I was digging through some old journals the other day and came across the journal I used for writing practice the first time I read Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life. This was back in the early, early nineties during one crazy year when I quit my day job, took out a loan and lived on the delusion that my very first novel would be instantly snatched up by Mills & Boon, and I would be become an instant, overnight success, raking in lots and lots of money. It was a lovely dream, one that had to be squashed for almost two decades while I pursued an actual paying career.
But I learned something new about myself that year, something that has stayed with me ever since, guiding me daily as I continue to hone my writing craft.
I’d always been an avid reader, but I’d never bothered with the books that taught you How to Write. Either you can write, or you can’t, was my attitude. I Know What I’m Doing. Until I reached what seemed like a dead end with my first novel. I’d stare at the computer screen for hours, my mind as blank as the page before me, typing and re-typing the same paragraph and getting nowhere. I was stuck.
So, I took myself off to the local mall and browsed the shelves in the Writing & Publishing section at Waldenbooks (the pre-Barnes & Noble era) until the title of Natalie’s book grabbed my attention. Wild Mind. Cool title. Just a few pages into the first chapter and I was captivated. I purchased that book and a copy of The Elements of Style and hurried home, anxious to put Natalie’s advice into action.
Through a series of “Try this” writing practices, Natalie teaches you how to wake up your mind, to take risks, to find the narrator hiding deep within, that voice that speaks the truth, even when it might be uncomfortable. There’s no destination with each writing practice topic. You look at the topic, put pen to paper and Just Write. Don’t stop to think. Don’t worry about punctuation, theme or style. Just Write.
Within days, my brain was wide awake. I was looking at the world around me in a way I never had before. Everything had suddenly changed from monochrome to vivid Technicolor. Descriptive words, many I’d never known were inside of me, were tumbling around in my brain almost faster than I could put them to paper. I got into the habit of doing one writing practice for 5-15 minutes every day before I worked on my book. And I’ve never stopped. A warmup before a vigorous workout.
One of the “Try this” practices from the book I do the most often uses the words “I remember” and “I don’t remember.” Write down “I remember” and just keep on writing. It’s amazing what pours out. It could be something that happened minutes earlier or many years ago. Below are some excerpts from my journal written over 20 years ago. Reading them now, I’m struck by the simplicity of the words. I was no longer wasting my time looking for Big Words and flowery descriptions (yawn). No, there isn’t anything earth-shattering here, but it’s both a reminder of the first steps I took to becoming a better writer and an incentive to constantly keep working at it. And that’s something writers should do every single day.
- I remember days when I was a child. I remember lying on the sidewalk on Gilardi Street—on my back with my head on the downslope, staring upside down at the long, steep hill. I remember feeling as if I didn’t have anything to hold onto and that I would slide down the hill like water over the crashing rocks of a steep waterfall.
- I remember the color and texture of the orange I had for breakfast this morning, the acidity and sweetness in my mouth. It was a good orange, the kind with the little tiny wedges of orange curled at the top—extra sweet and juicy…
- I don’t remember the bicycle accident. The plastic wheels of the orange bike had no traction on the summer slick pavement. I don’t remember the handlebars breaking free of my grip…
- I remember spending time at the dock at Fallen Leaf Lake. I remember climbing the ladder after a swim in the ice-cold water and feeling the sun-warmed wooden slats beneath my feet. I remember stretching out on my beach towel and lying down on my stomach facing the lake. I close my wet lashes and breathe in the smell of warm wood, wet towels, suntan lotion. The voices of others on the dock drift over me. I am totally relaxed, liquid, every muscle and bone in my body liquid. I am one with the sun and the powder blue sky and the water slapping against the dock. I hear the sound of a motorboat, the bell in the dining hall calling the staff to lunch, Mr. Mower giving someone his spiel about sailing. When the sun becomes too hot against my back, I sit up, wrapping the towel around me, and stare into the lake, studying the different variations of the color blue. I look to Mt. Tallac, red rock, gray slashes of slate, manzanita green, craggy points, the line of a trail snaking along the mountain face. A white cloud touches the mountain, passes beneath the sun and the lake turns to midnight blue. I take a deep breath. My mind is clean of any thought except pure happiness.
It’s amazing what happens when you quit thinking about writing and Just Write. The more real it is, the better. I strongly recommend Wild Mind to anyone who wants to become a better writer.
What books have inspired you to improve your writing craft?
Also check out Natalie’s Writing Down the Bones. Another must-have, in my humble opinion.