Natalie Goldberg’s 7 Rules of Writing
…and how you can use them to improve your writing practice.
I must confess something that I’ve been struggling with since I was a kid…writing is really, really, really painful for me.
I get stuck in my head all the time. My internal critic grabs a bullhorn and yells at me to drop the pen and run. I feel like a fraud or an imposter or, at the very least, like I’m not worthy to call myself a “writer.”
Please tell me I’m not the only person who suffers from this?
The ONLY thing…and I can’t stress the word ONLY enough….that has helped me silence the noise in my head is to cultivate a daily writing practice that gives me permission to write whatever junk comes out of my head, into my hand, and onto the page.
Many of you know Julia Cameron and her practice of morning pages and they are a god-send. But I also want to name another writing teacher who has contributed a ton to the spiritual and holistic aspects of writing, Natalie Goldberg and her book Wild Mind.
To clarify, when I say writing practice it means sitting your tush down to write. Be it morning pages, journaling, or the first draft of a screenplay, I’m referring to the actual product of writing the thing you set out to create.
Writing practice is not editing or revision or plotting or outlining. Yes, a certain amount of creative permission is needed to complete those tasks, but they rely more on your inner critic, a voice of opposition.
In Natalie’s book, she outlines 7 “rules” that are “the foundation of learning to trust your own mind.” Let’s take a look at her rules and see what inspiration we can glean from them.
RULE #1: Keep your hand moving
“If you keep your creator hand moving, the editor can’t catch up with it and lock it.”
Okay, I know what you’re thinking, “I already do this. I just watch my hand move on the page…it’s magic…blah…blah…blah.”
But let’s be honest. You don’t. You MIGHT keep your hand moving for 10 or 15 seconds. But minutes on end? Doubt it. You start, stop, look at Twitter, start again, stop, look at your notes, rinse, repeat.
The purpose of keeping your hand moving is to push through the initial stages of resistance and silence the inner critic before it has an opportunity to clamp down. The beginning of any writing project is always fraught with many dangers and distractions, and the only way to get through is to just keep your hand moving.
TRY THIS: Make sure you have a pen or pencil that is comfortable in your hand. It sounds silly but when writing fast the first thing to cramp up isn’t the brain, it’s your hand.
Also, when I get stuck and nothing’s coming out of my head I just write the phrase “and then” over and over again until something bubbles to the surface. It’s a nice, short phrase that’s easy to write repeatedly (so it keeps your hand moving), and it forces your creative brain to keep the momentum going without fear of the inner critic showing itself.
RULE #2: Lose control
“Say what you want to say. Don’t worry if it’s correct, polite, appropriate. Just let it rip.”
This is really challenging for me regardless of the day, time, or weather. I work in a high school during the day, so my brain is wired for analysis, evaluation, conflict resolution, etc. My mind is basically in control mode all day. Letting go and losing myself on the page is challenging.
But losing control is the foundation of creation. Losing control is chaos, and from chaos rises beauty…if you let it. No one is watching. Be chaotic.
TRY THIS: If you’re like me and you’re having a hard time losing control of your thoughts and just can’t seem to focus on what you should be writing, then give in to the noise. Follow what comes to mind, even if the thoughts have no connection to what you’re working on. You can always edit out what doesn’t make sense. And who knows, maybe that random thought holds a secret that unlocks your writing.
RULE #3: Be specific
“Don’t chastise yourself as you are writing…Don’t give room for the hard grip of the editor.”
This seems like a bit of a contradiction to the previous two rules. I see this as a challenge to work up to, a benchpress goal for your creative brain.
Specificity is always key in writing, but when you’re just getting the juices going and need to get words on the page this rule can be a creative clunker.
Know this: specificity is formed by habit and habits can easily be formed with enough practice and repetition. Your writing will become more specific the more you lose control and keep your hand moving.
Specificity is also another way of describing focus. To what extent are you focused on what you’re writing and why? If you’re writing about a room, how detailed can your writing get before your mind wanders to the hallway?
TRY THIS: When you’re done with your writing practice, put the pages off to the side for at least a day. Give your brain a moment to recuperate from all the heavy lifting. The next day pick up your pages and with a highlighter or pen, note all the words, phrases, and sentences where you can add more specificity and detail to what you wrote.
Another option would be to take a black marker and cross out anything you wrote that you didn’t like. Then take what’s left on the page and start writing. You’ll inevitably write deeper and more specific.
RULE #4: Don’t think
“We usually live in the realm of second or third thoughts, thoughts on thoughts, rather than in the realm of first thoughts, the real way we flash on something.”
My father-in-law likes to joke that every time he tries to think nothing happens. Yes, old man jokes are cute, but he’s also on to something. Writing isn’t about thinking; it’s about being present and listening.
The more present you are the freer you are to observe your thoughts come and go and play off each other. It’s a jam session.
The more you think and force your ideas to life the more power the inner critic gains. It chews on your thoughts. So starve it and let your creativity eat for once.
TRY THIS: If you can’t write first thing in the morning then I suggest taking a few minutes to meditate and let your mind settle, get the noise out of your head and approach the blank page with a silent mind.
The act of meditation tells your brain that you are transitioning from one mode to another. Just like our bodies need a breather before we start another set of weights, our minds need a breather when we ask it to do something different.
RULE #5: Don’t worry about punctuation, spelling, and grammar
“It’s better to figure out what you want to say in the actual act of writing.”
Look, the triumvirate of terror known as PSG (punctuation, spelling, and grammar) is the gateway to forced, stale, non-creative writing. Yes, correct punctuation, spelling, and grammar are absolutely important, but not in the drafting phase, not when you’re just writing for yourself.
If you’re spending a lot of time worrying about the correct pronoun-antecedent then you’re not focused on what you are actually trying to say.
If punctuation, spelling, and grammar are your peanut butter, then I’ve got enough worksheets to be your jelly.
TRY THIS: Turn off all the apps and programs that draw those stupid lines and call out every misspelled word. Turn them on when you’re ready to EDIT. Oftentimes we start decorating the rooms before the house is even built. Yes, these conventions are needed for clarity, but for the love of humanity just put them to the side until you actually need them.
RULE #6: You are free to write the worst junk in America
“You can be more specific, if you like: the worst junk in Santa Fe; New York; Kalamazoo, Michigan; your city block; your pasture; your neighborhood restaurant; your family.”
A big problem with my writing practice is that I’m a perfectionist. Hello everyone, my name is Frank, and I’m addicted to perfectionism. I push myself to be the best at a craft in which there are no masters.
The truth of the matter is that everyone’s writing sucks, especially in the early stages of a project. Stephen King, Virginia Woolf, Shakespeare. Gotta famous author? Their drafts suck. All their first, second, and probably third drafts suck, too.
What does “good” writing mean anyway? What’s “brilliant” and “genius” to you might be “bleh” to me. Another person’s junk is another person’s treasure.
TRY THIS: It might sound silly, but I tell myself to purposely write the shittiest version of whatever I’m working on. It’s a bit of a Jedi mind trick, but it forces me to relinquish myself from the tyranny of perfectionism. I don't worry about being word-perfect; I just focus on being perfectly shitty.
RULE #7: Go for the jugular
“If something scary comes up, go for it. That’s where the energy is. Otherwise, you’ll spend all your time writing around whatever makes you nervous.”
Let me tell you something that many people tend to forget when it comes to writing: YOU DON’T HAVE TO SHARE IT WITH ANYONE.
Do you know what that means? It means you can write about your deepest fears without anyone ever knowing. It means you can tell your darkest secrets without retribution. It means the best topics to write about are the ones you spend your waking life running away from.
Your fears and insecurities make you human, and other humans want to know they’re not alone. Write about what you fear, and I promise your readers will teach you that your fears are illusionary.
TRY THIS: Think about a secret you have buried deep inside you, a secret that absolutely no one knows. Stow yourself away from anyone you know and write about that fear for 5 minutes. Just get it out.
Then, burn the page or delete the file. Get rid of the evidence. Your secret is safe, but you let it breathe. You’ll be surprised how that breath of fresh air will bear something amazing the next time you pick up your pen or fire up your computer to write.
Take a look at the “rules” one more time and think about what they have in common.
It’s about resistance. Natalie’s rules are designed to make you stop thinking and just let the creative brain do its thing. None of the rules are constricting. All of them help you turn off the inner critic and turn on the real you. They force you to be present in your writing and to “trust your own mind.”
I don’t have to tell you how difficult writing is. But what I do have to tell you is that your greatest fear, your greatest obstacle is not an agent, a manager, readers, reviewers, your parents, your significant other, the system, Donald Trump, ridiculous housing prices, etc., etc., etc. None of it is an obstacle to your writing.
Your ONLY obstacle is YOU. Get out of your own damn way and keep writing.
Now what? Here are a few ideas to get you started.
Read: If you haven’t already, I highly suggest reading Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind. I also suggest looking for a published journal of a well-known writer and read it to learn how they approach their writing practice. My favorite is Virginia Woolf’s published journals. Steinbeck published his journals when writing Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden. It’s inspiring and humbling to watch such masters of storytelling and language struggle with their writing process.
Revise: Take a moment to reflect on your current writing practice. Compare it to Natalie Goldberg’s rules. Which of Natalie’s rules do you currently practice well? Which rules need some tinkering? Make a goal for the next week or two to focus on the rules that are most challenging for you. Set aside 10 minutes, focus on the rule, and just let it rip.
Write: I’ve embedded several direct quotes from Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind into this article. Select one that resonates with you. Write it down and let it jumpstart your writing for 10 minutes. Let the quote take your writing where it wants to.
If you found this article helpful, inspiring, or maybe even magical, then I invite you to take a gander at the article below on how to generate a variety of ideas for articles and essays from a single topic.