Natalie Goldberg

Natalie Goldberg

Freeing the Writer Within

Beginner's Mind, Pen and Paper

Posted 6/1/11 | Updated 7/1/20

Freeing the Writer Within

Excerpted from Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, ©1986. Published by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston.

Beginner's mind is what we must come back to every time we sit down and write.

When I teach a beginning class, it is good. I have to come back to beginner's mind, the first way I thought and felt about writing. In a sense, that beginner's mind is what we must come back to every time we sit down and write. There is no security, no assurance that because we wrote something good two months ago, we will do it again. Actually, every time we begin, we wonder how we ever did it before. Each time is a new journey with no maps.

So when I teach a writing group, I have to tell the story all over again and remember that the students are hearing it for the first time. I must begin at the very beginning.

First, consider the pen you write with. It should be a fast-writing pen because your thoughts are always much faster than your hand. You don't want to slow up your hand even more with a slow pen. A ballpoint, a pencil, a felt tip, for sure, are slow. Go to a stationery store and see what feels good to you. Try out different kinds. Don't get too fancy and expensive. I mostly use a cheap Sheaffer fountain pen, about $1.95. It has replaceable cartridges. I've bought hundreds over the years. I've had every color; they often leak, but they are fast. The new roller pens that are out now are fast too, but there's a slight loss of control. You want to be able to feel the connection and texture of the pen on paper.

Think, too, about your notebook. It is important. This is your equipment, like hammer and nails to a carpenter. (Feel fortunate — for very little money you are in business!) Sometimes people buy expensive hardcover journals. They are bulky and heavy, and because they are fancy, you are compelled to write something good. Instead you should feel that you have permission to write the worst junk in the world and it would be okay. Give yourself a lot of space in which to explore writing. A cheap spiral notebook lets you feel that you can fill it quickly and afford another. Also, it is easy to carry. (I often buy notebook-size purses.)

Garfield, the Muppets, Mickey Mouse, Star Wars. I use notebooks with funny covers. They come out fresh in September when school starts. They are a quarter more than the plain spirals, but I like them. I can't take myself too seriously when I open up a Peanuts notebook. It also helps me locate them more easily — "Oh, yes, that summer I wrote in the rodeo series notebooks." Try out different kinds — blank, lined, or graphed pages, hard or soft-covered. In the end, it must work for you.

The size of your notebook matters too. A small notebook can be kept in your pocket, but then you have small thoughts. That's okay. William Carlos Williams, the famous American poet who was also a children's doctor, wrote many of his poems on prescription pads in between office visits by his patients.

Doc, I bin lookin' for you
I owe you two bucks.
How you doin'?
Fine. When I get it
I'll bring it up to you.1

You can find many prescription-pad-size poems in his collected works.

Sometimes, instead of writing in a notebook, you might want to directly type out your thoughts. Writing is physical and is affected by the equipment you use. In typing, your fingers hit keys and the result is block, black letters: a different aspect of yourself may come out. I have found that when I am writing something emotional, I must write it the first time directly with hand on paper. Handwriting is more connected to the movement of the heart. Yet, when I tell stories, I go straight to the typewriter.

Another thing you can try is speaking into a tape recorder and feeling how it is to directly record your voice speaking your thoughts. Or you might use it for convenience' sake: you might be working on the hem of a dress and you begin to think how it was with your ex-husband and you want to write about it. Your hands are busy sewing; you can talk about it into a recorder.

I have not worked very much with a computer, but I can imagine using a Macintosh, where the keyboard can be put on my lap, closing my eyes and just typing away. The computer automatically returns the carriage. The device is called "wraparound." You can rap nonstop. You don't have to worry about the typewriter ringing a little bell at the end of a line.

Experiment. Even try writing in a big drawing pad. It is true that the inside world creates the outside world, but the outside world and our tools also affect the way we form our thoughts. Try skywriting.

Choose your tools carefully, but not so carefully that you get uptight or spend more time at the stationery store than at your writing table.

©1986 Natalie Goldberg. All rights reserved.

Natalie GoldbergNatalie Goldberg is the author of many books, including classic bestseller Writing Down the Bones, which has changed the way writing is taught in the United States. more