Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within was one of the first books I read about being a writer. I still have a copy on my desk, and it still influences my writing life. She wrote about writing in cafes, flotation tanks, and laundromats. I thought, if she could do that, I could write absolutely anywhere.
I’m not talking about writing in the requisite doctor’s offices, malls, and airports. Sooner or later, all writers write in those places. I’m talking about writing in places that were exotic, strange, or just plain idiotic.
Such as in a six-foot survival trench, carved in Yukon snow, in January, at minus thirty-five degrees.
Such as in abandoned tunnels running catacomb-like underneath a university campus.
Such as in the parking lot of a police station, fifteen minutes after a beat cop had been killed two blocks away. The killer was still in the neighborhood, and policemen, dressed in bullet-proof vests and carrying high-powered weapons, were pouring out the door.
Such as wandering through any open corridor I could find in a legislature building—the jurisdiction shall remain nameless—taking photographs and making notes in my journal about potential ways to enter or leave the building undetected. Just in case this blog is being monitored, this was in the 1980s, and I later destroyed every one of those photographs and notes.
I admit that I did not write while flying in the open cockpit of a Stearman Kadet, but that was only because the pilot wouldn’t let me take anything with me on the flight. Even my button-down pockets had to be emptied.
Over time, I’ve changed and my writing changed. I still write a lot in cafes, sometimes in a journal and sometimes at a laptop. Where I’ve changed the most is not thinking of grabbing a pen right off when I find myself in an unusual situation. Now I’m more interested in taking mental notes, which I write down later.
It’s sad that the world has changed in so many ways. Having the audacity to write in truly strange places has either become either life-threatening, or is guaranteed to lead to long interviews with people who have absolutely no sense of the absurd. All that’s left when we find ourselves in a surrealistic situation is to observe carefully, take mental notes, and write it out once we’re back in a safe situation.
It just isn’t the same, somehow.
There are only two rules for keeping a journal: 1. Write everything. 2. Erase nothing. Writing begets writing. Keep the hand moving. ~Natalie Goldberg, writer and teacher