The author and beloved professor discusses how “to write” is a verb (and not an identity), the overwhelming versus the manageable, and what chaos has the ability to deliver.
BARBARA ABERCROMBIE’s latest writing book, A Year of Writing Dangerously, was just published by New World Library, and in 2013 they will published her fifteenth book, Kicking In The Wall. She has published novels, children’s picture books, including the award winning Charlie Anderson, and books of non-fiction. Her personal essays have appeared in national publications as well as in many anthologies. Her most recent books are Courage & Craft and Cherished: 21 Writers on Animals They’ve Loved & Lost. She’s received the Outstanding Instructor award and the Distinguished Instructor Award at UCLA Extension where she teaches creative writing. She also conducts private writing retreats, and writes a weekly blog at Writing Time (link at end of interview).
Meredith: We all seem to have rules we are attached to—whether they actually work for us or not is another story. What is it about rules that make us feel like we are doing something correctly? Why, once we set up rules does it seem we need to break them to set ourselves free?
BARBARA: This is a complicated question! In art I believe the “rule” is to break all the rules if you need to; there are no rules in art. That’s what I try to get my students to do – be loose and free and forget all the stuff they learned in school about ‘good’ writing. But then there are “rules” that have to do with discipline and morality. Knowing your own rules about discipline is part of getting your work accomplished. I have personal rules about how I conduct my life and correct or not I know that if I don’t follow my own rules my life doesn’t work.
Meredith: Your book is written in a daily reader format–which I love. You can read in order or not–which I also love. The one-day-at-a-time, one-step-at-a-time, one-word/sentence/graph-at-a-time has always worked for me. Can you talk about why it works for many? Why it is more satisfying in the end than we might think it will be at the start (what, just one graph, page today? etc).
BARBARA: I think it’s satisfying because it’s the only way to do something huge and wonderful. To write a novel or to run a marathon or to play a sonata or to raise a child can only be done one page at a time (or one word at a time!), one mile, one note, one day at a time. And all of these can be overwhelming endeavors unless you break them down into manageable parts.
Meredith: Writing—or the dream of calling oneself an author or writer—seems, for many, to have this highly addictive, seductiveness about it. Like: I’d really be someone if I could write. Or be a writer, author, etc. But it’s not writing that imbues itself with these characteristics, it’s the person. Why, do you think, it’s such a seductive slope?
BARBARA: I always tell my students that to write is a verb. If you’re writing you’re a writer. I really think you have to love to write and love literature – good books and writing, to be a writer. Another part of wanting to be a writer is yearning to connect with other people, to get real and be known and loved for who you are when you write the truth. That gets people down the seductive slope – and also can get them off it pretty fast.
Meredith: Buddha said, “It is better to travel well than to arrive.” If traveling is writing, then arriving is…what? Is it money? Fame? Love of the finished piece, or process? And what is it not? We know it will differ by person, but I sense we are all looking for answers…perhaps you are, too?
BARBARA: Definitely not money and fame – to earn a modest living by writing is success and for me and most of the published writers I know we also have to teach to make a living. And most of us don’t always love the process. It’s damn hard to write. For me the arrival is making order out of chaos and finding meaning in experience. Nailing down my own feelings, realizing where I’ve been and why. All my books have started in chaos and confusion and ended up teaching me something.
Meredith: The child development writer Joseph Chilton Pearce said: “To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.” Let’s talk about what “wrong” is, or what we think it is. Can you help us dissect?
BARBARA: Great quote! And so true – To be a writer (or painter or anyone in the arts or creative fields) you have to be willing to be wrong, to make a fool of yourself – i.e. make a mess, go off in the wrong direction, not know what you’re doing, make huge mistakes. Careful people should become engineers or accountants – where there’s a right and wrong way to do things. As a teacher of writing my biggest task is to get people to loosen up, realize there’s no right or wrong to writing – just finding and expressing the truth. This doesn’t mean the truth is belly button gazing and venting, but needs to be crafted. But the craft comes later –
Barbara lives with her husband, Robert V. Adams, and their rescue dog, Nelson, in Santa Monica and Twin Bridges, Montana. As for what isn’t usually in her bio: “One thing would be my wonderful large, complicated family – my daughters and sons-in-law, my stepchildren, my grandchildren and my brother and his family and nieces and nephews – plus my daughters’ husbands’ families too. Even one of their ex-husband’s parents are still included for holidays – as well as my ex-husband’s new children. We have a twelve-year-old uncle in our family and a six-year-old aunt who have a four-year-old niece.” Visit her at Writing Time, her blog.
Photo courtesy of Barbara Abercrombie.