Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Barbara Abercrombie Interview on Year of Writing Dangerously

Dear readers and writers:

One of the most inspiring writers and writing teachers I know has recently released a new book called A Year of Writing Dangerously.  Barbara Abercrombie, author of many books and UCLA Extension professor, has been on a book tour recently: watch for her near you.  She's so enjoyable to hear in person!  Here is an interview on her most recent work.

1.     LH Your new writing book has an unusual structure, combining memoir, interviews, quotations.  How did you come to this design for the book?

BA I think the design came from a number of sources –  first, I got the title in my head but for a long time I couldn’t figure out the voice, or whether the book’s structure should be monthly or weekly or daily. A writer friend cleared that up for me when he said he’d immediately buy a writing book of inspiration if it had daily entries to read.  I paid attention to that because I wanted the book to be for all writers – experienced/published as well as those just starting out.
I was also influenced by having written a blog for six years – it felt really comfortable to write in short pieces. As for the quotes – I use writer’s quotes all the time when I teach. I’m a real literary groupie, so the fun of the book was discovering and then connecting what favorite writers said to what I was writing about. 

2.     LH One of your blurb writers called this a daybook, a book with a writing inspiration for each day of the year.  It could be that, but is that how you thought of it? 

BA Yes, but I also thought of it having an arc – starting with getting down that first sentence, and then towards the end of the book, sending work out.  My editor wanted each piece to stand on it’s own, so a reader could dip into it anywhere – so I hope reading it that way works too.

3.    LH The word “dangerously” hangs in the air and rings like a bell.  What made you choose that word to characterize the writing year?

BA I love that – ‘rings like a bell’!  That word just came to me out of the blue – and I do think writing feels dangerous most of the time.  Dangerous 'cause we worry what other people, especially what our loved ones (our material!) will think, and to expose our thoughts and feelings, and our imagination just feels dangerous and risky to most people. 

4.     LH Early on, you quote Terry Tempest Williams to the effect that writing is “a bloody risk,” but I know in Writing Out the Storm you portray a different role for writing.  When is writing pushing out to the edge and when is it seeking for that healing level of understanding? 

BA What an interesting question.  I think writing does both – pushes to the edge – reveals and takes risks -  and also heals.  Because it takes courage to write toward understanding.  Writing Out the Storm is more geared for people who don’t want to become writers but use writing as therapy.  (And I’m going back to reread it to see where I contradicted myself!)  I know that when people came to the writing workshop the book was based on, they were really scared and it took weeks and sometimes months of writing in a safe group to get them to be more honest and open in their writing.

5.     LH On the first day (of creation?) you describe going up to Lake Arrowhead and say, “Whenever I arrive up there, I’m grateful that I made it,…”  The road up the mountain is, as you describe it, full of danger.  How important is making the metaphor real in your writing process?

BA (I’m not exactly sure what you mean with this question but I’ll  give it a go.)
Some writers think in metaphor and it helps them, others couldn’t come up with a metaphor if their life depended on it.  So some will not connect with this idea – And perhaps there’s no way to make this metaphor real in your writing practice. But metaphor can act as kind of a lift-off point.
(LH note: driving that highway makes me check for new white hairs and massage my white knuckles until they relax. Maybe she dreads it less.)

6.     LH On day 4, you remind us that “No one will read what you’re writing until you allow them to.”  That’s a very powerful idea, but then you write about rewriting.  Have you experienced long periods of with-holding things you’ve written yourself, or even of burning or tearing apart some dangerous writing?

BA I find that the process can feel dangerous – not usually the writing itself.  In the past I’ve experience dreadful bouts of writer’s block during which I was so judgmental of my own writing that I couldn’t get anything written. It all felt dangerous.  And every time I start a new project it still feels dangerous – the only difference is that now I know this is just how it is, so I start slamming stuff down on the page and with enough rewriting it’s usually okay. 

7.     LH I love the moment when you say, “…if you feel you need permission to write about yourself or whatever you need to write about, I give you permission.”  What has happened in your writing classes when you’ve granted this permission to your students?

BA Amazing things! Essays and memoirs get written!  They also realize in a class how interested other students are in their stories.  That we really want to know about each other’s lives.  That every single person has a story – or many stories to write.

8.     LH You talk about the role of poetry to direct our attention to “feelings, ideas, language.”  You often begin a writing class by reading a poem.  How would you say hearing a poem affects student writing?  Do the pieces resemble each other more?  Are they richer in imagery?

BA  Their writing becomes more free.  Poems can lift us out of a linear rut. (and then this happened and then this…..) Poems make leaps and prose can do the same.  Also a good poem makes you realize the weight of one word – or just a few words.  So it helps them to be more economical with language. 

9.     LH I like the quote from Gordon Lish, “Get into trouble. Go to where the jeopardy is.”  In a sense, he believed in paring down prose to the absolute minimum.  I’ve seen notes on his editing that show him removing over half of a short story.  Do you agree with him that less is more when it comes to showing trouble?

BA I think less is always more when writing.   It’s one of the hardest things to learn as a writer!

10.   LH Having been twice to writing classes at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony in Norman’s old, lovely home in Provincetown, MA, right on the water, and going out to eat in some of his favorite restaurants and to his favorite theatres, I had to laugh at your quote from Norman, “Writers don’t have lifestyles.  They just sit in little rooms and write.”  And you yourself have lovely homes to serve as your home bases when you write.  Is there a point where you shut out the world?

BA  Oh, such a good question. And it makes me feel guilty cause that’s what I should be doing, shutting out the world and writing.  But here I am having this wonderful back and forth with you, which is so much more fun.  And I wrote a blog post today and posted on Facebook and have finally been convinced I need to get on Twitter.   Since I have a new book out  (and another coming out next spring) I tell myself I have to do online connecting – but I, and all the writers I know who are publishing, struggle with this and I write about it in AYOWD.  But to answer your question – yes, and often I have to go up to my cabin in Lake Arrowhead where there’s just silence and no internet to reconnect with my writing.

11.   LH You quote Abigail Thomas, “It was a long time before I realized that you don’t have to start right, you just have to start.”  This quote is related to the permission.  What’s the barrier?

BA So many people – at least this is true of my new students - think there’s a right way to write.  That you have to know a lot, or at least know where your story is going, and that you need to be inspired etc.  When in fact to be a writer you just need a notebook, a journal, and you start writing. 

What a fun interview this was. I love tough questions! And thanks for reading the book so thoroughly.  
 Thanks, Barbara!

LH note:  be sure to watch Barbara's book trailer on her web site here:



Anonymous said...

She is inspiring! Makes me feel more courageous just to read the interview. I need to get this book!
Marissa C

Lorelei said...

Hi Marissa,
As you can probably tell, I loved it. It's rich with insights from all kinds of wonderful writers who have faced the danger and given us the books we enjoy.