Incarnate Your Ideas (Be Specific)

Last weekend I found a copy of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind in one volume at the local Y’s Service Club book sale. I’ve just read a couple of chapters so far (they’re more vignettes than chapters, really). One of them — “Be Specific” — may be the best explanation for why writing needs specifics that I’ve ever come across.

(1) GIVE THINGS THEIR DIGNITY. We should give people and things the “dignity of their names.” We ought not call some one “girl” (as in, “Hey, girl, get in line”) but use her name. So we ought not to call the flower “flower,” but call it by its name: geranium. I like that — not just that specifics help enliven writing, but they give the universe its deserved dignity. Very cool.

(2) PENETRATE A THING’S BEINGNESS. Using its name “penetrates more deeply into the beingness of that flower.” Now that’s got all kinds of juicy metaphysical possibilities to it. But basically I think that if you penetrate to the “beingness” of a flower, you are in effect milking it for its life, its liveliness. And if you can summon up, if you can milk that liveliness out of the flower, you are then able to pick it up and carry it over to another human being via your sentences.


When we know the name of something, it brings us closer to the ground. It takes the blur out of our mind; it connects us to the earth. If I walk down the street and see “dogwood,” “forsythia,” I feel more friendly toward the environment. I am noticing what is around me and can name it. It makes me more awake. (70)

(4) “NO IDEA, BUT IN THINGS.” When she quotes William Carlos Williams saying, “No idea, but in things,” I assume she means there are no ideas except when they are clothed in things. (Well, there are, they’re just unclothed.) But, anyway, oh yeah, I get what she means, and I like it. Incarnate your ideas. Don’t leave them floating in the ether. Pull them down to earth. Make them visible.


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