A review of Kicking in the Wall by Barbara Abercrombie

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

Kicking In the Wall: A Year of Writing Exercises, Prompts, and Quotes to Help You Break Through Your Blocks and Reach Your Writing Goals
by Barbara Abercrombiue
New World Library
2013, sc, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-60868-156-3, $15.95

Kicking in the Wall offers 365 exercises designed to help writers break through blocks. Author Barbara Abercrombie, who has taught creative writing for three decades, got her title from singer Patti Smith, who said: “I would go as far as I could, and hit a wall, my own imagined limitations. And then I met a fellow who gave me his secret, and it was pretty simple. When you hit a wall, just kick it in.” Abercrombie quotes gems from a variety of writers, including Peg Bracken, Raymond Carver and Christopher Isherwood.

The book’s promotional material calls it a “daily work-out for novice and experienced writers.” In her introduction, Abercrombie says that the writing prompts, tested on her students, have produced good results. “I’ve seen novels, memoirs and essays get started with the five minute exercises,” she writes, “and a lot ended up being published.”

As a writer and writing instructor I have some reservations about Kicking in the Wall. First, many of the prompts are negative. Abercrombie suggests that we write about the following: a moment of despair; getting into trouble; trying to mend fences; self pity; the part of yourself you’re afraid to meet; a time when your confidence was shattered; feeling crazy and unhinged; being blamed; a specific failure; being dressed inappropriately; what your inner critic/censor says; feeling lonely or freakish; encounters with death; suicide; trying to hide; being trapped in solitude; being self-conscious, scared, jealous, heartbroken, depressed: caring too much; revealing too much.

Maybe it’s cathartic to tackle these subjects, but it seems to me unhealthy to keep searching your soul for your worst experiences and baring them, unfictionalized, to the world – feeding the market for prurience and scandal. Abercrombie, however, would probably agree with the author Susan Shapiro, whose article, “No Reservations,” published in Writer’s Digest (May/June 2013, page 8) extols the benefits of writing a “humiliation essay”. What is a “humiliation essay”? Three pages revealing the student’s most humiliating secret. Shapiro considers these “humiliation essays”: “brave, beautiful [and] intimate”, and boasts that in her twenty years of teaching writing, her students have published over a thousand such personal revelations. Apparently they are the best way for a beginner to break into print. But when Shapiro wrote a New York Times article about “enhancing these very personal pieces”, she received three hundred negative comments from readers to the effect that such writing was “self-indulgent” and “self-exploitative” and that the memoir was a “cheap and over-used literary form.”

Abercrombie claims that her exercises can be adapted readily to fiction by “giving the you in the prompts to one of your characters and see what he or she has to say.” Perhaps one of her prompts would re-start a novel bogged down in the middle, but such problems seldom occur if the original concept is big enough and properly thought through in the planning stage.

Could a full-length novel result from an accumulation of five minute exercises? Maybe an episodic one. Of the seventeen “Student Contributors” whose exercises Abercrombie includes, only two are working on novels; the others are working on memoirs. This confirms my feeling that Kicking in the Wall is really for beginning writers, journal-keepers and hobbyists, not experienced professional writers, especially novelists.

The latest of Ruth Latta’s eight novels is The Songcatcher and Me (Ottawa, Baico, 2013, $20, baico@bellnet.ca