The dog-eared paperback caught my eye. It lay on the shelf at shoulder height, so that I couldn’t miss it, as I searched for something else on my jam-packed bookcase. Seeing her book, Writing Down the Bones, made me realize I hadn’t read Natalie Goldberg in a long time. I wondered what she’s writing about these days, or maybe she’s taking a break.
I hope not, because I need a good example right now.
My friendship with Natalie is one-sided. I am simply one woman in her larger reading audience who has found a friend, a supporter, for writing. Write every day, she urges. Even if it is only for ten minutes, just to keep the wrists supple and the creative juices flowing. Write everywhere, she encourages. Great words hang out near coffeehouses and park benches and window seats. Use a writing instrument instead of a computer, the better to feel the process.
Write about anything. The dirty collar on the shirt of the man in front of you on the bus. The ending to the dream you were having when the alarm shrilled reveille. The happiest moment of your life. The most miserable.
Mostly, forget about being famous and write as if your life depends on it.
Once I spent a whole year writing like that. Got one of those blank books with lines in it and filled them with ten minute blocks. Every day. At first the blocks consisted of neatly arranged words that resembled a carefully planned flower garden, each letter just so. But soon, more like weeds, they filled the pages. Finally, clinging like kudzu, the words spilled over from one page to the next, choking the lines. According to Natalie Goldberg’s instructions, they were uncensored, unedited, unfettered. I even gave my book a title that reflected where I was in life: Halcyon Days.
Halcyons are mythical birds that nest on the sea where it is peaceful and calm during the winter solstice. And that’s what my life was that particular year. By choice, I was alone. My problems with my second ex were more memory than reality, and no one else had vied seriously to take his place. There were no obligatory television shows to watch together or after-work dinners to share. No commitments either. Only long evenings on my hands.
So I turned inward for company and spent hours reading. I renewed my acquaintance with authors who were old friends and took up with some who were new to me. Even when I didn’t fully appreciate their work, I admired their tenacity; for if reading is a solitary experience, how much more so is writing.
I’d always struggled to find both the time and energy for it, especially when I was emotionally involved with someone. The interest was always there, but often it lay fallow for months at a time. Several spiral notebooks are crammed on another shelf to prove it. All of them start with the following entry or some variation on the theme:
“Today is [Fill in the date; it doesn’t matter what date] and I am launching my writing career. I know I’ve said this before, but this time it’s for real. I can do it.”
A couple notebooks are painfully empty beyond the first few sentences. Others have several pages filled with my curly handwriting. But none is more than half filled. What they really proved was that I was miserable at meeting self-imposed writing deadlines and the years were slipping by.
That’s when I decided to follow Natalie’s advice. Among the several books she’s written is Writing Down the Bones, which I had given my mother in paperback as a birthday gift. As was her habit, Mother gave the very same book back to me for a Christmas gift a couple years later. What could I do but accept that Natalie’s book was really meant for me? I read it in a minimum of sittings and, filled with inspiration, tried once more. The first entry in Halcyon Days reads:
May 30 “Memorial Day with Kevin and Elizabeth. Golden Nugget. Breakfast. Montrose Harbor. Sun. Jade Dragon. Tattoo. Leona’s. Pizza. Home! . . . and summer begins.”
This time there were no promises of filling notebooks. It wasn’t about wanting to be a writer as much as it was simply starting the business of being one.
That was years ago. I’ve done a lot of writing since then. I’ve had several essays published and many more returned. I sent the novel that represents another year of my life to an agent, only to have it rejected too. Soundly rejected, with a whine in the voice that I’d bothered her in the first place. And that’s the reason I’ve used for not sitting down and writing this past month. Besides, the seasons are about to change and I’m not inspired.
Until now, when Natalie’s book caught my eye, like a former teacher you run into on the street who silently reminds you of your potential. Who rejects that old excuse called Writer’s Block.
Ah, Natalie, you are here when I need you. I don’t even have to take the book off the shelf. I know what you will say.
You will tell me to begin again.