Composting for Writers

Image: Adapted from Canva Pro

Regular readers of this blog will know my writing year in 2023 entered not as a galloping horse, but more of an old donkey pulling a square wheeled cart. Rather than fight my writing block I have decided to make use of the time given to explore and re-evaluate some of my writing processes and motivations.

One of my go-to books during periods in the creative wilderness is Natalie Goldberg’s, Writing Down the Bones. I have lost count of the number of times I have read the book. Each time I pick up Goldberg’s classic I still find nuggets of inspiration. One thing which has stuck in my mind from my latest reading has been her thoughts on what she describes as composting.

‘Our senses by themselves are dumb. They take in experience, but they need the richness of sifting for a while through our consciousness and through our whole bodies. I call this composting.’

Natalie Goldberg

She adds that the composting process creates fertile writing soil and from this soil come our poems and stories. There is one potential drawback. Composting takes time.

Recently, in my writing, I have felt I have been saying the same things in a hundred different ways. I explained this to a writing mentor as though I was treading water in a large ocean. Every now and again I would stick my head under the waves and look down into the depths. Coming from the darkness would be an occasional glimpse of something shining. I knew the shining was writing treasure but was struggling to dive deep enough to find exactly what it was.

The secret, the mentor suggested, was to keep treading water. In Goldberg’s terms this is to continue writing. The composting process can take a lifetime. We have to develop patience, give ourselves permission to keep laying words on the garbage heap, allow them to settle before turning them over, in the same way you would treat and cultivate a garden compost heap.

A Way of Composting

A method Goldberg offers as a way of composting is to use daily, timed, writing sessions. These can be anywhere from five minutes to an hour. The aim is to establish a time then sit and write; let the pen flow, no crossing out, no checking for spelling or punctuation. Whatever is on your mind get those thoughts down on paper.

I do try to write every day in my journal. Reading back in these journals it appears I have been composting for some years, despite a habit and desire to make the writing perfect first time. This is a something developed from childhood and an English education system which frowned on crossing things out, scorning any imperfection appearing on paper. Reducing imperfection has a place within an editing process, but for creativity to begin there must be freedom to let the pen flow unhindered.

I’ve introduced the timed write into my daily writing schedule and have committed to writing three pages in my journal each day, which takes around twenty minutes. Now, into the second week of this practice, the fog in my mind is starting to lift. The seeds of some new work is beginning to appear, and my writing is feeling lighter with some purpose.

Do you compost as a writer? Have you any other tips that you could share about the process? I would love to read about them.

Have a good weekend.    

29 thoughts on “Composting for Writers

  1. Love hearing that some new work is beginning to appear, and that your writing is starting to feel lighter. Goldberg’s book is awesome. Here’s a strange off the wall suggestion. Read or reread Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. It’s a grammar book, but I love how it breaks writing down to its core. I find the simplicity of the book always helps me think in a more logical way and break-through any struggle I’m having at the moment. Keep at it Davy! The feel will come back.

    1. Thank you for that tip, Brian. I have that book hidden somewhere in the depths of the writing den. I will dig it out and have a reread. Going back to basics is never a bad thing, and always good to keep honing writing skills. Thanks again for the advice and have a good weekend. (Will it involve a Super Bowl Party?)

      1. I think it will be very useful, Brian. I read the book many years ago and it must have had some impact as I kept it. I wasn’t sure who to root for on Sunday but you’ve swayed me towards the Eagles. I will keep everything crossed for you all.

      2. Davy, Your poems are so thoughtful and heartfelt but here’s a crazy idea to break-through any writing blocks: what does the average UK sports fan think of our crazy American football? The NFL keeps talking about expanding to Europe. Who know if they ever will. My guess is that they’re jealous of the global interest in FIFA and the World Cup ( ie, the advertising $$$$). Ha, ha! Anyway, hope you’re able to watch! Go Birds!!! 🦅

      3. That is a subject that maybe one day we could mull over a beer Brian. I know we have NFL games over here in England on a regular basis and they are always sold out. English Premier League football clubs are being bought by more US sport companies. Chelsea is the latest one. It is interesting to see the different sporting views and cultures.

      4. Sounds great Davy. I’ll take you up on that. Yes, I’ve noticed that about US companies. I’m not sure I would like that. I would worry about the team’s losing their identities and the culture that makes them unique.

  2. My writing process is pretty basic. I sit around and wait until a topic presents itself. This typically happens ever two to seven days and then I dive in and write. I try to shoot for about 800 words and it usually take around three hours to write, edit and blog I’ve tried various adaptations (such as journaling) to try to generate more ideas and I can’t seem to make the habit stick. I’ve tried to put my stuff away for a few days so I can revisit it before I publish but I find I get impatient and just go ahead and blog it. I’ll frequently continue making edits days or weeks after I blog something. So no, not really any composting here. Although I frequently wind up getting republished in other websites and books. I try to do a hard edit before that happens.

    1. Thanks for sharing your process, Jeff. Impatience seems to be something that many writers battle with. I think that is why I write mainly poetry as I can have numerous projects to bounce between. Does an idea for writing sit in your head for a while? Perhaps we sometimes compost ideas there before we commit them to paper.

  3. I’ve also enjoyed that book, but I forgot about “composting”. My husband often asks what I’m doing and I reply, “Just writing some crap.” (Except sometimes I don’t say crap.) So I guess that’s my composting process. Good luck, Davy. 🙂 Alicia

    1. Thanks, Alicia. The book is one I always return to and one of the few writing books I would take to a desert island. As you describe, composting may take different forms and be different for different writers. As long as we continue to write does it matter how good the writing is?

  4. I’m adding books that I should buy/obtain to a list. I’d never heard of this form of composting, but it sounds like what you’re describing is what I actually do … just dump words and ideas on pages until I see where it takes me. At least that seems to be how my writing is developing.

    I think its different with some of the more academic stuff as I’m simply putting on paper some things I say almost daily. But with work I need to develop, to create … I think I’ve been composting … glad to see I’m doing something right 😁

    1. Of the many books I have read on writing, Brenda, Writing Down the Bones is my favourite, in terms of sparking creativity. I have been reading another, Written, – How to keep writing and build a habit that lasts – by Bec Evans and Chris Smith. There are some great writing tips, ideas, and references in the book. Thanks for sharing your writing process.

      1. Thanks Davy. I’m starting to think I need to explore/understand the craft of writing, so I’ll check this out. I’m also wondering about doing a course over the summer

      2. I think that will be a great idea, Brenda. I have learned a lot from various writing courses over the years. Now many places offer online options there is more choice available.

  5. I compost all the time! Albeit passively. I’ve read Goldberg’s book and I appreciate it, but in certain parts, she does get into woo-woo or romanticism land. Maybe I’m more pragmatic about writing, which is why I enjoy actionable advice from books like Palahniuk’s Consider This. Anyway, thanks for this post!

  6. I love the concept and its name. It’s very true – composting is going on most of the time and it can throw up some gems of brilliance. Writing every day is important and hopefully the words will keep coming because of it. Great sharing, Davy, and keep these posts coming. 🙂

    1. Thank you for the kind and supportive words, Terveen. I do try and write each day and am slowly getting rid of the thought that each visit to my journal should be a masterpiece.

  7. Thank you for the terrific book recommendation from Goldberg. I’m unfamiliar with it but from your description and the comments, I think I need to read it! I’ve often referred to my writing rumination as ‘marinating’. Maybe it’s more like composting? Thanks, Davy — pleasure to connect with you here in the blogging world. 😉

    1. Hi Victoria, it is good to connect with you and I look forward to reading more of your work. The book is one I always go to when I get blocks in my writing and it always helps to shift them in some way. Your description is right. As writers we may have different words but in essence we all compost, or marinate, on our writing in some way. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.