Catching Fireflies

finding magic along the way

Some rules to write by

“One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it,
lose it, all, right away, every time.
Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book;
give it, give it all, give it now.
The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now.
Something more will arise for later, something better.”
Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Last month, I posted about breaking the rules and I stand behind that.  Rules, especially in writing, were meant to be broken.  Now, I am not talking about spelling and grammar, in the final published product.  These are necessary if our words are to be understood. I am talking about the rules of writing that are everywhere – in magazines, websites, blogs, books, seminars, podcasts, classes and so on.  It seems everyone is willing to put in their two cents and most writers just manage to get tangled up in the dos and don’ts and manage to NOT write as a result.

Natalie Goldberg is the exception.  Most writers or wanna be writers are familiar with her book, Writing Down the Bones.  If you have ever wanted to write a book, play, memoir, or in a journal, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  Another excellent book by her is Wild Mind.  A number of years ago I bought a cassette version (now I am dating myself!) of her reading this book.  I copied it over onto CD so I could listen to it in my car.

The last week or so I have felt at loose ends with my writing.  I have been unmotivated, uninspired and at a loss.  I began listening to Wild Mind on my way to and from work each day.  And I find myself coming back to Natalie’s rules for writing again and again.  These are some rules that make sense and go so much deeper than “don’t open a novel with the weather,” and “avoid dream sequences.” These rules open you up instead of making your breath feel tight and constricted.

The rules as Natalie sees them are as follows:

  1. Keep your hand moving.
  2. Lose control.
  3. Be specific.
  4. Don’t think.
  5. Don’t worry about punctuation, spelling, grammar.
  6. You are free to write the worst junk in America.
  7. Go for the jugular.

She explains that these rules can be applied to most activities in life, even sex.  For that connection, you will have to buy the book, but it is true. 🙂

I particularly get stuck with rule #2, #4 and #7.  I find, too often, in writing and life that I think too much and am afraid to lose control.  I think most of us are like that.  Our public selves have to behave and speak a certain way and God forbid we rock the boat.  As I get older, I find this not-rocking-the-boat is starting to feel a little tight around my neck.  I think I might like to cut loose a little and just let it rip, and my writing is the perfect place to do this.

#7 scares me most of all.  Going for the jugular, writing the things that are scary or ugly.  My inner critic is always correctly me telling me to make it prettier, to gloss over the truth if need be because my gosh, someone might read this!  But here again, I think it may be time for a change.  It may well be time to stop caring so much about what the neighbors think, about the possibility of being laughed at or even worse, noticed. 

I think I am going to keep listening to this book all the way through.  It is making me feel braver in the face of a blank page, a bit less concerned with the final product and more in tune with the deepest part of me that longs to pick up the pen.

What scares you most in writing and in life?  Are you willing to get down and dirty and real?


  1. Daphne Shadows

    I love this and I needed this right now. Thank you. 🙂 I recently read a book by an author I’ve never read before and its opened me up to the fact that the harsh truths and down right dirty aren’t going to make a reader close my book. Real life doesn’t have a glossy candy coating. On draft #2, I’ve decided my writing shouldn’t either. Good luck!

    • I am always censoring myself, even in my journal. I mean, gosh, what if someone saw it! 🙂 I guess if something I say, which reflects my truth, offends someone then they will just have to deal with it! Of course, I mainly write MG/YA fiction so odds of offending my family and friends are slim but you never know.

      • Daphne Shadows

        I’m always worrying about offending someone else too! I just tell myself that compromising the truth, emotions, and the story itself in order to lie, insuring no hurt feelings, makes writing the story in the first place kind of pointless.

        • Totally agree, Daphne! Stories are not all pretty and happy. Sometimes, we have to tell something that might hurt someone’s feelings. It is hard to weigh the importance of the story with the time you will have to wait to publish it though (easier if all parties have passed away before it hits the shelves!) 🙂

  2. Yvette Carol

    I’m scared I may fail, and not make it as a writer. After thirty years of keeping my chin up and believing in myself, no matter what, sometimes these days I feel a bit flat.

    • Yvette,
      I am so sorry you are feeling frustrated. I think we all need to redefine what it means to make it as a writer. Is it only the published writer who has acheived success? If publishing is your goal, and you are running into a wall, take a moment to assess what is working and what isn’t working on your journey. Maybe there is a different approach, a different topic, a different audience? Please know that we all feel as you are feeling right now. I feel like I don’t have the time or energy to put into this dream, and with no promises of the outcome, I question if it is worth pursuing. But then I realize that I love writing just for the sheer pleasure of putting the words down. I may never be able to rely on it to pay the bills, but I can’t give it up. Sending hugs and chocolate to make you smile!

  3. Most of my writing is ‘free flow’ my fingers type, my mind is off in its own world with characters steering it. For my second novel I had an idea of how the story would proceed but my characters had other ideas. It became something completely different and some distasteful traits appeared for the villian. Do not ask me where they came from I have no idea but they certainly made him unlikeable. Of course I then had to find a redeeming trait for him and luckily one ‘popped’ into my head.
    Obviously with free flow I do type furiously and don’t worry about the editing until I’ve finished. A story initially needs to be poured out as naturally as possible – the ‘proper’ steps can come later.
    Enjoy the process – let those voices talk!

    • I learned to let it flow like that during my first NaNoWriMo. There is no time to edit or even think! It is a great exercise in just getting out of your own way and getting it down. 🙂

  4. Cheryl,
    I love Natalie Goldberg. I just checked out her Old Friend from Far Away book on memoir writing, and the introduction itself is worth framing and putting near my computer. As long as we keep the pen moving, we can’t fail at writing 🙂

    • Christi – I will have to go grab my copy of Old Friend From Far Away and reread the intro! Love her down to earth approach to the writing process.

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