Day 1 from A Year of Writing Dangerously
By Barbara Abercrombie | Updated July 23, 2018
"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
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.
Day 6 from A Year of Writing Dangerously
“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 & André Gregory, My Dinner with André
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.
Day 11 from A Year of Writing Dangerously
“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
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.
Day 121 from A Year of Writing Dangerously
“I figured out, over and over, point A, where the chapter began, and point B, where it ended, and what needed to happen to get my people from A to B. And then how the B of the last chapter would lead organically into point A of the next chapter. The book moved along like the alphabet, like a vivid and continuous dream.” Anne Lamott
Certain books on my shelves act as life rafts when I'm drowning in my own writing. During one particular novel I'd been struggling with for years that had been rejected, I reread a chapter in Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. In it she writes about the completed manuscript of one of her novels being rejected after it was sold and she'd spent most of the advance for it. She pulled herself together, spread the three hundred pages of her manuscript across the living room floor, rearranged and reimagined the scenes, and then rewrote it.
It went well; she was euphoric. She borrowed money, flew to New York to see her editor, who had just read it, and he said to her, "I'm so, so sorry, but it still doesn't work." Then, after all her disappointment and humiliation and anger and ranting, she went off and wrote five hundred to a thousand words every day describing what was happening in each chapter and who her characters really were. She came up with a forty-page plot treatment of the book, showed it to her editor, and rewrote the book again. It was published the following fall.
Day 142 from A Year of Writing Dangerously
“When my writing is not going well, there are two things I do in the hope of luring the words back: I read some pages of books I love or I watch the world.” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes that her view in Lagos, Nigeria, is an ordinary view but because it's full of people, the view is "choked with stories": "the stylish young woman who sells phone cards...the Hausa boys who sell water in plastic containers...the bean-hawker who prowls around in the mornings...a large pan on her head."
Perhaps all views looked at long enough become ordinary. But it's the job of writers to not let this happen, to see what's outside our own windows as if we were on a vacation and the view were all brand new.
That said, the view out my own window has become wallpaper. The red tile roof and two white chimneys, the overgrown tree that blocks out most of the beach, the palm trees I never look at this anymore. But right now, turning away from the wall I face when I'm working on my computer, looking out the window, I notice a man in a yellow jacket biking slowly north, I notice that the surf has turned a pale shade of silver, I see a jogger followed by a large dog: life outside of my own head.
Day 149 from A Year of Writing Dangerously
“The physical act of sitting at your computer writing down words is important of course but your unconscious mind is also doing a lot of the work for you. If you show up. If you hold your characters in your mind, if you constantly look at the world for ideas to go into your book.” Walter Mosley
Maybe the essay you're writing, or the memoir or novel, has now taken up residence in your inner life, like a DVD playing inside your head. Maybe as you go to sleep at night, you're working on your story, you dream it. And when you brush your teeth in the morning, you're thinking about it, seeing flashbacks of your own life or your characters hovering behind you. If it's a book you're working on, you imagine what the cover will look like. Articles you read in the newspaper or online, things you observe, hear on radio or TV everything starts to connect to your work.
Maybe you already have a draft of an essay or short story you've written that needs to sit for a while for you to get some perspective on it, and you're looking for the subject of your next one. What you look for you usually find.
Or maybe not. Maybe you're stuck. But the only way to become unstuck is to keep showing up, to keep writing. And trust that when you do show up, something will be playing in your unconscious.
Day 195 from A Year of Writing Dangerously
"When it's finally in print, you're delivered you don't ever have to look at it again. It's too late to worry about its failings." Eudora Welty
Here's something you want to think twice about: throwing away your essay or fiction or memoir because you hate it. You can hide it from view on your computer, stash a hard copy in a closet but don't destroy it. Because sometimes it's simply impossible to judge your own work. Sometimes all you need is time. The wastepaper basket is not always a writer's best friend.
John Banville, author of thirteen much-acclaimed books, was asked in an interview if he likes his books, and he replied: "No, I hate them all. With a deep, abiding hatred. And embarrassment. I have a fantasy that I'm walking past Brentano's or wherever and I click my fingers and all my books on the shelves go blank. The covers are still there but all the pages are blank. And then I can start again and get it right." (This is the same John Banville who won the Booker Prize, was shortlisted again for the Booker, and won the Franz Kafka Prize and the Irish Book Award.)
Day 283 from A Year of Writing Dangerously
"As a writer, I don’t have ideas for books. I have little bits and pieces of life, little spoken lines and little gestures and settings all represented in language which I then put into a sequence and make into a kind of logic." Richard Ford
At sunrise Nelson and I are out on the beach, and an older guy in black shorts and a gray T-shirt runs by in the opposite direction with an attractive young woman. I hear him say to her, “Esalen? Michael Murphy?” I strain for more, but they’ve already passed me. About fifteen minutes later I hear two men behind me talking, and one says, “Don’t worry, you should be able to get a ticket. Welcome to LA!” It’s the same older guy in the black shorts and gray shirt — who then runs past me, alone now, in the other direction.
How did he start talking to the young woman, and why, about Esalen and Michael Murphy? And in fifteen minutes how did he start a whole new conversation with a stranger? A ticket to what? When I glance back at the stranger he had been talking to, I notice he’s wearing black pants and a gray shirt too. I’m wearing gray pants and a black shirt.
Nonwriters would think it’s crazy to stand out there on the beach at 6:10 in the morning, writing down overheard dialogue and noting what we’re all wearing and that the clouds today look like little quotation marks in the sky. And maybe it is crazy. But it’s what writers do.
Day 309 from A Year of Writing Dangerously
"What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense the writer is able to make of what happened." Vivian Gornick
You might think that you need more experiences, more far-ranging adventure in your life, to be a writer. But sometimes experience and adventure can backfire on you.
I sailed to Greece from Los Angeles with my first husband in a forty-four-foot boat we had just bought that neither of us was too clear on how to sail. To say we had a few adventures is like saying Joyce Carol Oates has written a few stories. What we assumed to be pirates circled our boat for hours off the coast of Central America and then, thankfully, disappeared. We lost the engine during a storm at the entrance of the Panama Canal and nearly crashed on the rocks. In the Caribbean, the U.S. Coast Guard, thinking we were drug runners, sprang a surprise visit to us under sail in the middle of the night to search the boat (causing us to think they were drug runners). En route from Greece to Yugoslavia we sailed too close to Albania, and the Albanian navy, such as it was, held us at gunpoint for a few hours before letting us head on to Dubrovnik. One might think this is amazing material, and it is, of course, but other than three chapters of a very bad failed novel, I have never written about it. (Probably because I was having this tiny nervous breakdown for most of the trip.)
Sometimes you’re so overwhelmed that you can’t write. All you can do is take notes. And that’s what I did. Dozens of journals, pages and pages of notes. Finding the context was my problem. What did all this mean? And to this day I’m not sure. It was simply, and not so simply, a lot of experience.
Day 273 from A Year of Writing Dangerously
"First publication is a pure, carnal leap into that dark which one dreams is life." Hortense Calisher
Years ago a new student came to class and said that everyone had always told her she wrote wonderful letters and should write, so now was the time. She was in her late forties and nervous about putting herself to the test. A week or two into the course, she wrote an essay about something that had happened to her at the gym, and with hands shaking, she read it to the class. The essay was strange and weird and interesting — the class and I loved it. I told her to send it out immediately. She was stunned — send it out? Try to get it published? Yes, I said, and start with the big magazines first.
So she did. A few weeks later there was a hysterical but joyful message on my answering machine: she had just gotten word that a big magazine in New York wanted to publish her essay.
It is joyful to get published right away — but there’s also a downside. She didn’t get published again for a number of years, long enough to grow awful doubts about her own talent and to think that maybe the first essay was a fluke. Finally she had a story published in a good anthology, and I often think of her. That first essay wasn’t a fluke. She had talent, and I hope she’s still writing.
"Through her years teaching writing at UCLA Extension, Barbara Abercrombie has heard repeatedly that writing is painful, scary, even dangerous. Her students worry they might have to hold themselves accountable for their thoughts and feelings, that they might disappoint or be disappointed, that they might have to tell their secrets, or betray the privacy of those they love. So Abercrombie set out to help writers feel safe, to help them figure out how to write the truth about real events or to transform truth into fiction, to encourage them and help them understand that they aren't alone in their fears." New World Library
Q: What inspired you to write this book?
A: The title came to me first and for a while I didn't know what to do with it. I'd already written two books about creative writing and felt I didn't have anything more to say on the subject, but I couldn't let go of the title. For a while I thought maybe I'd write it month by month, twelve sections, but a writer friend said, "No, it has to be day by day. That's the kind of book I need!" The idea of a book to read daily for comfort and inspiration and company suddenly seemed very appealing to me and unlike anything I'd written before.
Q: Why writing "dangerously"?
A: Because I think there's always a sense of risk when you write fear that maybe someone will deny your version of things, or that they'll get mad and disown you, or that maybe you'll make a fool of yourself and expose too much or too little. One of my favorite quotes on the subject is by Terry Tempest Williams who said: "I write to discover. I write to uncover. I write to meet my ghosts I write because it is dangerous, a bloody risk, like love, to form the words." And that's what it feels like sometimes, a bloody risk to form the words.
Q: Why a year?
A: Because if you want to write a novel or autobiography or memoir you'll need at least a year of focused work to get from the idea in your head to the reality of a first draft. Or if you want to write short pieces a year could get you from dreaming about being a writer to actually completing and marketing one or more personal essays or short stories. I think a year is a manageable amount of time for a writer long enough to get serious work done, yet short enough to give yourself a realistic deadline.
Q: How does your book differ from other books on creative writing?
A: There are 365 entries of anecdotes and quotes that offer inspiration and also commiseration from a lot of famous and successful writers who go through the same struggles all of us have getting our work done. I've always found it encouraging to read about the problems of writers I admire. It makes me feel like I'm in good company. While the book does gives you some advice about the nuts and bolts of writing and getting published, as well as weekly writing prompts, it's more of a day book a book to keep on your desk to dip into for a daily dose of encouragement and some company. To my knowledge there isn't any other book out there quite like it.
Q: Who is the book for?
A: It's for anyone who wants to write or is writing, published or not yet published. It's for people who are writing novels or memoirs, essays or short stories or an autobiography for their families, or for those who simply want to start a journal to keep track of their life.
Q: Why do you think it's so important for writers to read other writers?
A: Because they're the reason we wanted to become writers in the first place. Reading good writing fuels and informs our own writing. We can't write in a vacuum. Many of us, when we were kids, were told to put that book down and do our homework or go outside. But when we're writers, reading is our homework! It's one of the perks of being a writer. I always tell my students that their best teachers are their favorite writers.
Q: What is it that you hope a reader will take away from the book?
A: That it's important to write our stories, no matter how hard it might be. No one can tell your story the way you can. And each story is unique and precious and needs to be told. Also that when you write you're part of a whole community of writers. You'll learn everything you need to know about writing from your favorite writers.
Barbara Abercrombie teaches in the writing program at UCLA Extension. The author of novels, children's books, and many essays and articles in national publications, her fourteenth book is A Year of Writing Dangerously....
Day 1: Switchbacks up the Mountain
Day 6: Daring to Tell
Day 11: Racing Hearts and Churning Stomachs
Day 121: Life Rafts
Day 142: Writers with a View
Day 149: The DVD in Your Head
Day 195: One of the Worst Things a Writer Can Do
Day 283: A Mess of Questions and Detail
Day 309: Sailing from Context
Day 273: Getting Published
Writing Dangerously Interview
From A Year of Writing Dangerously: 365 Days of Inspiration and Encouragement. Copyright ©2012 by Barbara Abercrombie. Reprinted with permission from New World Library.
"[In writing] 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."