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Barbara Abercrombie
"Writing gives order to the great mess of life...A terrible accident or illness is chaos, the biggest mess of all. Your sense of order and the predictability of your life is shattered. Cause and effect become more dicey than ever. Writing can help organize chaos and conflicting feelings, can give you some sense of control and meaning. Writing down the details of an experience can sometimes reveal the shape and meaning of what you've been through and give it clarity."
--Barbara Abercrombie, Writing Out the Storm


The idea for Barbara's book, Writing Out the Storm, began in a writing workshop she started at the Wellness Community in Los Angeles. People in the workshop, including Barbara, had either recovered from cancer, were currently in treatment for it, or were caregivers. Barbara quickly realized that she couldn't conduct the workshop the way she taught regular creative writing classes. "No one there cared about genre guidelines, no one needed or wanted pep talks for becoming a writer or advice on how to get published," she recounts. "They were there for writing as therapy, a way to deal emotionally with a life-threatening illness, a tool for finding a voice in a situation that leaves you feeling as if you have no control."

Barbara's book provides inspiration guidance from her own experience, as well as that of her students and other authors. Interwoven with her story are several "nuggets" any of us can use to get started and keep writing, including:

There is no right or wrong way to write. Whether you call it writing in a journal or keeping a notebook, buy yourself a beautiful book with blank pages or buy a spiral notebook at the supermarket for $1.98. Or start a new file in your computer. There is no right or wrong way to do this. Just begin.

If you keep your pen moving so fast you can't think, you'll begin to move out of your own way and connect to a deeper part of yourself. You'll start writing about things you didn't even know that you knew or remembered. Trust the deep well of memory and knowledge and feeling you have. Write so fast, you won't hear the voice in your head carping that this is too boring to write about, too sentimental, too personal. The details of your life are valuable. Relax. Don't think. Keep writing.

Forget what you were taught in English class. You have permission to throw out all the grammar you ever learned and to make up your own spelling. Someday, if you ever think about getting published, then you can let the carping editor in your head loose on the page to make sense of your grammar and give structure to what you write. But that's a second step. And you can't get there without the first step.

Barbara offers many excellent prompts and exercises throughout her book, and on her blog at www.WritingTime.net. We've excerpted several here with her permission:

"Something happens", Barbara writes about her impending biopsy, "and then the world spins on a new axis."

Begin writing. Start with the words "something happens." See where they lead. Maybe you'll write about an accident or the start of an illness, the moment when your life spun on a new axis, when your plans began to fall like leaves. Or maybe you'll start with the description of a waiting room, the details of the moment, what you see, smell, hear and touch.

"During the most difficult times, right after your diagnosis, waiting for test results, being in pain-it's often hard to concentrate. Sometimes all you can manage is a list or to jot down random thoughts without following them through."

Make a list of what you have control over. Another list of what you can't control. Make a list of what you need-more clothes, or love, or whatever. Than a list of what you have.

"Having breast cancer taps into some not very attractive aspects of my character. One is my drama queen persona, which I realize is masquerading now as courage and openness. Another is a certain aura of specialness that I take on, rather like a halo. I am a cancer patient...I tell everyone I have breast cancer, not just my family and friends, but all my students, the pet sitter, the guy who's putting a new roof on my house, members of my yoga class...How can I be brave and wonderful if no one knows I have this disease?"

Write about how you tell people about what you're going through or how you keep it a secret. Write about people's reactions when you tell them the truth. Write about the consequences of reaching out-or not reaching out.

Write about your anger. Air it all out on the page. Write about the colors of your craziness. Write about your halo or badge. Write about the strangest thing you've done recently. Let yourself wobble. Take off the mask. Write what's underneath.

"Our souls can become thin when pain doesn't end, treatments have side effects, or with the onslaught of more bad news."

Write about your soul feeling thin, or fragile, or heavy. Write about a moment when it seemed everything was under control, but then fell apart again. Write about something that recently pushed you to the edge. Write about something you're tired of.

And a few more...

Write a prayer or petition. Write notes to God or to the gods or goddesses or to Buddha or to Jesus or to Whom it May Concern. Write for what you need. Write about faith-having it or not having it. Write about what the word faith means to you. Write about your spiritual beliefs. If you don't have spiritual beliefs, write about where and how you search for strength and meaning. Write about one shining moment of happiness, one moment, brief and priceless.

Write about your body trying to take you hostage. Write about scars that show. Write about those that don't. Write about hiding scars, or not hiding them. Write about deciding to feel a certain ay about your body. Or write about not making peace with your body.

Write about choices. Write about what you plan to do with your one wild, precious life.

Barbara Abercrombie lives in Santa Monica, California, with her husband. In addition to her two non-fiction books on writing: Writing Out the Storm, and Courage and Craft: Writing Your life into Story. Barbara has published two novels, books for children, and numerous poems, articles and personal essays. She teaches in the Writer's Program at UCLA extension where she won the 1994 Outstanding Teacher Award. She also conducts ongoing writing workshops at the Wellness Community, a nationwide program that offers free psychological support for cancer patients and their families. For more information and resources, please visit Barbara's blog at www.WritingTime.net.

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