Natalie Goldberg’s book Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within was the first assigned reading I did as an English major. One of my first reactions to the book was that it was drivel. I mean, Goldberg says an ant is an elephant and 1 + 1 can equal an apple pie. Right.
But what struck me at a deeper level was that this book was blatantly religious: Goldberg uses writing as her form of Zen Meditation. I don’t identify with Goldberg’s religious persuasions, but I do identify very much with her use of writing as a religious practice. When she spoke of filling notebooks I thought of my own stacks of journals at home. When she spoke of forcing herself to write I thought of the years in which I have set aside an hour a day to spend time with God—and part of that time was often pushing my G2 pen across the pages of my journal even if I initially thought I had nothing to say. For me the practice had nothing to do with honing my writing skills. It was a way to make my conversations with God more concrete.
Although Goldberg and I both write for religious reasons, when I read her I get a strong sense that there are profound differences in how our religions need to be written out. Goldberg plumbs her own depths to find answers. She says, “Don’t be afraid to answer the questions. You will find endless resources inside yourself.” I don’t so much write to find answers as to allow the Answer to find me.
I will try to explain. My internal landscape is pretty clearly defined in my mind. I am there, of course. My fleshly desires are there, crucified but still in the conversation. The New Me created by Christ when I was born again is there. And the Holy Spirit of God is there. So all those things speak inside me. My journals over the years have been an effort to give solidity to all those voices. So in my journals you’ll hear paragraphs of the struggling flesh, paragraphs of the New Me, and paragraphs of God speaking into my confusion. Often, it’s not until the writing that I am able to recognize clearly which voice is which. And often it’s in the writing that I hear the Answer I need.
So what does this all mean for the writing Goldberg and I write for others? For her, writing seems to be about capturing the raw and the crude first thoughts and transmitting them in a way that allows others to see the confusion in her naked soul. For me, I’m becoming aware that I want my writing to provide a lens through which others can sort out the voices in their own souls. I find myself listening as I write, listening for the Voice inside me and begging Him to write Himself through my words. I want to lead others not only into my own confusion, but into the clarity and beauty God brings to that confusion.