Beyond The Words — A Book Review

Beyond The Words: The Three Untapped Sources of Creative Fulfillment For Writers, by Bonni Goldberg, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2003


“The world is made up of stories, not atoms.” — Muriel Rukeyser

Clearmindedness about writing is the dominant impression this book leaves with me, and what made me want to write a review.

This is a sequel to a book I haven’t read, Room to Write: Daily Invitations to A Writer’s Life, for which the author may be better known. Goldberg says the more recent book grew out of a need to explore the writer’s path after the invitation is accepted.

The three sources of writing fulfillment that she alludes to in the subtitle are 1) Percolation, 2) Revision, and 3) Going Public.

The Writing Self

This is not a typical book about writing. It is more relaxed, less prescriptive than most, and insightful about the relation between what the body feels, our often not fully realized attitudes, and the will to write. There are not that many teachers of writing and working poets who have also been choreographers.

Hans Christian AndersonThe first time Goldberg got me more interested in what she had to say was in her attention to the Writing Self.

I’ve always felt that the part of me that writes is more eloquent, occasionally, more lucid, sometimes, and more perceptive, once in awhile, then the workaday regular self you might meet on the street. Probably mostly because I don’t think as much in the quotidian life before I eagerly blurt out something foolish.

But there is a distinct vein of That Which Writes in me and this is what Goldberg wants us to respect. “If I could give you only one suggestion for nourishing a long and fulfilling writing life, it would be to respect this aspect of it.”

As she says, Goldberg has a chiropractic/acupuncturist view of the writing life in whatever form we take hold of it. She sees what is commonly described as writer’s block as too narrow of a focus and an imbalance in the three creative aspects of the writing life: percolation, revision and going public. All of us have challenges about writing. It’s important to be aware of our attitude towards them.

The second specific thing about this book that impressed me was her attention to the role of the body in writing. The links between how we hold our bodies, and how we think of ourselves as writers in whatever ways we are, become part of some of the unusual exercises in the book.

Most of the time I have no patience for the typical writing book exercise. For instance: write a scene between two characters in the first person with a blind narrator, or some such… I’d much rather put the effort into writing something that I’m interested in.

Listen to your body

But here’s Goldberg’s first exercise in the book: Listen To Your Body.

“Begin this exercise either standing or sitting in a chair. Say, ‘I’m a writer.’ Say it again. Notice the tone in your voice as you say the words. Exaggerate your tone so you can really hear it. Name it: Does your voice sound apologetic, aggressive, questioning?”

And it goes on from there, very simple in a way, but rewarding close attention to one’s emotions and attitudes about writing.

Goldberg is serious about the three aspects she sees making up the creative writing life.

For the first, Percolation, she quotes Rilke: “Everything is gestation and then birthing.” She defines percolation as a particular way of paying attention once you’re inspired or excited about an idea.

I like how she defines inspiration: “… an intimate moment of being completely present in the company of something that contains a message.”

There are many ways to percolate. One way is to stay with the idea constantly and see how it affects you, perhaps repeating it over and over. Another way is to take up the opposite of the idea and see how you feel about it. A third technique is to see how the idea connects with the experiences, people and places of your life.

“After a long time I learned that keeping an idea inside for a while helps me to slow down, adjust my expectations, and respect my ideas.”

Of course, in my case, I tend to procrastinate as much as to percolate. They are not the same. Goldberg compares percolation to a kind of internal culture shock, where one takes the necessary time to gradually acclimate to an environment of new ideas. It’s not always a completely conscious process.

She encourages daily writing but as a discipline that can slip from time to time, and not as some kind of torture.

She describes a number of exercises to play with the act of percolation, such as picking one subject to write about for three weeks and return to it every day to see what deeper, wilder facet one may discover.

Preconceived ideas about writing

frustrated writerGoldberg discovered how her own preconceived ideas about writing held her back. She realized how her writing teachers rarely talked about the writing process except to define such stages as brainstorming, first draft, revision, editing, final copy. She assumed that if she followed these stages in order, they would automatically lead somewhere. But they didn’t.

“I began to approach writing the way I choreographed a dance piece, intuitively and experimentally.”

Sometimes, you have to wait for the percolation. She tells the story of the writer who got up early in the morning and had his wife lock him in his office. At noon she would unlock the door, give him lunch, and ask, “How is the writing going?” “Wonderfully,” he’d reply, “I put a comma in.” She’d lock the writer up again in his office until suppertime, when she’d ask how the writing went in the afternoon. “Splendidly,” he’d answer, “I took the comma out.”

There’s a certain point when you replace the fearful, self-critical voice that asks, “Did I write today?” with the better question, “What did I do for the Writing Self today.” The new question makes room to accept that when it comes to writing, everything counts. Even the failures. Especially the failures.

Goldberg examines the three common obstacles to percolation: 1) feeling like you don’t have time to write, 2} believing you have nothing to say, and 3) being paralyzed by critical thoughts about your writing.

For the first she says it helps to realize that there’s always time to write, just not enough time. But everything counts for the Writing Self, even if just a sentence or a phrase here and there in spare moments.

For the second, sometimes people do run out of things to say for awhile, or more commonly, demand too much of themselves too quickly. The Writing Self shuts down in protest. It’s time to examine one’s often irrational expectations.

And for the third, you have to realize that critical thinking is the opposite of percolation. Let it go, at least for awhile, and see what can develop.

Goldberg suggests the demanding exercise of taking the next four writing sessions and throwing away everything you write. At the same time, pay close attention to that nagging, super-critical internal voice as it berates you for throwing away what are obviously pearls of good writing that you’re trashing. This exposes that voice as one that reproaches indiscriminately, attacking whatever is in front of it. That kind of voice is a detriment not only to our writing, but to our lives in general.

The importance of revision (or not)

Revision is the next aspect of the fulfilling writing life. Goldberg finds that this is often the least favorite part of writing for many people.

But again how we think about it (in the specific, nuanced, if often inarticulate way that all of us do apprehend our attitudes) is important.

For her, revision is a journey of discovery. Many approach revision with a cutting, analytic, critical eye from the first moment. “But starting to revise with curiosity and anticipation about how the draft will develop is inviting intuition as your guide.” The critic and the creator need to work together.

She asks us to explore what revision means to us. Revision means to see again, to return to the material into which we’ve put something of ourselves to see how that sculpture of thought, rough hewn though it may be, can be refined. The hope is that you may influence and shape the words you’ve struggled to get down “so they speak to others as powerfully as you experienced them when you first related to them in your thoughts.”

Goldberg finds thinking of revision as translation is often helpful for her. Just as a translator makes a choice of words, rhythm and tone to convey the meaning of an original text into a new language, so does the revising writer.

“Our written words crave the kind of form that rewriting provides as deeply as we are driven to create structure for the rest of our lives through our work, hobbies and the rituals we participate in.”

Revising, she says, uses aspects of the Writing Self that aren’t fully engaged through percolation.

She provides much more on the practice of revising, including a variety of practical techniques that I won’t describe other than to mention this one: using scissors, cut up your latest draft (I’m assuming that she’s thinking of a short story or an article rather than a long novel) into separate paragraphs, sentences or lines and write on the back a number signifying the original order.

Put the pieces into a big pile and play with rearranging the pieces. Make notes as new ideas arise. Keep going until you get a new order or new material to work into your piece. She says this needs hard copy… it won’t work on a computer. “It’s the kinesthetic experience of actually moving your ideas around with your hands that engages your intuitive abilities.”

In different chapters she considers Not Revising, Communal Revision, Revising Obstacles and many more aspects.

The public part of writing

The third important part of the writing life is going public. It’s part of the cycle of writing. It’s always a risk, in whatever form you do it, whether writing a letter to the editor, posting on a blog, or trying to publish a story.

kipling's study“We all deal with our particular pressures about being public as writers, such as fear of rejection, economic considerations, or rigid and unreasonable standards.”

She emphasizes that the need for praise is the worst reason to share your writing. Mainly because it won’t work. It won’t bolster your self-esteem. It usually has the opposite effect, especially when one’s true motivations are dissembled or veiled.

I think she puts it well this way:

“It’s easy to confuse being open to whatever recognition comes our way and being needy of it, because both states involve vulnerability. … When you try to use your Writing Self to enhance your self-image, and you make your writing public, you will always be on the lookout for someone else to respect your writing for you instead of sharing out of your own respect for the written word.”

She writes about the different audiences we wish to engage as concentric circles: one other person, your community, or the world at large. She sees that first, inner circle, of one other person as the origin of all writing. “We don’t all need to win a Pulitzer Prize to be nurtured by sharing writing.”

I found the book and the clarity of Goldberg’s insights into the writing process to be inspiring. Some might find her too relaxed about the whole thing or too focussed on attitudes and consciousness. Or accuse her of being too New Age-y, like some kind of writing hippy, maybe. That would be a false and superficial misunderstanding of what she’s trying to get at, which is the quality of our attention about what we write.



Notes on images, from the top down:

1) Hans Christian Andersen gazing (daydreaming?) out the window of his study in Copenhagen.

2) An arresting image from .

3) Rudyard Kipling’s study.

Explore posts in the same categories: Awareness, Book Review, Writing

2 Comments on “Beyond The Words — A Book Review”

  1. sputnki Says:

    Hey Fencer,

    Thanks for popping in on my hiatus! This entry was very interesting, especially for me as I try and come to grips with my creative self. I’m beginning to suspect my creative self studied Greco-Roman wrestling when it was younger…

    And I must say, I rather like Kipling’s study. That is a good substitute for the word ‘Study’ in my mind,

    Now I need to find a copy of that book!


  2. fencer Says:

    Hey, Doug, a pleasure to hear from you.

    I really like Kipling’s study too… what a great room.


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