or close. Details are not good or bad, they are details.
Jack Kerouac, in his list of prose essentials, said, "Be submissive to everything. Open. Listening. No time for poetry, but exactly what is." A responsibility of literature is to make people awake, present, alive. If the writer wanders, then the reader, too, will wander. There is a fine line between precision and self-indulgence.
Don't tell readers what to feel. Show them the situation, and that feeling will awaken in them. The best art almost becomes sentimental, but doesn't. The writer takes the reader's hand and guides him through the valley of sorrow and joy without ever having to mention those words.
Push yourself beyond when you think you are done with what you have to say. Go a little further. Sometimes when you think you are done, it is just the edge of the 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.
Even if you have pushed yourself and feel you've broken through, push yourself further. If you are on, ride that wave as long as you can. Don't stop in the middle. That moment won't come back exactly in that way again, and it will take much more time trying to finish a piece later on than completing it now.
WHEN you are truly on, there's no writer, no paper, no pen, no thoughts. Only writing does writing – everything else is gone. Katagiri Rosh says, "When you do zazen, you should be gone. So zazen does zazen." This is also how you should be when you write: writing does writing. You disappear: you are simply recording the thoughts that are streaming through you.
When you begin to write this way – right out of your own mind – you might have to be willing to write junk for five years, because we have accumulated it over many more than that and have gladly been avoiding it in ourselves.
Sometimes, you have to begin far away from the answer and then down-spiral back to it. Writing is the act of discovery. You want to discover your relationship with a topic, not the dictionary definition.
Think of sharing your need to talk with someone else when you write. Reach out of the deep chasm of loneliness and express yourself to another human being.