Sunday, June 23, 2013

Re-Thinking Natalie

I did something this morning I haven't done for years. I blew the dust off my fountain pen, put a new ink cartridge in, opened a notebook (the paper kind) and wrote.

June 23, 2013

Words are nothing really. I mean you can't see them when they're spoken. Remember the last time you heard people nearby speaking in a foreign language? Those are words, floating around with no meaning. But when we write them down we give them shape. In some way they take form, give form to our thoughts.

I remember buying Natalie Goldberg's "Writing Down the Bones" from a book club back in the '80s. Holding it in my hands, the answers. Here's a way to write, a way to get those tangly words out of my head and onto paper. That's all I was looking for. At least now 30 years later, that's what I think I was looking for. For many years I treated that [book] like the gospel for writers. Good news, yes. Truth crystalized and given form. I could hold it. Read it. And every time I read it, opened it, it told me the same things. It became a comfort.

Then I heard a recorded version of it. Natalie was reading her book. I could hear the same words I was familiar with. But then unexpectedly at the end of the chapters she had some new things to say. Things that have given me much to think on ever since. For example, she had said to buy a fast-writing pen. She said she uses a cheap Shaeffer fountain pen, the kind you can buy at a corner drugstore. So that's where I went, and that's what I bought. In fact, that's what I'm using to write these words with right now. Buy a college-ruled notebook, cheap, so you're not afraid to write stupid, crappy words, whatever comes to mind. I did that. I've got a box full of those notebooks.

Then the surprise came on the tape. She said she doesn't use fountain pens now. At least not exclusively. Just use whatever. As long as it's fast. I laughed. One of those times when your perspective shifts. And you see things sharper, clearer. Things about yourself. I realized what a trap the written word can be. The fact that it's tangible gives it importance. It's more important than any thoughts or words that I've ever thought or written. Because nothing I've ever written exists in as exquisitely tangible a shape as a book. If it's in a book it automatically has weight, in both senses of the word.

She talked about that. Lighten up people. Nobody has all the answers for you. Only you do. And the way you find out what those answers are for you is to put the pen on paper. Of course I'm paraphrasing. I don't remember what she said exactly. But I do remember how my own perspective on writing shifted. One day I cleaned my pen, put it in a cup on my desk with some other pens, and didn't touch it for thirteen years. I guess I needed some time to figure out if I had anything worth writing about.

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