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A Year of Writing Dangerously by Barbara Abercrombie
A Year of Writing Dangerously : Switchbacks up the Mountain

A Year of Writing Dangerously (Day 1)

Switchbacks up the Mountain

By Barbara Abercrombie

"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. •

Next: Daring to Tell »

Excerpted from A YEAR OF WRITING DANGEROUSLY: 365 Days of Inspiration & Encouragement Copyright © 2012 by Barbara Abercrombie. Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. newworldlibrary.com or 800/972-6657 ext. 52.

Barbara AbercrombieBarbara 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." More »

6/25/12