Chase: “All right everybody, this is Chase March and I have Barbara Abercrombie on the phone, author of A Year of Writing Dangerously:365 Days of Inspiration and Encouragement.
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I think this is a book that a lot of writers will be able to enjoy. You’ve broken it down so there is an entry for every single day of the year. They are vignettes or advice and things for writers. So how did you go about compiling this?”
Barbara: “I got the title first and I loved the title, and then I didn’t know exactly how I was going to do it. A friend of mine, who is a writer, who has published a number of books said, ‘You’ve got to do it day by day. I’d buy a book that had something day by day.’
It took me a while to find the voice for it. This is my fourteenth book and every book I write, it’s always a struggle – How are you going to tell the story? What voice are you gonna write it in? And it was just fun because I’m a literary groupie really, and there are a lot of anecdotes of writers in the book. And so I just sat in my office and read memoir and read biographies of writers. Then I used a lot of my own experiences too as a writer.
Chase: “That’s pretty cool how you were talking about finding voice because there is an entry in there, # 8 The Voice that Chirps and Chips and that talks about the negative voices, and I’m sure all writers have this, and even people in their regular lives. The quote reads, ‘We’re so good with negative voices: You idiot, what kind of an idea is that? Who do you think you are to be writing a book?’ The thought goes on that you can actually not listen to those voices.
Which reminds me of another book I just read, Maestro’s Stick to Your Vision. He’s a rapper from Canada here and he talked about how you could trick your brain. Every time you have one of those negative thoughts, you can replace it with a positive though, then you are tricking your mind by deleting the negative thoughts and inserting the positive thoughts. He said that you don’t even have to believe them, just as long as you do that, you will start to believe them and ‘Boom, you’ve tricked your mind.’
Barbara: “I think that’s really true. I really do, or you just tell yourself to do the work. Do the work, don’t judge yourself, write, and once you get into the writing, that’s the way to get that voice to shut up. I think everybody has a negative voice on their shoulder that kicks in every once in a while. The trick is, of course, to shut it up and to replace it with a sweetheart voice that says, ‘Just do the work. It’s okay. Keep going.’”
Chase: “Which reminds me of Day 11 in A Year of Writing Dangerously. “… you don’t have to ‘like’ your own writing. You don’t have to be calm and self-assured. In fact, it’s better if you’re not. It keeps you honest.” I think that is what holds some people back. They’re afraid that their writing isn’t good enough, but as long as you do the work, then you can try to put that thought aside.”
Barbara: “You know, it’s impossible to judge your own work in the middle of it. Fortunately, I don’t know too many people who just love their own work. They just do it because I think they are insufferable probably. But you are struggling to create something. It’s a work in progress and it’s hard to write. You just can’t judge it.
I also say, ‘Put it away. Don’t ever throw it out! Put it away, come back to it and you’ll find something in it.’ I also tell my students, ‘Whatever you write is important because maybe it’s not what is gonna stay on the page but by going through your writing, you are getting to what you need to write and will write eventually.’’
Chase: “That’s very cool. I’m a teacher as well. I’m an elementary school teacher. You teach creative writing at UCLA.”
Barbara: “I do, and the writer’s program which is part of extension, which I love because I get all ages, people, from 18 to 90. My oldest student was 87. It’s such a variety of people. Many of them wanted to be a writer or started writing in school and whether the mechanics of life, they didn’t have time to do it, or a teacher said something snarky and they got scared and stopped. It’s exciting because everyone comes to class with a dream and I think they’re easier to teach than children, which I’ve done also.”
Chase: “I was an English major so I was dissecting books in my undergrad. I really wanted to be a writer but the fact that I was looking going through all these books and looking at such minute things such as imagery and symbolism, and I thought, ‘There’s no way I can do that!’ It scared me from actually writing for a while.”
Barbara: “I think that’s true of a lot of people. I went to one year of college and I was a drama major. And then I quit and went to New York to become an actress because I realized that I had always wanted to be a writer but I always thought it would be too hard. Acting seemed much more easy than writing, and I was right. It took me ten years to go back to it after my first career.”
Chase: “The weird thing is, I found that when I started writing, I always grow my story, kind of organically and let it see where it goes and just write, kind of without a roadmap. You talk about that with the headlight analogy a lot of writers know about in Day 254.”
Barbara: “I love your expression, ‘grow your story’ because that’s really what happens. I’ve never heard it expressed that way before. But stories grow and you don’t know where they’re going. There are some writers who block everything out and it works for them. I don’t know many writers like that.
And I don’t know where what I am writing is really going to go. Even this book, I wasn’t sure of the voice or the tone, or would it have an arc. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I never know what I’m doing when I start a book. But that’s why it’s exciting to write because you are figuring out what you really think and believe.”
Chase: ‘It’s like we are exploring the unknown and we’re actually coming into things. When I get an idea, it takes a while before that idea sort of cooks in my brain before I’ll start writing it. And then when I do start writing it, I’ll write something weird and I won’t even know why, some little detail, and I’m just typing as fast as I can. I like to get the first draft out quickly. And then further into the story, I’m surprised to find out why I’d said that little thing in Chapter 1 and this will happen in Chapter 10 and I don’t know how this happens. Am I planning in my head? I don’t know how that works exactly?”
Barbara: “I think we just have a huge well of creativity, and knowledge, and experience, and feelings, everybody does, and when we write, we’re letting this out. And I think we don’t necessarily know it ahead of time intellectually. As a teacher, I do a lot of five minute writing exercises in my classes because people don’t have time to think.
If you throw them an idea to write about and say, ‘You have five minutes to write. You can’t stop moving your pen.’ They are always astonished at what can come out of them. They will be reading something they’ve wrote in five minutes and they will start to cry and they’ll say, ‘I don’t know where this came from’ and they are surprising themselves. I think the surprise element of writing is wonderful and exciting and it happens if people allow it to happen.”
Chase: “I definitely agree. And that is something you can do with every age group. I’ve done it with primary students just be asking them for a word. I write the words on the board and we have about four or five of them and I time it. I actually write with them and then we share all of our writing afterwards. It really is a great experience, like, you say, it unblocks some of that negative thought or ‘Oh, I don’t know what to write’ because you just have to do it. ‘Who cares, let’s just go. Start.’”
Barbara: “Exactly. My next book is called Kicking in the Wall and it’s 365 Five Minute Writing Prompts based on that theory. What happens is, that you get out of your own way when you do a five-minute exercise. If you tell someone to write about horses, you have fifteen minutes, people will start agonizing over what they know about horses, or they don’t know about horses and they’ll start thinking. The trick is with the five minute time limit, they get out of their own way and simply write. It’s very exciting to be in a classroom and see that happen.”
Chase: “I was reading Day 19 and you talk about how you were going to be interviewed and how standard practice was to give the interviewer questions to ask because most interviewers rarely read the book. I read your book cover to cover—”
Barbara: “Bless you.”
Chase: “—with a pencil in my hand, and I thought, ‘What? People don’t read the book?’ This is the second interview I’ve done for a book and I read both books cover to cover.”
Barbara: “You are rare and wonderful, Chase. It’s much appreciated too.”
Chase: “I love reading and I love writing. I’m probably doing more reading than writing right now, which is a shame.”
Barbara: “I always tell my students, ‘This is how you learn how to write’ and they take out their pencils like I am going to say something really profound. And I say, “1, read. 2, write.’ You have to read. I think writers go through periods where they read more than write and then you write more. Reading is such an integral part. I don’t know why anyone would want to be a writer if they didn’t love reading, do you?”
Chase: “People write for different reasons. I think some people write because they have a story, some people write because they think they are going to become famous, and I think some people write just because they have good taste in stories. I think I read that in your book. I have so many notes here on it.”
Barbara: “It was Ira Glass. He says, that we get into creative work because of our good taste and one of our problems is that our own writing doesn’t live up to our good taste. I just found that quote recently when I was writing the book and I love it. It’s quite profound. The better our taste is, sometimes the harder it is to write. It never really lives up to the writers you just idolize. But, like I say in the book, if you love writers and you love to write, to just be part of literature and being part of the community of writers, I think it’s a pretty happy life to do that.”
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