Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Practice Explained

This is how I use Natalie Goldberg’s writing practice in my life as a writer.

Notebook with pencil for the writer's life

I started with Natalie Goldberg’s writing practice after I bought her book, Wild Mind, Living the Writer's Life.

I had previously been introduced to her writing practice in her bestseller, Writing Down the Bones. But it was after reading Wild Mind that I decided to introduce this writing practice to strengthen my writing. Before I explain how I am using Natalie Goldberg’s writing practice in my life as a writer, I think we need to first clarify the term writing practice.

Writing Practice is often used to refer to any exercise or routine a writer uses to enrich her writing life. In which case, she could choose to have a writing practice that includes journaling, note-taking, meditation, or even taking a regular walk. It can be any practice that forms and helps her to establish her life as a writer. I like to use the term writing practice to specifically refer to a writing exercise that a writer does before starting her writing day. This is the way that Natalie Goldberg uses the term too.

A good writing practice is foundational to a writer's life. It disciplines our writing life, it warms up the writing muse, and it helps to get our ego out the way. Here is how I have incorporated Natalie Goldberg’s writing practice into my writing life.

  1. It is a timed session

I set the timer on my cellphone for 10 to 15 minutes. Natalie Goldberg recommends 10 minutes minimum. She mentions that you can do a longer session and that you can break it up: do 10 minutes, take a break, and do another 10 minutes. I do 10 to 15 minutes in one sitting. I find that is enough for me. I do not think that it matters how long we do it for. Rather, it is more important that we do it, and as regularly as possible.

  1. Focus on writing a scene or a memory

Natalie Goldberg recommends that we write about something specific. This writing practice is neither power journaling nor journaling. I confused the three for the longest time.

Journaling is a deep dive into your inner thoughts whereas power journaling is free flow writing and stream of consciousness writing. With power journaling you would start writing and keep writing for the full 10 minutes without a care of where it goes. There is some overlap with Natalie Goldberg’s writing practice as it involves constant writing for the allotted time and being open to wherever your writing takes you. But the starting point is intentional, and a focus of the writing practice is to practice a particular element of writing such as dialogue, setting or characterisation.

To do that choose an intro for whatever you are going to write about. Natalie Goldberg suggests short intros such as I remember, I need, or I see. As a memoir writer, I have found I like to use a phrase like when I was six. It is easy enough to change the age and to draw on a memory of another age for my next writing practice. I have found that this phrase helps with memoir writing as it will often bring a strong memory to mind more so than the statements Natalie Goldberg suggests.

Here is an example. In my writing practice I wrote, ‘when I was 6, we got a puppy’. Which we did, and then I wrote all I could remember about a particular image or memory related to that puppy, starting with the day we got him. In another session I wrote about the memory of the day he was run over on the street and we had to leave him to die alone, wrapped in his blanket, in the laundry sink.

Once you have that image this is what we do next:

  1. Keep that pen moving

I mean it, keep your pen moving. You are not going to stop. You are not going to pause to scratch your head. You are not going to chew on your pen and wonder what the next thing is you want to say. Nor are you going to break the flow and look out the window. You are going to keep that pen writing.

The purpose of starting the practice with a short statement, such as I remember, is that every time you do pause or falter, you start again with that first statement. There is no reason to pause because if you do stumble you know exactly what you are going to say next.

  1. Move the editor out of the way

The purpose of keeping the pen moving, according to Natalie Goldberg, is to move the editor to the sideline and to leave the creator writing. The creator gets to write, and the editor exits the room. The problem with the editor is that she starts to speak while we are writing and she says thinks like, “oh, can you say that?” – “should you say that?” – “does that make sense?” or even “is that grammatically correct?”. This is not a good move. We want the editor far away so that we can keep on writing. By keeping the pen moving the editor has no time to chime in.

  1. Say it whichever which way you want

Use the opening statement or phrase to get you going and then write whatever you want. Feel free to express yourself or to describe your memory anyway you please. Do not let the editor tell you that you cannot say it that way or that you cannot use that word or that ladies do not speak in that fashion. You are going to write it anyway you darn well please. This is no place for your public perfect persona, no miss prim-and-proper, no anything like that. Simply express yourself the way you want to say it.

According to Natalie Goldberg, the reason for this is to give expression to our inner voice. You may find that you start saying something you never expected to say, or something gets written that surprises you. This, as far as Natalie Goldberg is concerned, is an integral part of a writing practice.

To achieve this freedom in writing, I have had to realize that grammar, punctuation, technicalities of writing, elements of style, and whether I have expressed a complete thought or not, simply do not matter. Period. Sometimes I write a thought that does not follow the other thought well at all. It is a bit like a child who starts coloring in and colors outside the lines. That flies in the face of my perfectionism which is the whole idea. I have even turned my journal upside down and written in it back to front.

You get the picture.

The focus is to free the authentic voice. Give yourself permission to write badly. The technicalities of writing and editing come later.

  1. Be as specific as possible

Picture it and write it as clearly as you can. Add in the detail. Add in the colour of the blanket the puppy was wrapped in. Novelist, John Gardner, in his book On Becoming a Novelist said that ‘detail is the lifeblood of fiction’. I think it is the lifeblood of all good writing and your writing practice is a good place to practice just that.

Do not simply take it from me. I recommend that you get one of Natalie Goldberg’s books to guide you. If you are going to choose only one, make it Writing Down the Bones. It is a classic and a good place to start to develop your writing practice and to hone your life as a writer.

Click here to watch my video on this topic on my YouTube channel, Brenda Smit-James Write Your Story.

You can find links to my three most recent blog posts right here.

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1 comment

  • Tracy Danton

    Hi Brenda, this was very helpful. I think one of the things that has always “put me off” writing, is the technical element. Having to follow rules and follow protocols. I know they are vital and I have put off learning them or giving them any attention. BUT, this blog has been very helpful. Its gentle and easy to understand and do. So as an introduction to following some “rules” this is fabulous! Thank you!

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