- by Dara Girard
I was intrigued when offered a copy of Barbara Abercrombie’s latest release for writers A Year of Writing Dangerously: 365 Days of Inspiration and Encouragement. Here’s my interview with her.
How did you come up with your title?
It flew into my head one day. Of course it echoes the film, A Year of Living Dangerously, and Linda Hunt who starred in it was a student of mine at the time, so that must have influenced me in some way. I had the title for over a year before I figured out how to write the book.
A Year of Writing Dangerously is a book filled with quotes, anecdotes, tips and prompts and it’s something you consider a ‘why’ book instead of a ‘how-to’. What’s the reason behind distinction?
Because I don’t go into the how-to, the structure and guidelines of writing an essay or memoir or fiction, (which I wrote about in another book – Courage & Craft: Writing Your Life Into Story– ). I do have suggestions about pruning adjectives and adverbs, how to send your work out, and what I believe good writing is, but A Year of Writing Dangerously is really about encouragement, getting inspired, and why it’s so important to write your stories.
I love reading about how my favorite writers struggle with their own writing and all the tricks they use to get to work every day, so I included a lot of anecdotes about that. I also think we need to feel that we’re part of a community, a literary tradition, and not some lone weirdo sitting around in our bedroom slippers writing stories. So I hope the anecdotes and quotes in my book do that for readers, give them a sense of community.
How would your book benefit a professional writer with several books under his belt?
Well, it doesn’t get any easier with several or even a dozen books under your belt. Sometimes it can get harder. So I hope the book would also inspire professional writers. One of the reasons I ended up with the day-by-day format was that a friend of mine who has published three books and teaches screenwriting at UCLA said that if it were day-by- day (I’d been toying around with the idea of month-by-month) it would be a book he’d keep on his desk to dip into every morning.
In Entry 269 titled “Hell and Other Material” you discuss how you found out you had breast cancer on Valentine’s Day right in the middle of planning your wedding. You were able to turn that experience into a workshop and book. Can you expand on how writers can use painful experiences to their benefit?
First of all I think just writing down trauma or confusion or anger, any negative feeling, is healthy and helps you recover emotionally more quickly. Doing the writing workshop for people whose lives had been touched by cancer made me realize this was true for non-writers as well as writers. For writers, once you move beyond a painful experience and get some perspective, you can go back to your journal and shape all those raw feelings and details of what happened into fiction or memoir or an essay.
This gives meaning to your experience, and helps other people going through something similar in their own lives. It’s the reason most of us become writers in the first place. I don’t think I completely recovered emotionally from having breast cancer until I wrote a memoir. I even found humor in it then.
What’s one of your favorite entries and why?
Oh, I love writers so much that all their stories are my favorites. As for entries about my own life, I guess my favorites are about what I learned from the kids – finding a metaphor about writing while bouncing terrified on the trampoline with my grandchildren. And also the one about the woo-woos of publishing when I gave a bookshop reading and a woman commented on the bad state of my chakras. I loved that it was such a strange, depressing moment when it happened but then when I wrote it out I found it hilarious.
A lot of people may know about the comedian Seinfeld, but not his calendar. Can you tell us about it and how it can help writers be productive?
When Seinfeld started out as a comic he wanted to write a joke everyday and to motivate himself he bought a big calendar and a red pen. Each day that he wrote a joke he’d mark a big red X over the day and pretty soon he had a chain of red Xs. He realized his job was to keep the chain going.
I think as writers we need to figure out how to start our own chain, whether Xs on a calendar or vowing at least one page a day and making a habit of it – however we can trick ourselves into getting our work done every day. I’m sure Jerry Seinfeld didn’t write a brilliant joke every day, but the point is that he stuck with it, found a way to keep his work going.
What’s your greatest hope for writers who pick up A Year of Writing Dangerously?
That they’ll find the courage and stamina to write their stories, and realize their stories are both singular and universal and that someone out there needs to read them. And even though writing can be such a struggle that some days it feels like the top of your head will blow off, it’s also a great love affair with books and stories.
Whenever we sit down to write, whether for the first time or to start our tenth book, we’re part of a community, and the amazing and wonderful writers I’ve quoted and told anecdotes about make up that community.
You can find out more about this and her other works at www.barbaraabercrombie.com