We’re talking with Barbara Abercrombie, author of A Year of Writing Dangerously: 365 Days of Inspiration and Encouragement.
It definitely is a great book for anyone interested in writing. I know that I thoroughly enjoyed it and it was a privilege to be able to talk to her about it.
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Barbara Abercrombie teaches at the ULCA Extension Writer’s Program and we are picking up our conversation about teaching writing.
Chase: “If someone wants to write, you can’t simple say, ‘Here’s how to do it.’”
Barbara: “As a teacher, all I can do is bring in wonderful writing as examples. I always start each class with reading a poem, whether they like poetry or not. Some students just look at me cross-eyed like, ‘Oh my, what have I gotten myself into? She’s gonna stand up there reading poetry’ but I love poetry. I read them one poem at the beginning of each class. One of the most exciting things that I’ve had as feedback from students is that they’ve started reading poetry and started appreciating it. I think to write prose, studying poetry is very, very helpful and inspiring,
I don’t think there is any cut and dried way to teach writing. It’s giving people prompts, introducing the notion that there really are no mistakes in writing. You are writing your way into whatever you have to write. And like you were saying before, some people don’t necessarily want to become writers, they just want to write. And that is wonderful too. If you have a journal and you just want to keep track of your life, I think everybody should do that. There are so many other opportunities for people to write, like whatever your interest, you could create a blog and write in that every day or once a week.
There is also self publishing. It’s amazing and it has changed so much in the past ten years. You can write stories about your family, you can write your autobiography and you can publish it for your family. There are lots of new opportunities for people who want to write but nit necessarily become writers.”
Chase: “I have to find another quote. I took so many notes in this book. There it is. It’s from Day 78 – Dimes in Ivory Soap. There’s an anecdote about your family finding dimes in bars of soap. We don’t need to spoil that story for anyone listening but basically, if you don’t write down your stories, they’re gone. I think that is your point here, that we can write journals and we can write down these stories.
I’ve been reading up on Indian Residential Schools this summer. A lot of people who went through that experience didn’t want to talk about it because it was painful, but it’s starting to get written down now. There are some stories available now and I think that is very important to have those narratives out in the world so when the Elders pass away, we still have their stories behind them.
Barbara: “You can have videos and photographs and albums, but if people don’t write down the stories, they are gone. I think stories are valuable and precious. I encourage everyone to write down their stories and to keep track of their lives. It’s important.”
Chase: “Not only our own lives. In Day 306 of A Year of Writing Dangerously, you mention how we can borrow other people’s stories.”
Barbara: “Right, the stories you hear. I used to think of it as stealing but I think of it as preserving stories now. You know what, Chase? It takes energy to do it, to write down the stories. It also takes the realization of the importance of it. Going through our lives, we all tend to think as our lives are so familiar to us, we think, ‘Who would ever be interested in that, or in that detail? Why is that important?’ But if you write stuff down and go back to it, even if it’s just a year later, it’s astonishing and you do realize the value in all those details of your life.”
Chase: “I find writing helps me to remember. I don’t have such a good memory. But I write things down. I used to journal a lot more than I do now. My blog has kind of become my journal and every month, I actually look back to what I was writing last month at that time. It really is an interesting observation every time. It helps me remember some things I probably would have otherwise forgotten just because I wrote it down and I published it on a blog.”
Barbara: “Exactly. I’ve been keeping my blog, Writing Time . typepad . com for six and half years now. I go back to some of the old posts and it’s like I’m reading it for the first time.”
Chase: “That’s very cool. Nothing New Under the Sun. Day 51. This is one of the interesting things you do in the book too, you have a little anecdote or story or piece of advice. Every day takes up a page in the book. Some of them are only a paragraph and some are four or five paragraphs long. But at the end of each entry, there is a quote from another author or writer. It’s really interesting. I like to watch Book Television just to see what the authors are saying but I don’t often read a lot of writer’s quotes. It’s nice to see those in the book.
In this one, in particular, Paul Hogan says, ‘Everything has been said; but not everything has been said superbly, and even if it had been, everything must be said freshly, over and over.’”
Barbara: “Isn’t that wonderful? I love that quote too. It’s so true. There is nothing new under the sun. It’s a paradox as our stories are very similar but the details of our stories are different and new and fresh. In that section, I was quoting a student who was always emailing me. At that point, it was about Nora Ephron who just passed away a couple weeks ago, and she felt that Nora Ephron had highjacked all her material to write about.”
Chase: “You can still explore themes that have already been written about and explored. I love comic books and if you think about it, Spiderman has been out since the 1960s, but there are literally thousands and thousands and thousands of Spiderman stories but they still come out with a brand new one every week.”
Barbara: “Isn’t that amazing?”
Chase: “So, just because something has been said, it shouldn’t scare writers away from tackling that subject as well.”
Chase: “Day 178 The Duty of Poets and Writers. I like this, ‘The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.’
That quote reminds me of Joseph Gold’s Read for Your Life: Literature as Life Support System. Are you familiar with that book?”
Barbara: “No, I’m not. I’m gonna take a note of it. I love that title!”
Chase: “It’s great. He uses books in his therapy sessions with patients and they can learn a lot through other people’s stories about their own experience. He believes that reading helps us in all aspects of our lives. Stories help us reorganize thinking, help to resolve problems by reviewing situations from a different viewpoint. Reading gives us more insight into those things.”
Barbara: “That’s fabulous. As soon as we are finished, I am going to look that up on Amazon. I believe that so strongly.”
Chase: “Yeah, it’s a great book. The same day, in your book, Day 178, the quote under that entry is, “Certaintly morality should come first for writers, critics, and everybody else. People who change tires. People in factories. They should always ask, is this moral? Not, will it sell?” and that’s from John Gardner.”
Barbara: “He was such a moral writer too. It’s so true. At the writer’s program at UCLA, I teach creative writing and most of my students are really serious about exploring their lives and putting something important down on the page. The screenwriting classes are very different, I think. And I don’t mean to make any mass generalizations here, but people are thinking more about breaks and making money, etc, etc. I don’t want to put screenwriters down because I know some very serious ones.”
Chase: “Writing novels is different from writing screenplays as well.”
Chase: “I write both, but I let things develop organically. I know that there are certain beatsheets and things you can get when writing a screenplay that say, ‘This should happen on this page,’ and like you said before, some people can write with those kinds of plans but I feel it handcuffing. I also don’t think each story needs to follow that rigid path. Like you’ve mentioned it the book, there really aren’t any blueprints to writing.
But, I read a book entitled Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. He’s got a blog called Story Fix and he says that there are Six Core Competencies. He’s basically saying these six things need to be in your story and that you should block them out and you should figure out where they are. I read it, but I much prefer as a manual for writing Stephen King’s—“
Barbara: “His memoir book. It’s about his writing life and—“
Chase: “It’s called On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.”
Barbara: “That’s a terrific book. I love that!”
Chase: “It certainly is, but I’ve been wondering a lot lately about my process. I keep reading blog post after blog post where it says we should plan out our stuff or we’ll have to write draft after draft to fully flesh out material that should have been in our original plan. It’s really been conflicting me lately, like am I writing wrong?”
Barbara: “You can’t write wrong, Chase. There is now way to write wrong. I think you are going to write draft after draft no matter how you start. I’m always reading those books and those blog posts like ‘5 things your story should have’ or ‘10 elements you need to tell your story.’ And they never work for me because I have to get into the story and find that for myself. It’s not like baking a cake where you are going to have a little of this and a little of that, where you are going to preheat the oven, and sift the flower. I think writing is an incredibly messy process and you just can’t be afraid of the mess to get into it.
Here’s an example. I have a grandson named Axle and I have a photograph of him at age 2 and he’s painting. He’s doing a painting that I have hanging in my house right now. He is covered in blue paint. He has blue paint up his nose and in his ears. And he’s created this beautiful painting out of the blue paint. I think that’s how we write. We gotta get into the blue paint and eventually we’ll create something beautiful.”
Chase: “Going back to what we were talking about earlier about being moral with our writing. These blogs posts that are ‘5 Ways to Write’ and ’10 Scenes You Must Have.’ Those kinds of posts sell. I don’t know why but anything with a number in it.”
Barbara: “That’s true. When I do writing articles, I always do that. I always put numbers in and push eberything into the numbers, but then you take the numbers with a grain of salt.”
Chase: “Another thing that really annoys me about Internet copy is stuff like ‘The Batman Guide to Writing’ or “The Eminem Guide to Writing Children’s Books.’ They put stuff together that doesn’t match at all and then they take some mythology from it. People searching will stumble across it and they’ll read it because it seems weird but to me, it doesn’t seem honest.
That’s one of the reasons I like your book because you say, ‘It’s messy, get in there and do it, and don’t be afraid’ and you give us all sorts of inspiration. Morally, I think that’s the better way to go.
I am so glad I got this book.
How can people find out more about you if they want to get in touch with you?
Barbara: “I have a website barbaraabercrombie.com and I have a blog writingtime.typepad.com. They can email me through my website or make comments on the blog.”
Chase: “This is your fourteenth book and I hope writers go and pick it up. Your fifteenth book is another one that writers are going to want to get as well. It has been a pleasure talking to you. Thanks a lot.”
Barbara: “It’s been a pleasure talking to you too. And by the way, you have the coolest name, Chase March. I love it!”
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