A Year of Writing Dangerously
365 Days of Inspiration & Encouragement
By Barbara Abercrombie
New World Library Copyright © 2012 Barbara Abercrombie
All rights reserved.
365 Days of Dangerous Writing
1. Switchbacks up the Mountain
When I'm stuck and scared to death of writing the first line, I drive up to a cabin I have two hours north of Los Angeles. The highway up the mountain, while a perfectly good road and well maintained, and in fact traveled by hundreds of people daily, is nevertheless dangerous; it goes from sea level to 5,800 feet with some scary switchbacks. A lot of awful accidents have occurred on this road, but it's the only way up.
My cabin, which sounds romantic in theory but isn't, has had its own dangerous moments: rocks thrown through windows by vandals; pipes freezing and then bursting, which caused a ceiling to fall in; a forest fire that stopped down the road just in time; a burglar who stole some totally useless speakers and an old computer during an evacuation for the above-mentioned fire; and in winter when it snows, the driveway fills up with huge drifts, and getting to the front door feels like you're hiking over frozen tundra somewhere north of Canada.
Whenever I arrive up there, I'm grateful that I made it, and relieved if my cabin is standing unharmed and there aren't five-foot snowdrifts blocking my driveway. I bumble around for a while, light-headed from altitude, with the silence bouncing off the walls and filling me with dread. Eventually I realize there's nothing else to do up here but to open my laptop and start writing. Writing has always felt just like that road up, scary, full of dangerous switchbacks. Writing holds the possibility that I won't have anything to say, not another word. That perhaps my imagination has dried up and my brain is empty.
We all have our own road up the mountain, or down into the valley, or in a small rickety boat over deep and dark water. Pick your metaphor. There's no way to glide gracefully into writing, no way to hide who we really are. There's always that loud space of emptiness and silence when you start to write, whether you're in a cabin or your bedroom or an office. There's no way to guarantee a safe, easy journey into words on the page. It's just you and your memory and experience and imagination. Naked.
So up in my cabin, I put on some CDs, something loud and cheerful and raucous. If it's cold, I light a fire in the fireplace; if it's warm, I sit out on the deck and breathe in the pine trees. Then I read something that will inspire me, remind me why I'm up here without all the props of modern life and why I want to write in the first place. And pretty soon I feel calm enough to open my laptop. And I start writing.
* * *
I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straitening shyness that assail one.
— John Steinbeck
2. Sacred Space
The date you begin writing, or start a new book, should be memorable, like a wedding date or a birthday.
Sure you can suddenly fly to your computer exclaiming today you start your book, your essay! But preparing for the day, suddenly yearning for the day, making it important, builds up energy for writing. Clearing your space, desk, table, or wherever you're going to write, setting up objects or photographs you love, and making it inviting might be a good way to begin. You're courting the muse, after all.
Take time to get ready. Find books by writers you love, writers who inspire you.
Figure out what time you'll write. On your calendar put a slash through that time slot so you won't inadvertently plan something else.
In the end, wherever and whenever you work, make your writing time and your work space sacred.
* * *
I tell my students one of the most important things they need to know is when they are at their best, creatively. They need to ask themselves, What does the ideal room look like? Is there music? Is there silence? Is there chaos outside or is there serenity outside? What do I need in order to release my imagination?
— Toni Morrison
3. The Holy Calling
You may find that your friends and family are somewhat less than respectful of your sitting there in your sacred space. They might even refer to what you're up to as "typing" or "your new hobby." Writing is not a hobby. Collecting stamps or coins is a hobby. Writing is a calling.
* * *
I believe that — if you are serious about a life of writing, or indeed about any creative form of expression — you should take on this work like a holy calling. I became a writer the way other people become monks or nuns.... I was writing's most devotional handmaiden. I built my entire life around writing.
— Elizabeth Gilbert
4. Choosing Story over Relatives
Isabel Allende begins all her books on January 8. She says that she writes the first sentence and then the story begins to unfold. One particular January 8 at the crack of dawn, her agent, Carmen Balcells, called her from Spain and told her to write a memoir.
Allende replied that her family didn't like to see itself exposed.
"Don't worry about anything," said Balcells. "Send me a two- or three-hundred-page letter and I'll take care of the rest. If it comes down to choosing between telling a story and offending relatives, any professional writer chooses the former."
Allende went on to write the memoir, but she struggled with having protagonists that were her "own living family, filled with opinions and conflicts." The plot was "not an exercise of imagination but an attempt to present the truth."
As you write, you might want to keep this thought in mind: No one will read what you're writing until you allow them to. So you are free to write the truth, or whatever you believe to be the truth. You can write dreadful and shocking things from your imagination, you can write badly and sloppily, you can whine and mewl if you want. Because you can always rewrite, change things, or simply tear it up.
Writing is rewriting. But first you need to have something on the page to rewrite.
* * *
And so I began to write about things I thought I would never tell another soul as long as I lived.
— May-lee Chai
5. Getting Caught
I asked a group of students once if writing felt dangerous to them. They all nodded vigorously, so I asked them to write why.
One student wrote, "Writing is dangerous because you might get caught."
Caught, found out, exposed. The stuff of nightmares.
Is this why writing feels so scary sometimes? We're caught like a fish on the hook of our own words, our secrets exposed, our inner life and imagination up for inspection.
* * *
Anxiety is not only an inevitable part of the writing process but a necessary part. If you're not scared, you're not writing.
— Ralph Keyes
6. Daring to Tell
Here's another response, from a student, to my question about why writing feels dangerous: "Sometimes it feels dangerous to know what I really feel. Because if I acknowledge my feelings outside the safe boundaries of my own heart and mind, if I open up the latch to my subconscious and let those precious secrets leak out, God knows what will happen. I might have to hold myself accountable to these thoughts and feelings. I might have to act upon them. I might have to change. I might have to stop lying to myself and others about what I need and want. I might have to ask for what I need and want. I might have to be a disappointment; I might have to be disappointed; I will disappoint."
This quote and the previous one were not written by people who had been hiding in caves for the past decade. They are both very successful professional people and in positions of power and respect, one a doctor and one a religious leader.
We are all scared of disappointing, of venturing past the safe boundaries of our minds and hearts — those of us still hiding in our caves and those of us whose job it is to help others. We all go around wearing masks.
* * *
You know, we do live in ludicrous ignorance of each other. I mean, we usually don't know the things we'd like to know even about our supposedly closest friends. I mean, suppose you're going through some kind of hell in your own life, well, you would love to know if your friends have experienced similar things. But we really don't dare to ask each other.
— Wallace Shawn and André Gregory, My Dinner with André
7. Jumping Off
There's no appropriate place, no safe place to jump off into your writing. In his writing classes, Roger Rosenblatt bursts into singing "Happy Birthday" out of nowhere, and his students stare at him as if he's gone around the bend. He sings it again, and then tells them to start writing as they hear in their heads this "irritating, celebratory song you've heard all your lives." Then he sings it yet again for them, and they lean forward and begin to write.
* * *
But the jumping-off place isn't always so obvious. You can't always find the way in. Sometimes you need a side door.
— Abigail Thomas
8. The Voice That Chirps and Chips
We're so good with the negative voices: You idiot, what kind of an idea is that? Who do you think you are to be writing a book? Why are you sitting there in your bedroom slippers writing about your boring life? Who cares? When that voice starts chirping in your head and chipping away at your confidence, here's what you do: Listen to another voice, the sweet, calm voice that's saying, Just do the work. Tell your story; it's important. Have faith. If you're sitting at Starbucks or at the library, it's probably best not to say this out loud, but if you're home alone — say it loud. And often.
* * *
Know that it is good to work. Work with love and think of liking it when you do it. It is easy and interesting. It is a privilege. There is nothing hard about it but your anxious vanity and fear of failure.
— Brenda Ueland
9. Getting Permission
When William Zinsser visited schools to discuss writing, he'd ask students, "What are your problems? What are your concerns?" and suggest that this would be the subject of their writing. But from grade school to college, most students would tell him that they didn't have permission to write about themselves; the teachers gave them the subjects to write about.
Established writers would tell him they had to write what editors wanted.
If this has a familiar ring to you, or if you feel you need permission to write about yourself or whatever you need to write about, I give you permission.
Now you have it. Use it.
* * *
If you write for yourself, you'll reach all the people you want to write for.
— William Zinsser
10. Working Out
I give a lot of five-minute exercises when I teach, because I think writing for just five minutes forces you to get out of your own way and lets you off the hook for writing something brilliant. Five minutes — no pausing, no stopping! Who could come up with something even readable in such a short time? But it's amazing what can happen. People come up with memories or feelings or thoughts they didn't even know they had. And if they don't come up with anything they can use, so what? I do this exercise when I'm stuck with my own writing. I'll write a character's name or one word or idea at the top of the page and just start writing. I don't think — I write. Sometimes you need to let yourself go off into uncharted territory.
I have a student who's a successful mystery novelist and who knows everything she really needs to know about writing and discipline, but she shows up periodically in class to do writing exercises, to work out; she calls the class her writing gym.
Everybody else works out — actors, musicians, dancers — why not writers?
* * *
So let's pick up the pen, and kick some ass. Write down who you were, who you are, and what you remember.
— Natalie Goldberg
11. Racing Hearts and Churning Stomachs
M. came to class eight years ago, flew into class, really, scared to death. When it was her turn to read in the workshop session, she panicked and fluttered and almost flew back out of the room. "I don't know what I'm writing!" she said. "I don't know if it's fiction or memoir. It's awful! I can't read it!"
"Just read," I said. And she did. Well, it wasn't awful. It was funny and weird, and we wanted to hear more. "Just keep writing," I said. She did. She brought back true stories of her life that made us laugh and cry. And she eventually got her memoir published by a big publisher in New York. Then she started another book, and one morning flew back into class, still scared, saying, "Well, I knew I had to bring something to read, so I brought this, this — mess. But I'm too embarrassed to read it."
"Just read," I said. And she did and it was wonderful. "Just keep writing," I said.
She agonized over what her family would say, think, do. What they did was get really, really mad. She changed her name and forged on.
When her second memoir came out, I went to a big party in Hollywood that her publisher threw for her. There was an open bar and little hot crab things and platters of cheeses and breads and sausages, and even pommes frites. (You have to understand how amazing this is because most of us writers, should we be lucky enough to get a book published and a bookstore to give us time and space, throw our own parties with Trader Joe's wine and baskets of pretzels.)
I tell you about M. because she was so scared, so insecure in the beginning (and in fact still is with every new piece of writing), but she didn't let that fear and insecurity stop her.
So know that 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.
* * *
Finding the courage to write does not involve erasing or "conquering" one's fears. Working writers aren't those who have eliminated their anxiety. They are the ones who keep scribbling while their heart races and their stomach churns.
— Ralph Keyes
No one has to be patient anymore. We can publish books right from our computers. We can get messages anywhere, anytime. We can have whole libraries of books instantly zapped to whatever our latest gadget is, or a complete film festival delivered at the click of a button. We can plug ourselves directly into our music without bothering with CDs. We never, ever have to be bored, subjected to silence, or deal with our inner life.
But no matter how fast the world zips along, no matter how much fun there is to be had, the fact remains that writing takes time. To write takes dreaming and remembering and thinking and imagining — and very often what feels like wasting time. It takes silence and solitude. It takes being okay with making a huge mess and not knowing what you're doing. Then it takes rewriting and struggling to find your story and the truth of the story, and then the meaning of the story. It takes being comfortable with your own doubts and fears and questions. And there's just no fast and easy way around it.
* * *
The essential question is, "Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write?" Into that space, which is like a form of listening, of attention, will come the words your characters will speak, ideas — inspiration.
— Doris Lessing
13. The Matanuska Valley and Other Diversions
Research for your writing can be great fun; it can also be a cozy little trap. I once spent a blissful month researching Alaska for a project I can no longer remember and never actually wrote. I became particularly fascinated with the Matanuska Valley, where vegetables grow ten times their usual size because of the abundance and slant of the sunlight. For over a month I happily made notes, thrilled that I didn't have to actually write. I just copied down facts about giant vegetables.
Libraries and the Internet can be like crack houses for the research addicted. What's hard, messy, and frustrating is writing words straight out of your own head.
* * *
I'm a real believer in research, but I have a funny way of doing it. I think you should write first and then do the research.
— Mona Simpson
14. Waiting for Pizza
You can find ideas in the strangest places. For instance, the Shack in Twin Bridges, Montana. They serve the best pizza in the world, and they keep piles of old magazines on the tables to read while you wait for your pizza. One cold winter afternoon as I waited, I discovered "50 Things to Do to Improve Your Life" in an ancient copy of U.S. News & World Report. One of the things to do was "make yourself an author." As an example, they used five sisters who put together their recipes and cooking stories, self-published them, and sold five hundred copies. Another thing to do was to keep a simple diary: "Distill your day's experience into a single sentence each day. Call it a 'coat hanger' journal. It provides a framework on which to hang the larger raiments of memory."
Carry a notebook with you. Look for ideas. You never know where you'll find them.
* * *
For at least thirty years, and at almost all times, I have carried a notebook with me, in my back pocket.
— Mary Oliver (Continues...)
Excerpted from A Year of Writing Dangerously by Barbara Abercrombie. Copyright © 2012 Barbara Abercrombie. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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