The most memorable thing about
Barbara was her million-dollar smile.
She liked happy, insisted that our memoirs not be polemic or despairing.
Even when writing about loss, she
balanced grieving with celebrating.
Born Barbara Louise Mattes on April 6, 1939, in Illinois, she attended
Briarcliff College just north of New York City and then did some acting on
Broadway and in television. She married
a Naval officer and stockbroker, Gordon E. Abercrombie, in 1964 and had two daughters.
Barbara wrote five children’s books published 1979-2002 after editing a collection of poems for
children in 1977. Her three novels include Good Riddance (Harper, 1979), about a woman whose husband flagrantly betrays her.
I first met Barbara in
spring of 2000, when I took her famous course Courage and Craft I & II,
followed by The Art of the Personal Essay that fall. She was 61 then, kind and encouraging, living
in a wonderful home right on the beach in Santa Monica. In 2007
she made that course accessible to anyone, publishing Courage and Craft:
Writing Your Life into Story, followed by A Year of Writing Dangerously in 2012 and Kicking in the Wall in 2013.
Her warmth and generosity were
I studied with other writers for
fifteen years and then began
taking Barbara’s advanced seminars in creative
nonfiction in 2016. I noticed that the
students in her classes of twelve bonded with each other as well as with her;
we became adept at asking questions that would improve the writing and at
saying, “Maybe you could make this line into a scene.”
The next to last class she taught was an
experiment, a year-long course for advanced students writing memoirs. We had all published essays of various sorts
or done work in screen writing, maybe written a book.
The usual ten-week classes offered
by UCLA Extension were a piecemeal approach to the kind of long-term work we
were doing. Barbara designed
a curriculum and shepherded us each from haphazard chapters to a complete
manuscript worthy of submission to an agent.
We were a neurotic bunch, anxious
about our projects and skeptical that they would ever see the light of
day. Four of us had been taking Barbara’s
creative nonfiction classes for years; four had worked with other instructors
and were meeting her for the first time—or almost meeting her. The course began in September, 2020, and Covid-19
transformed it into a Zoom.
Starting with us where we were, lost
in pages and pages of our stories, Barbara cheerfully planned out the three
quarters, which would end in June, 2021, with a real agent committed to reading
our first thirty pages. It was a great year,
but when June came, none of us had completed a presentable first draft.
Barbara negotiated with the
Extension and offered us another three months of her guidance in the fall. Then in January, 2022, we each submitted our opening pages to an agent but continued working as a group.
In May when she told us that her new cough was lung cancer, it didn’t seem possible that we could lose her in only three months.
Barbara was irrepressible. She gleaned friendship from the end of a marriage and remarried at 58. Though she lost her soulmate after 18 years, she lived to love again.
Beginning in 1997 she wrote her way out of breast cancer, adding to her own story the poems and quotations of others; the result was Writing Out the Storm: Reading and Writing Your Way through Serious Illness or Injury (2002). Then, in response to the death of her second husband, Robert V. Adams in 2015, she collected poems and paragraphs for her sixteenth book, The Language of Loss: Poetry and Prose for Grieving and Celebrating the Love of Your Life (2020).
In her final days she was still a wordsmith, describing her dying as “a blessed slide into not feeling.” She died in the early hours of August 24, 2022.
We were fortunate to have the opportunity to work with you, Barbara. Thank you.
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