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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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Get Inside

I’m wondering if students have trouble learning to take chances in their writing, or if a sense of adventure is worn out of them (by which I mean it may be taught out of them).

Today I covered a friend’s writing class. She told me what they’ve been doing and let me decide how I would work with the students. The final draft of an essay is due on Friday. They’ve received response from the instructor and peers, so I decided to lead an exercise that might help them with late-stage revision.

I gave them two options: 1) Select six to eight key points from the essay and write a six- to eight-line poem (an idea borrowed from friends who teach writing); 2) Or they could write an adventure story about the experience of writing the essay–how they overcame challenges, whether or not they achieved their goals, etc. Whether or not these were brilliant ideas (not my intention) or fun for them (I could hope, but probably not), I thought these prompts would help them learn something about what they’d written and how they’d written it.

Revision should help you get inside what you’ve written. It’s like when you’re trying to open a cereal box. You know where to open the package, but sometimes it’s difficult to get your finger underneath the tab and you need to use a butter knife. Or you may have trouble getting hold of the tab but you pull at an odd angle and mangle the tab, so you can’t get the box to close properly.

You want to get inside but without causing damage. It’s okay if you do; it’s not as if you’ve completely destroyed the box and contents, except in those rare situations when you pull apart the sides of the internal plastic bag with enough force to nearly dislocate your shoulder and send chunks of granola flying onto the counters, floor, and the top of the refrigerator. Sometimes you have to clear the mess, dump it, and start over because you can only pick up a few chunks before the five-second rule expires. Continue reading

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Was Mine

Although I spend my days on a campus with a couple thousand students and a few hundred employees, I experienced a moment alone today. The strange part is that I was in the middle of campus, walking back from lunch when I realized that for the last few steps I hadn’t seen anyone.

I took another step, scanning the distance. There was no one entering or exiting the many buildings in my view or on the sidewalks that connect them. I stopped to look behind me. No one.

Any moment, someone would surely appear. But when? The lull extended for another second, then another. It was like waiting for a kettle to squeal. The water whispers as it begins to heat, gradually building in excitement until you know that within seconds you’ll hear the piercing sound and see steam blasting from the spout. Except I heard nothing. No sign that anything would happen or that anyone would appear.

Maybe this had happened before but I failed to notice. I moved slowly, my shoes not tapping on the concrete. I studied the windows of the residence hall I approached. Surely someone was in there, but the windows’ glare concealed any inhabitants.

For that brief moment, I had the felt sense of something subtly poignant. The stillness was stunning but not overwhelming. And it ended with the slow fade-in of a car coming up the main drive. The driver, clearly visible, had his window down and let his arm hang down the side of the car. The significance of my moment quickly evaporated, leaving only a thin residue.

Insert Keyboard Solo Here

It must take some guts to establish oneself as a songwriter. Even songs that are considered artistic achievements are often difficult to take seriously, especially backup lyrics. The “woo-woos” and “bay-bees” sound just right, conveying feeling in quasi-words transported by sound. You’ve got to be bold to write them down then sing them while strumming your acoustic guitar and insisting, “Oh yeah, this will totally work.”

A great song breaks new ground while drawing on listeners’ expectations of what a great song is. If it were completely new, it wouldn’t reach many people. That’s not to say that great songs must have mainstream appeal. But a great song should communicate, otherwise it’s a secret code designed to obfuscate meaning–a great mystery.

This is probably true for any kind of writing. It’s hard to strike a balance between connecting with an audience and retaining your uniqueness. Sometimes I write lines and my internal editor calls me out. “That’s just gratuitous,” xe says (my internal editor is trans). “That line fits, but just barely. You wrote it to show off, didn’t you? You think people are going to laugh with you. Trust me, you’ll get attention, but not the kind you’re after.”

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