It was a snowy late December afternoon in 1986 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I was pet sitting for a local filmmaker—away with his family for Christmas vacation—and I was browsing through the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that lined the wall of their living room. The one I reached for would change my life:  Natalie Goldberg’s now classic guide Writing Down the Bones, which had recently been published.

I read a few pages, then grabbed a pen and my spiral-bound notebook and began to scribble, following Natalie’s first rule of writing practice: Keep your hand moving.  The instruction was to outrun the inner editor, to “burn to first thoughts, to the place where energy is unobstructed by social politeness or the internal censor,” to lose control and spill onto the page the raw details, unconstrained by spelling, punctuation, grammar.

So  I wrote about the house at the top of Upper Canyon Road where I was staying, windows looking over a forest of juniper, aspen, and pine clear to the spiny ridges of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains—and about how glad I was to be  sleeping somewhere with central heating, because I’d been living with two massage students in an adobe cottage heated by a wood stove in the kitchen and a kerosene heater that left a thick film of black grime on my bedroom walls, and we’d run out of money to buy more pinon firewood until my next check arrived from my $5/hour parttime gig as assistant to an editor on a documentary about nuclear contamination in the Marshall Islands.

I wrote about the pets that I was taking care of for the filmmaker’s family–a white rat named Marilyn Monroe, and an ancient, incontinent German shepherd who left puddles of diarrhea on the tiled floors. I wrote about how one morning I found the rat dead in her cage and had to call the filmmaker’s hotel in Tucson and leave a message at the front desk that Marilyn Monroe had died; and how I received a message back on my answering machine from a bewildered-sounding hotel clerk passing on the filmmaker’s message that I should put Marilyn Monroe’s body in a Ziploc bag in the freezer. 

I wrote about how strange it was to be alone on Christmas and how the previous year I’d gone home to my parents’ house in New York bearing wreaths of red chili peppers, but this year I didn’t want to face the unspoken family questions about what at 23 years old I was doing with my life when I didn’t know myself yet—and so instead this year I had walked alone on Christmas Eve through tumbling snowflakes, looking at the faralitos, flickering candles in small paper bags lining the doorsteps and sidewalks.

I wrote about the huge crush I had on my first yoga teacher and how I invited him over for dinner at my housesit, hoping to take full advantage of the king-size bed. How I bought ingredients for a squash soup based on a recipe I found in a Gourmet magazine in the living room, a dish that seemed very grown up and sophisticated to me–but when he came over he said he couldn’t eat it, because it included cream and butter and he was vegan. Instead he jimmied the wires on the hot tub so we could crank it way hotter than its safety settings. Then we jumped between the hot tub and the snow drift, back and forth, back and forth, and that’s how we spent our whole date, and then the next day he drove off to a bodywork school in Florida.

Before coming upon Natalie’s book, I already had years of training as a “good writer.” In college, I had been the campus correspondent for a variety of local newspapers and had studied fiction with an intimidatingly famous novelist. I had interned for Highwire magazine and Newsday. I had written academic papers that got effortless A’s. But I had no confidence in my own voice. How could I know what that was? I didn’t know who I was.

But keeping my hand moving, aimed not at conveying facts and opinions but at connecting with a thread of aliveness–this was a different kind of writing, writing that came from the inside, as a kind of meditation. You kept your hand moving to out-run your inner editor—in my case, precisely that “good writer” who had been so well trained that she squelched my inner artist. There was no way to do it right or wrong– the point was the process, not the product. I wasn’t just arranging information and quotes in a logical order on the page. I was tapping into a living energy inside me—a vital creative force I hadn’t known I was missing.

In the decades since then, in my imperfect practice of keeping my hand moving, I’ve accumulated boxes of undated notebooks filled with illegible scribbles; terabytes of computer journal files, many in formats so old that I have to buy special apps just to open them. When I dare to peer into them, I see that lots of those pages are comprised of cyclical ramblings, random notes, psychological self-analysis, and lamentations about the fact that I hadn’t been writing more often. It seems strange to save all this, like storing piles of used Kleenex. And ironically, though I would carry them out of a burning building with me, when I die, I want them destroyed immediately. To save one of my heirs from this job, I should probably throw the whole heap away . . . some day.

I used to think that the real purpose of Natalie’s instruction was to eventually do something with all that verbal detritus the moving hand had left in its wake. To pan for gold in those silty streams and discover precious nuggets for essays, novels, travelogues, poems, memoirs. And I have managed to do a good bit of that over the years. (Look! I’m doing it right now!) 

But now I see that that the real point was always the wild, galloping horse of the writing process itself—not the various carts that the horse might be harnessed to pull. The point was to free that feral voice from its steel trap, to discover what it had always wanted to say. 

The day I pulled that book off the shelf, I didn’t know that “writing down the bones” was the beginning of a lifelong journey to reclaim my authentic voice. I didn’t know that writing would join with yoga and meditation as three interwoven arts that would be central to my life, each one dependent on the discipline of returning again and again to the blank page of practice, and then surrendering to the mystery of what unfurls. To be a meditator, sit down on your cushion. To be a yogi, step onto your mat. To be a writer, keep your hand moving. 

I still write something almost every day. I scribble down dreams in the middle of the night that I can’t read when I wake up. I save yet another file titled Journal [Month Year].Keep your hand moving is a kind of yoga—a vinyasa on paper, helping me to keep showing up, again and again, for this wild life. It’s a way of bowing down to all the ungraspable moments as they flicker past.