Barbara Abercrombie was an instructor with the Writers’ Program for thirty-one years. She was a beloved and dedicated member of the Writers’ Program community, so much so that despite an ongoing battle with cancer, she was planning to teach our Creative Nonfiction Masterclass for Fall 2022. Everyone at the Writers’ Program was devastated when her health took a quick turn for the worse and she passed away shortly before the start of Fall quarter.
Barbara’s light touched so many people in her life, and during her long tenure at the Writers’ Program she formed lasting bonds with fellow instructors, students, and staff. Her impact on the program and its community cannot be overstated. Barbara was a professional writer and mentor, and to many she was also a friend. UCLA Extension has created The Barbara Abercrombie Scholarship In Creative Writing to support her legacy in providing writers an encouraging, supportive environment to explore their lives and creativity through their work. Further information on how to donate and share this scholarship is below.
Additionally, the Writers’ Program connected with a handful of Barbara’s friends, colleagues, and students for reflections on her impact in their lives. While no tribute could fully do her justice and we were unable to reach an entire network of people spanning a teaching career of over three decades, the Writers’ Program appreciates all efforts to ensure Barbara’s legacy is carried on in a meaningful way. We encourage folks to share stories of how Barbara impacted their lives however best they see fit.

Victoria and Barbara

Victoria Zackheim (Writers’ Program instructor, friend)
I have no idea how Barbara and I met, but we were friends for centuries. We shared the tragedies and comedies of life, followed each other’s careers, edited each other’s work, and it was unimaginable for me to create an anthology that did not include Barbara’s essay. She was family. We followed the lives of our children and grandchildren, celebrated their accomplishments, commiserated when there was illness or unhappiness. As a teacher, she was unparalleled. As a friend, irreplaceable. I can hear her voice, her laugh. Barbara’s absence has left a void that cannot be filled, but my memories of what we shared will sustain me.

Robert Goldman (friend, former student)
I’m a veterinarian. I first met Barbara Abercrombie in 2007 when she brought her cat Charlotte to me for an exam at a pet hospital in Santa Monica, where we were neighbors. She’d just published Courage and Craft and gave me a copy of it then invited me to take her class at UCLA Extension. Every year for the next eight Barbara hosted my family at her house for Thanksgivings, Christmas and Easter celebrations, and birthdays until her husband died in 2015 and she moved from Santa Monica to Brentwood, and then to Pasadena. Barbara was my teacher, friend, and editor for fifteen years. Twice she paid my way to attend her Lake Arrowhead Writer’s Retreat. Barbara, who loved to nourish guests and students, taught me to never forget the ingredients of compassion, humor, and hope in my writing. She was the best teacher and friend. I am forever grateful for her kindness and positive influence on my life.

Billy Mernit (retired Writers’ Program instructor)
When I came to teach at the Writers’ Program, Barbara Abercrombie’s class was the first I sat in on, and I was immediately captivated by this bright light of a human being, who was so graciously giving to each and every one of her students.

Barbara Abercrombie gives feedback to a student at the 2017 Writers Studio.

To my eternal gratitude, we soon became close friends. Barbara’s warmth and generosity and her vibrantly intense interest was boundless. No one who knew her can forget the mischievous glint in her eyes, and the knowing smile that acknowledged both the pain and the joy involved in our strivings to be better writers and better people. All of this made Barbara an instructor of unique and lasting value to an ever-widening community of writers, and the best companion-colleague any teacher could hope to have. Her influence has been incalculable, so it’s only fitting that this scholarship has been established in her name. May her spirit shine on at this institution she loved, for many, many years to come.

Jeri Okamoto-Tanaka (former student)
Barbara was a Godsend in my life and I will be forever grateful. I enrolled in my first UCLA Extension class with her on July 28, 2010, as a gift to myself on the 18th anniversary of my mother’s death. My best friend Rita would pass on that date a year later, a sign I pondered in class. Teaching me “Courage and Craft,” Barbara — and the community of writers she nurtured — companioned me in writing through grief, parenthood, caregiving, divorce, more grief, a stroke, and now seminary. “Take notes,” she advised as a way to navigate through the storms. “Read poetry.” Barbara dared me to embrace the blank page, to write the “crappy” first draft, and then another and another. In time, this wobbly novice who could not get through one class without crying became a brave storyteller with a Certificate in Creative Nonfiction and published pieces. As I weep now, I can hear Barbara saying the tears show that I’ve tapped into something – perhaps still too raw to write about just yet, but territory to explore. I learned from Barbara how to discover the essay, spiritual meaning, and even humor in just about everything – great life-affirming skills for preparing a Sunday sermon, my memoir, and love letters to my daughters. Barbara’s mentorship in the classroom and beyond emboldened me to answer a late-in-life call to seminary studies and writing as a healing ministry. In the words of Abigail Thomas, one of Barbara’s favorites whom she quotes in Kicking in the Wall, “Writing is a way to fathom what we have lost, to make sense out of what makes no sense… I don’t believe everything happens for a reason, but I have faith in our ability to retrieve from loss something valuable to keep, or to give away.” May I honor my beloved Barbara by passing forward her courage, craft, and wisdom to others – like me — searching for such grace.

Steven Wolfson (Writers’ Program instructor)
Barbara Abercrombie was The Beatles of writing teachers. Yes, she was that great. I know this because for the past 25 years, Barbara and I shared many of the same students. Either a writer started in Barbara’s class and eventually took every class that Barbara taught, or they started with me and I told them, “You MUST take a class with Barbara Abercrombie!” I saw firsthand the impact Barbara had on her students and it was profound. She inspired writers to do their best work, to reach deep into life stories and their creativity, and allow a powerful story to emerge. Several years ago I arrived at my Story Structure workshop one weekend to find Barbara Abercrombie was my student! To say I was honored (and a tad nervous) is an understatement. Over the following years, whenever I would run into Barbara, she would tell me how much she enjoyed my workshop and that I should write a book based on my story structure lectures. When I eventually get around to writing that book, I will dedicate it to Barbara. May her memory be a blessing.

Ruth Rudnick (student)
“Why do you need to tell this story? What is the knot in yourself that you are trying to undo?”
“Take Notes.”
“Cultivate your sweetheart voices with yourselves.”

Ruth and Barbara at a reading for Kicking in the Wall

Barbara Abercrombie’s impact on my life was sweeping and profound. She helped me to be braver. And better. She unfolded me. Her brilliance, insight and enthusiasm allowed me and my fellow classmates to write at our best. Always championing and patient, Barbara created a buoyant atmosphere of safety in her classroom that let us be vulnerable— with ourselves, and each other— and in this environment, our stories were allowed to reveal themselves and be heard. True stories—deep and resonant—sometimes funny too— told in our own unique voices were honed on the page. There’s a lot of healing in that. And a lot of great writing.
Barbara was my teacher, and my mentor and my friend. She was curious and kind, elegant, funny and strong. A brilliant, present and tenacious role model.  The first class I took with her was  in 2007, and then for the next fifteen years—up until her final class last semester— I spent well over 500 hours studying memoir with her at UCLA Extension. In addition to regular classes in Westwood, there were her incredible three day intensive writing retreats in Lake Arrowhead, as well as literary salons at her home where we would read short excerpts of pieces in progress and socialize. (Get to know your fellow writers!) Barbara created community inside as well as outside of the classroom.  In 2012, we had workshops for her book entitled, Kicking In The Wall, in which she included some of our essays, thereby making us who weren’t already, “published writers” and in 2013, with Barbara at the helm we experienced the fun of participating in readings and book signings together at various venues.
When I think of Barbara I hear her voice. I hear her laugh. I hear her wisdom and encouragement and instruction. Tales from her well lived and multi-faceted life. I have her comments and check marks (which means she likes it—especially if there are two)—written with pencil in her swooping cursive writing— on hundreds of pages, to re-visit and learn from again and again—all my class notes, suggested reading lists, correspondence, and all of her books on writing. And most treasured of all, I have her indelibly etched in my heart and soul. Thank you dear Barbara for sharing your bright light with the world. We are much better for it.

Jennie Nash (former Writers’ Program instructor)
Barbara taught me how to lift up other writers. She invited me into the profession of teaching and showed me how to hold space for people to build the skills, habits, and confidence they need to bring their stories to life. Her mentoring set me on the path to becoming a book coach, which set me on the path to starting a book coach certification business. We all want to have an impact in the world –  to do work that feels meaningful, to inspire other people. Barbara’s impact was immense, and her generosity and wisdom will continue to ripple through everything I do to help writers do their best work.

IN MEMORY OF Barbara Abercrombie
Her Master Class Pays Tribute
In 2020, we eight students were accepted into a Master Class to be taught by Barbara Abercrombie at UCLA Extension. Some of us had studied with her before, others were new; all were working on memoirs with topics ranging from the death of a parent, a sibling, and child, to surviving family crises, academia, and veterinary medicine. The class lasted for twelve months, and we have continued to meet weekly on Zoom on the same day and time as we met with Barbara. Our manuscripts, now in their final stages, were incubated under Barbara’s guidance.  Sadly, we won’t be able to share our published works with her.

Linda Abrams
I met Barbara in her 2014 class, “Writing the Healing Story.” For the next eight years, in her courses and workshops, literary salons, trips to Arrowhead, and her intensive Memoir Master Class, she encouraged me to put vulnerability and truth on the page. She showed how the solitary work of writing can be elevated by being part of the safe, supportive community of writers she fostered with wisdom, generosity, and kindness. Because of Barbara, I can say I’m a writer.

Liz Berman
Don’t explain your idea, write it.  Onward.  I was one of the fortunate writers asked to join Barbara’s Memoir Master Class. She believed this group was ready to dive in and rewrite our manuscripts. Eventually, we named ourselves, “The Grateful Eight,” because we’d benefited from Barbara’s wisdom. She told us to write, rewrite and kill your darlings. Her unique gifts as a teacher turned ideas into pages, pages into chapters and finally, chapters into a manuscript. Generosity and discipline were Barbara’s secret sauce. I will be forever grateful for our time together.

Gilly Combe
Whenever I lose my focus, I hear Barbara’s voice, “Let’s not get stuck in the weeds, people.”
I miss her incisive instincts, her wisdom and enthusiasm. I miss how easily she found the kernel of what you were trying to say, and by stripping back the weeds, helped it to bloom.

Ben Decter
Barbara’s online writing class helped me survive when the world shut down in 2020. Her ability to offer honest, constructive criticism inspired me to push forward and become a better writer. I already miss her strong, thoughtful presence.

Robert Goldman, Barbara Abercrombie, Rob Daly and Ruth Olafsdottir, May 2015

Bob Goldman, DVM
Barbara Abercrombie was the Cool Big Sister I never had.  She chose the best poems for five-minute prompts.  She gave hope, inspiration, comfort, and safety to me as a writer.  When I heard she planned to teach a Masterclass in Memoir I took a month off from work to draft a manuscript so I could get into her class.  Her motto was, “there’s nothing until there’s something on the page.”

Marcy Kelly
I entered the master class fearful I wouldn’t be able to overcome my grief to write a memoir about my son who had died a few years earlier. Barbara helped me find the way and the experience changed my life. The book is now completed and her name is on the acknowledgement page.

Cynthia Lim
At my first Writers Studio with Barbara, she gave us three rules for writing: 1. Write first, edit next; 2. Do five-minute exercises to get you writing; 3. Be stubborn if you want to publish.  With her guidance, I followed those rules for the next 14 years in her classes, Lake Arrowhead retreats, literary salons and her master class in memoir. She made me the writer I am today and I am eternally grateful.

Anne Linstatter
It was an experiment, a year-long class for advanced students writing memoirs.  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 fortunate to have this opportunity, and we thank you, Barbara.

Monica Holloway (Writers’ Program instructor, former student, friend)

Barbara and Monica


This was our last summer together. After twenty years, we couldn’t have known it.
Having had my first UCLA Extension class with Barbara in 2001, she became my “superstar” instructor, my mentor, my colleague, my friend and confidante who cheered me toward publication, public readings, and, eventually, teaching at UCLA Extension myself.
Luckily, I watched and listened carefully.
Barbara was committed to her students, never canceling class. She taught when she had COVID, a cold, cancer. Twenty-five years ago, she began teaching workshops at the Wellness Center when she had breast cancer to create a community and an outlet for herself and others who were facing a long recovery. She taught and she wrote, creating anthologies in which her students and colleagues could be published, as well as publishing book-after-book on craft as a guideline for students. She was generous. Creating the Lit Salon, she invited students and colleagues to her home once a month to read aloud and gather socially, helping us form a more dynamic and constantly expanding writing community. In her class description of Memoir IV last year, she wrote, “Wherever you are in the world, come join us!”  — her mantra.
Barbara believed in her students and bragged about us constantly, but it wasn’t easily earned. She expected the same commitment to the work that she created in her own writing practice: deep, thoughtful, time-consuming creativity, rich in thought and words. Her students obliged.
Barbara’s commitment earned her the UCLA Extension Outstanding Instructor Award and the Distinguished Instructor Award. She was proud of the writing department and her place among her smart, curious, ambitious colleagues. She told me just before her death that her legacy at UCLA Extension meant the world to her. “I love teaching,” she said, her voice rising with excitement, “I mean, teaching is such a gift, isn’t it? It keeps us alive … always reaching out…searching for new things, sharing great books.” She smiled. “I’m never bored.” Kneeling at my mentor’s side, two days before her death, I managed to smile, too. She was still teaching me – and anyone who would listen – to stay vital, reach out, be curious and generous, don’t shut down. Keep learning.
Thank you to UCLA Extension for creating the kind of program where I could meet someone like Barbara. Where I grew into myself as a writer and, with your help, continue to do so. Thank you for hiring Barbara Abercrombie who has given me, and innumerable students, a “writing self,” as her friend and student Barbara Lodge said, which is to say, “a real self” and a place of belonging.
May her legacy at UCLA be long-lasting and vital … a constant and purposeful reminder of what constitutes a productive, generous, and creative life.

If you would like to donate to The Barbara Abercrombie Scholarship In Creative Writing, you can click the highlighted link, scan the QR code below, or send a check* here:
The UCLA Foundation
PO Box 7145
Pasadena, CA 91109-9903
*Make checks payable to The UCLA Foundation and in the memo line, write Fund # 19190C

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