Writing Out the Storm

There are some people who see little value in re-reading a book. After all, the world is full of books. There will never be time to read them all.

I am not one of those people.

One of my most re-read books is Barbara Abercrombie’s Writing Out the Storm: Reading and Writing Your Way Through Serious Illness or Injury. (Barbara holds a special place in my heart. You can read my tribute post, For Barbara, by clicking here.) 

Inside my copy of the book, is a print-out of a short email exchange between Barbara and me. I had written Barbara, thanking her for writing the book, and letting her know it had helped me put my thoughts on paper. That email was dated 2012.

This paragraph is taken from the back of the book:

This powerful and deeply inspirational handbook is for anyone coping with serious illness or injury — be it theirs or that of a loved one — who wants and needs to help themselves through the healing process. Offering her own experiences with breast cancer, as well as stories from other authors who have suffered from illnesses or severe injuries…

Though I have read this book several times, highlighting passages, marking pages with sticky notes, each read feels like a slightly new read. Each time I turn to this book, I’m surprised when a passage sticks out, a passage that in all my other reads had never really stood out to me before. 

That’s because I’m different. The book doesn’t change. But I do. Each time I read this book, I am a slightly different version of myself. And each time I read this book, I find writing prompts and quotes that speak to me and serve as inspiration in my writing. 

This time around, these are just a few of the sentences that jumped out at me.

Once you’ve heard the unthinkable, you know it’s possible to hear it again, or worse.”

“I’ve stopped fighting the diagnosis. I now fight the disease.”  

“I suppose it’s easy to be courageous when you don’t know you are doing so.”

Readers, I’m curious. Do you ever re-read books? Let me know in the comments. 

For Barbara

This is a difficult blog post to write. 

My heart is heavy. Which in turn makes my fingers feel heavy to write what I need to write.

You know when people ask Which teacher most impacted you? I never had a really good answer to that question. I always thought the question referred to teachers you had before college, either the teachers that told you the play area for the week was kickball, or the teachers who helped you navigate the confusion of changing classrooms for each class period, or the teachers who wrote you the recommendation letters you needed for college.

I had gotten it wrong. 

A teacher is one who teaches. At any level.

Now I know my answer to that question.

Which teacher most impacted you?

Barbara Abercrombie.

And with a heavy heart and my heavy fingers I must add may she rest in peace

Barbara Abercrombie recently passed away. I learned of her death through an email newsletter I received from Jennie Nash, current CEO of Author Accelerator, former instructor in the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension.

About twenty years ago, I took my first class in the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension. A weekend course about Writing the Personal Essay taught by Barbara Abercrombie. I remember writing a somewhat humorous post about the women’s restrooms not having toilet seat covers. I remember hearing Barbara Abercrombie tell me she could hear my voice coming through. At the time, I didn’t realize what a huge compliment that was.

 It was shortly after that course that I became a published writer with a piece I wrote being published in the Los Angeles Times. (You can read it by clicking here.)

Barbara was a cool lady. She was honest and calm. She encouraged everyone, believing everyone could write — and publish — a personal essay. She was the only teacher I knew who wore a lot of jewelry like I do. Silver jewelry like I do. 

Occasionally over the years I enrolled in Barbara’s classes when they aligned with my teaching schedule. Back in 2005, I was fortunate enough to miss two days of teaching to enroll in UCLA Extension’s intensive four-day Writers Studio Barbara taught.

When I retired from teaching, I was then free to take Barbara’s weekday, daytime classes. And it was in one of those classes that I met one of my closest friends. 

Barbara also offered four day writing retreats up in Lake Arrowhead. I used to wistfully read her emails and think someday. Someday became two different occasions. Each time, I left my family for four days and three nights to go read and write and talk about reading and writing up in Lake Arrowhead with a group of writers.

It was Barbara who told me the essays I was writing could be — should be — a book. 

March of 2020. We all remember it as the month and year when our world ceased to be as we had known it. Originally I was enrolled in one of Barbara’s classes which would have started at the end of March. The class, of course, switched to a virtual format. With my husband working from home, and my son doing his schooling from home, I had to drop out of Barbara’s writing class. 

I hadn’t spoken to Barbara for quite some time though I followed her on Instagram and always liked and commented on the photos she shared of her grandchildren. 

But I know Barbara knows how much I appreciated her, how fond of her I was. Because I always told her — through a letter. At the end of each class, Barbara told her students to write a letter explaining what grade they deserved. You wanted an A, you wrote and asked for one. I always wanted the A. In these end-of-course letters, I didn’t just reflect on my writing during the class, but also on Barbara’s teaching methods. Barbara created a safe space for writers. Writers, who often didn’t know each other well, came together and created a supportive environment to write and share aloud some of the most personal, intimate parts of our lives. 

It always worked, because of Barbara.

13 Ways Writing Is Easier Than My Autoimmune Disease

It all started from a 5-minute writing exercise. I used a prompt from Barbara Abercrombie’s A Year of Writing Dangerously: 365 Days of Inspiration and Encouragement (great book!), and when my timer went off five minutes later, I knew I had written the beginning of something. That first draft went through some significant changes.

13 Ways Writing Is Easier Than My Autoimmune Disease is the final result. 

I’m happy to say it was recently published at The Mighty. You can click here to read the essay in its entirety.

Dismissals and Rejections – of Symptoms and Submissions

“It’s not a realization that came to me easily or early on in my life as a chronic illness patient. It took me several years to finally recognize it and to see what had been in front of me all along.

Not until I marked my submission tracker with that most depressing word, “Declined,” did I make the connection. I realized that having a piece of writing declined and leaving a doctor’s appointment without any answers share many of the same emotions.” 

Those paragraphs are taken from my personal essay, “Dismissals and Rejections — of Symptoms and Submissions,” recently published at Spoonie Authors Network. You can click here to read the essay in its entirety.

Deserving of the “Good Paper”

The theme for the March issue of Sasee Magazine is “Planting the Seed.” 

Some writers might read that and think in literal terms – planting seeds, watching a garden grow, waiting for a flower to bloom.

I took that theme and went a different way. 

I wrote about my second grade teacher, Mrs. Jones. It was she who, all those years ago, “planted the seed” and helped me believe I could be a writer.

Click here to read my essay, “Deserving of the Good Paper’ ” in its entirety.

 

Chicken Soup and Cozy Stories

Who else needs comfort and reassurance during these scary times?

In our family, comfort takes many forms. 

Mugs of hot chocolate topped with whipped cream.

Snuggly blankets. Fuzzy socks. Lit candles. Lots of hugs.

And favorite stories. 

This holiday season, perhaps more than any other, we need to hold on to that which makes us feel comforted and calmed. 

We need heart-warming, re-affirming stories. 

On that note, might I do a little self-promotion and recommend Chicken Soup for the Soul: It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas – 101 Tales of Holiday Love and Wonder, a collection of feel-good, holiday-themed, non-fiction stories

And, if you turn to page 140, you will read “A Timeless Gift” — written by me! It’s my story of our family calendar and its place in our holiday traditions. 

May your holidays be filled with good stories and good health.

 

Breaking Down Walls, 5 Minutes at a Time

Back in March (doesn’t that feel like so long ago?), I was set to begin a class offered through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. When everything shut down, my class switched from in-person to virtual. 

At the same time, we were figuring out how to best help our son with distance-learning because Los Angeles Unified schools had shut down as well. So I dropped my writing course before it began. 

Since March, I have been writing. Sometimes more than others. 

And since March, I’ve been published. Again, sometimes more than others. (You can check my Published Work page for a complete listing.)

But lately I have felt like something was missing. 

And I realized what it was – being around other writers.

Most writing classes begin with a general introduction of who you are and why you’re there, what your goal is, what you hope to accomplish by being in that particular class. My introduction doesn’t vary a whole lot. I have a pretty consistent writing practice and know how to meet deadlines. (In case you didn’t know, I’m a regular contributor at MomsLA.com.) 

I enroll in writing classes for the people. The energy that comes from surrounding yourself with other writers. Writers who are readers. Writers who read my work, and offer honest feedback, who push me with questions to go deeper and explore further. They let me know what works and what doesn’t work. 

Often, there’s a mix of workshopping and writing in class; short exercises that sometimes develop into longer pieces.

In-person classes aren’t an option right now. And while virtual classes are being offered through UCLA Extension, I haven’t enrolled in any.

But I continue to write.

As an added stimulus, I have begun re-reading Kicking in the Wall: A Year of Writing Exercises, Prompts, and Quotes to Help You Break Through Your Blocks and Reach Your Writing Goals written by Barbara Abercrombie (my favorite instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program).

If you’re a writer (and as Barbara says, “Writing is a verb. A writer is one who writes”), I recommend this book. It’s gotten me writing – not an assignment for MomsLA or to answer a submissions call I learned about on duotrope.com, but writing not knowing exactly what it may lead to.

May it help you kick in your own wall.

 

Writing As My Way of Teaching

I didn’t start writing as a way to “heal.” 

In fact, my earliest memory of myself as a writer goes back to second grade. I had written a story and showed it to my teacher, Mrs. Jones. In all fairness, in my memory, my story wasn’t entirely my own, but was “borrowed” from something I had seen on Sesame Street. 

In any event, Mrs. Jones made me a “book” with yellow construction paper for the front and back covers and the “good paper” inside – the white paper with blue lines that was always reserved for our final drafts. She told me to write my stories down in my book. 

I don’t know what happened to that book, but I do know that I’ve been writing ever since.

I got lucky. My very first publication was in the Los Angeles Times. 

After that, most of my published personal essays were inspired by my teaching career and my interactions with my students. (You can check out a list of my published work here.)

But that was before 2010. For the past ten years, I have written more and more about my life with an autoimmune disease. In fact, I am working on a memoir-in-essays as a mother, wife, and former teacher living with this invisible disability.

And that’s why I recently read Louise DeSalvo’s Writing as a Way of Healing – How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives.

While I don’t know if writing is “transforming” my life, I do believe writing provides me with a different opportunity to teach.

This week, I’d like to share a few of the passages that I marked with my pinkish/purplish highlighter.

“… writing that springs from intensely personal motives can be useful to others. For loss is a universal human experience, something we all must learn to deal with.”

“Through reading, our imaginative faculties are nourished, enriched, expanded. This is why, for writers and would-be writers, reading is not a luxury but a necessity.”

“One reason, then, to write as we face these critical junctures in our lives is that illness and disability necessitate that we think differently about ourselves, about everything. We can write a new story for ourselves, to discover who we are now – what we’re feeling and thinking and what we desire. We can learn, too, what our bodies are like now, and we can imagine what will become of us.”

“Writing gives us back the voices we seem to lose when our bodies become ill or disabled. We want to speak for ourselves and our particular experience of illness and disability rather than have someone else speak for us. Writing helps us assert our individuality, our authority, our own particular style. All are seriously compromised by medical treatment and hospitalizations …”

“For illness often confers a wisdom about how to make ordinary life deeply and transcendentally meaningful.” 

 

Taking It Day By Day

When someone asks how we’re doing, I answer, “We’re taking it day by day.”

But what I really want to say is, “We’re taking it bird by bird.”

My second answer is a reference to what is considered a classic writing book, Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. 

I’ve read this book in the past, but now seemed like a perfect time to take it off my bookshelf and re-read it.

While it’s especially valuable for writers, I do believe much of the book can be applied to readers and artists in general.

During these challenging, scary, unchartered times here are some words from Bird By Bird that I hope help get you through your day-by-day.

“Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work; you don’t give up.”

“If you are a writer, or want to be a writer, this is how you spend your days – listening, observing, storing things away, making your isolation pay off.”

– “I honestly think in order to be a writer, you have to learn to be reverent. If not, why are you writing? Why are you here? Let’s think of reverence as awe, as presence in and openness to the world.” 

– “My deepest belief is that to live as if we’re dying can set us free. Dying people teach you to pay attention and to forgive and not to sweat the small things.”

– “To live as if we are dying gives us a chance to experience some real presence. Time is so full for people who are dying in a conscious way, full in the way that life is for children.” 

– “Don’t be afraid of your material or your past. Be afraid of wasting any more time obsessing about how you look and how people see you. Be afraid of not getting your writing done.” 

– “Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul.”

A Promise To Myself

Today is generally the day when many people state their new year’s resolutions. Grand plans for dreams, goals, and aspirations.

I’m not going to do that.

Instead, I’m going to state my intention to continue working on my memoir. I’m going to promise myself that I will not give up on sharing my story. 

For my fellow writers out there, I highly recommend Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art From Trauma by Melanie Brooks. This collection is such an inspiration, providing insight into how different writers took something hard/terrible/horrific and used it to create something beautiful/meaningful/relevant.

Here are a few passages I’d like to share with you:

“The reason I write memoir is to be able to see the experience itself in a new way. I hardly know what I think until I write. The therapy is one way of sort of processing things. But it’s only in writing about some of these things that we discover and understand the metaphors of our experience that give our life meaning. Writing is a way to organize your life, give it a frame, give it a structure, so that you can really see what it was that happened.” – Sue William Silverman

“I was a writer, and then this big thing happened in my family. And the way that I tend to try to understand things is through stories – both things that I write and things that I read. That’s the deepest way I know of expressing something inexpressible.” – Joan Wickersham

“You take what you’ve been through, and if you are a writer, you have to write about it.” – Suszanne Strempek Shea

“It really becomes memoir, though, when you open up space for others to enter – when it becomes about more than you, or your family, or your own personal feelings.” – Edwidge Danticat

“Don’t forget, it’s scarier not to do it than to do it.” – Abigail Thomas