Staying Wild: How do we keep that je ne sais quoi?

Last night, I was on the verge of talking about how writers move from scene to summary to scene to my memoir class–they’re mostly brand new to memoir, many brand new to writing– when suddenly I realized: Yes, they have much to learn about craft and if they work at it, they will learn it BUT  what will the cost be? Will they lose that wildness, that urgency that first brings you to the page, right out of themselves?

I have a nostalgia for not knowing a thing about writing. I didn’t know what a story was, what a scene was, how dialogue can do x, y, and z. But I had something. Something that I only have now if I court it, woe it, whisper “come back.”  It was the raw part of me that said, I must speak.  Yes, almost all my early writing was not publishable.  It was confusing, undeveloped and–usually–just plain unfinished. But in all that jumble, there was this voice–ancient, chaotic, poetic in the good sense of the word.

It was the joy of following that voice that made me want to keep writing. And learning. It was that learning that finally made my writing publishable. And yet, it is also the learning that makes me hesitate when an idea hits me from nowhere–not nowhere, from that wild place.  I hesitate because I instantly know its liabilities, where it falls short, why it has no market.  Or, at least I think I know.

But when I listen, when I trust it, when I allow myself to somehow dip into that beginner’s mind, it’s magic.

This is a bit of what I read to my class last night from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones:

“You need a large field in writing too. Don’t pull in the reins too quickly. Give yourself tremendous space to wander in, to be utterly lost with no name, and then come back and speak.”

How do you keep the field large? For me, sometimes, it’s a long walk before I write, sometimes it’s through music, sometimes it’s by telling myself, “You can follow this piece wherever it takes you.”

How do you keep that beginner’s voice?

About Theo Pauline Nestor

Author of Writing Is My Drink (Simon & Schuster) and How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed. Learn more about my courses, editing, and coaching at
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4 Responses to Staying Wild: How do we keep that je ne sais quoi?

  1. I suppose this sounds almost confrontational toward writing teachers (I don’t mean it that way) . . . but one way you retain that beginners voice is by not taking any writing classes; by not doing the things that change one’s voice other than what happens naturally by increased age and life experience.

    Even now, I do not know half the terms bandied about in writing classes yet I can express myself just fine. Who knows what would happen, were I to be taught the error of my present ways? Perhaps I would lose what style I have and end up lost.

    I have that same mixed feeling toward photography classes. You can teach the mechanical aspects of taking pictures . . . how to use a light meter, how to set the controls of the camera. But the actual composition . . . the art of the thing . . . can that really be taught?

    Isn’t writing the same way??

    • theonestor says:

      i think writing teachers should tell themselves everyday: above all else, do no harm.

      I am a writing teacher, so of course, I’m invested in thinking we have relevance. But, besides that, I know that it was through my MFA classes that my work improved. Yet, yet, yet….it’s complex.

  2. Cheryl Savit says:

    I think you have the right approach. And I hope that the source of John’s comments (previous commentor) aren’t from a harsh experience with a teacher. I have a wonderful writing teacher right now and welcome her guidance. She, too, bases her classes on Natalie Goldberg’s method of writing practice. And, John, you said it yourself – knowing how to do something properly doesn’t necessarily change the content, only the framework. Just my two cents….thanks.
    Cheryl aka Savvywords

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