I was one of those people who was “going to be” a writer, as soon as I got started. As soon as inspiration hit. I wanted to write a book, but of course People Who Write Books were different from me.
Fortunately, then I read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and found that writers weren’t really different at all. She got me to look at writing in a whole different way.
For starters, she defines most writing as practice. Musicians play scales, athletes do calisthenics, and writers do writing practice. I had been holding back, waiting for perfection to spring from my head fully formed like Athena. Instead, I learned to fill up my journals with bits and pieces, most of it not going anywhere, but tossing out ideas in search of a possible plot, or just a good turn of phrase.
Goldberg, a Buddhist, talks a lot about trusting the process. That’s good advice in both meditation and writing. Her process for writing is to set a goal for output, and keep writing whether she feels like it or not. Good ideas come not from a single moment of inspiration, but from doing the mundane work day after day and then finding what’s usable and can be improved. My process became a page-a-day rule for myself, and after a year I had a first draft for my novel. Many rewrites later, it’s still not published, but I’m still writing.
It strikes me that trusting the process is also good advice for political activism. The 50-state strategy involves doing outreach everywhere and running candidates in every district, not just the places that look “winnable” at the beginning. Sometimes we’ll lose, but trusting the process means that we get right back to work on the next one, rather than becoming cynical or giving up. The teabaggers who scream about ACORN and try to set up hurdles for voters are the people who don’t trust democracy.
In preparing to write this diary, I was rereading the book in bed the other night. I came across this passage, a perfect taste of Goldberg:
Your kids are climbing into the cereal box. You have $1.25 left in your checking account. Your husband can’t find his shoes, your car won’t start, you know you have lived a life of unfulfilled dreams. There is the threat of a nuclear holocaust, there is apartheid in South Africa, it is twenty degrees below zero outside, your nose itches, and you don’t even have three plates that match to serve dinner on. Your feet are swollen, you need to make a dentist appointment, the dog needs to be let out, you have to defrost the chicken and make a phone call to your cousin in Boston, you’re worried about your mother’s glaucoma, you forgot to put film in the camera, Safeway has a sale on solid white tuna, you are waiting for a job offer, you just bought a computer and you have to unpack it. You have to start eating sprouts and stop eating doughnuts, you lost your favorite pen, and the cat peed on your current notebook.
Take out another notebook, pick up another pen, and just write, just write, just write.
I set down the book, grabbed my journal, and just wrote.