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    My daily writing--emails, journal entries, marginalia, more emails, blog posts, and tweets--shapes me as a writer, helping and hindering the big stuff I'm trying to accomplish. Every word counts.

    My name is James Black. I'm on Facebook and Twitter. Friend and/or follow me if you like.

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Jane’s Meme: Learning to Write

My friend Jane invited me to her meme about learning to write. The assignment is to write about three contradictory practices that helped in my development. Mine aren’t necessarily contradictory, just not obviously connected, but they overlap quite a bit.

I aced my senior composition project in high school. Grades don’t necessarily reflect what students learn, but in this case, I have no doubt. I suffered for that grade, not that anyone asked me to.

My teacher, Mr. Stewart, led us through a months-long process of developing our arguments, writing outlines, doing research at university libraries in the area, and writing numerous drafts. He carefully structured the process and gave us support, but I managed to make it a less-than-healthy experience. I approached the work seriously, concerned that I wouldn’t be able to earn a C. I obsessed about every word and feared taking chances.

But I stuck with it. My father convinced me to use our word processor. In 1987, the software had a lot of bugs–data sometimes disappeared, and printing was a huge pain (especially pagination)–so I directed much obsessive energy to technical challenges. Mr. Stewart was very proud of me. I worried he would find out I had worked so hard, which in my mind meant I really wasn’t a gifted writer at all.

I went on to community college and had the same level of success in my comp sequence. I had a hardass instructor who ripped everyone’s writing apart. For some reason, he usually approved of mine. I realized that he could tell I cared, and for that, he gave me caring response but also held me to a higher standard. It helped that he had us write responses every day for class. I think we had to do three pages–enough that getting the writing done was a challenge, but not so much that we could really complain about it. The combination of practice and response helped me learn my good and bad habits.

Getting words down (on paper or digitally) is essential. I didn’t really understand what I’d learned in those comp classes until I began tutoring, especially online tutoring, which required me to write in order to communicate with writers about their writing. There was no opportunity to chat up a client in person. I had to communicate clearly and concisely, establishing contextual information in words. I got to practice writing, but the most important part of it was that I wrote to a very specific audience and got immediate feedback.

In first grade, I started writing poetry. Actually, I was writing lyrics for songs that I made up or alternate lyrics to pop songs. I played with words in a blank book that my mom bought me at the bookstore. The cover was made of faux leather that had been stamped with a gold-tone design. I thought of it as a real book, inside and out.

In high school, I started writing real poems. The music was no longer something separate from the words. The words made music, at least to me. I whined something fierce in those poems. Very few of them have held up over time, but I’m surprised by a line here or there in them. As fucked up as I was, I was not a stupid kid. Friends know that I refer to that period as my Angry Young Man phase. I’m not sure I’ve left the anger behind entirely, but I struggle to maintain the energy I had for writing then. Honestly, though, I don’t believe my desire to write should remain as intense now as it was then. I’d burn out in seconds. Better to approach it as enjoyable work.

After I started writing as a child but before I started calling myself a writer (that is a relatively recent development), I was a visual artist. I took a basic drawing class in high school. My teacher, Mrs. Comer, taught me about drawing cast shadows–deeper nearest the edge of an object, diffused farther and farther from the object–and I was hooked. She taught me to paint, weave, and photograph, and she sent me to the Kansas City Art Institute for three semesters of their high school program on weekends and during the summer, where I studied figure drawing, etching, silkscreen, and photography.

By working with a wide variety of media, I learned about design and composition. I approach any piece of art as a whole piece. How do the details fill the frame? Is the object complete? Does the story have a sense of balance? Let me revise what I just said: I fall in love with details and sometimes lobby against my better judgment to cram them in where they don’t belong. But my ability to step back and consider the whole thing (whatever the thing may be) comes from my years of art training. Many people claim to be “visual,” but that’s not what I mean. When working on a piece of writing, I imagine it’s something I can move within and touch and smell and hear, not just see.

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