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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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It’s All About Survival

As a teenager, I thought about what it would feel like to slice through a vein or artery or both. I didn’t know the most effective technique, and I didn’t particularly want to die. I just wanted a break from the indignities of being whatever I was. Most everything anyone said to me felt dismissive. It’s hard to know if my perceptions were anything close to reality.

The biggest assholes of them got it right: I *was* a faggot. I *did* have school pretty easy given my IQ was around 140. At the time, those were things to hide because they made me different. So I hid them.

In bio class when we were supposed to be dissecting some poor, dead, wan frog that seemed at the time to have a better situation than my own, I pressed the corner of the blade into my wrist just to get a tiny fraction of an idea how it would feel. It stung, and I could do the math to figure out the pain caused by shoving the blade deeper. It’s nothing I wanted. It wasn’t the way to peace.

The sad thing is I don’t know what I can tell my younger self about things getting better. They have, yet they haven’t. I suppose the responsible thing to do would be to lie and say life becomes wonderful. Ideally, I would have a dry-erase board behind me and draw a squeaky ascending line to show how much more sunshine comes out of my ass with every passing year. Fuck that.

Sorry to bring the real, but this is my life. I don’t struggle every day with horrible thoughts like I did as a teenager, so in that sense, yeah, it gets a fuckload better. But that makes it worse when when the thoughts come back, because I’m out of practice at pushing them away. (The Summer of Death screws with my head, although sometimes it’s not about that at all.) It’s worth the effort, although I’m tired and can’t honestly tell my younger self and zir modern counterparts that life doesn’t suck a lot of the time. It does. That’s simply true. As a friend told me a long time ago when I was having yet another depressive episode, life is a lot of work, day after day. I knew it already, but hearing him say it made the weight so much more bearable. His words come to me when I need them.

I may not have done much, but I’ve survived, and really: that’s fucking huge. I’ve survived depression and anxiety and OCD to have bad days instead of no days–and more and more good days. I’m just having a bad night. I’m blogging my way through it. Soon I’ll be reading your beads and cajoling you in my loving/snarky way. Unless you’ve read this, you’ll probably remain oblivious to my struggles. Hey, whatever.

You’ve got to reach out. It’s a big world. Someone somewhere is paying attention and is glad you’re surviving, too.

More Than Our Share

Doug made it sound as if we were going window shopping. “Let’s just see what dogs they have,” he said. I fell for it, and of course when he locked eyes with a little red-brown dog shivering on a dirty blue blanket, there was no way we would leave without her. The attendant clipped a leash on the little dog’s collar so we could take her for a “test drive.” The shivering, pitiful creature transformed, suddenly energetic, full of hope, barking loudly what in English would have been “Get me the fuck out of here!” Neither of us had cash or our checkbooks, so I drove to the nearest ATM to get the $40 adoption fee.

As we paid the fee and finished the paperwork, a woman left crying. The attendant explained that the woman’s dog was very ill and had to be euthanized. The woman sat in her car, next to ours, sobbing and inconsolable. I felt guilty as we left with our new, loud bundle of joy, but I wanted to get away from her and the warning she was giving us.

Me & Sophie enjoying babytime.

Taken shortly after we adopted Sophie in 2000.

So we can’t claim we didn’t know from the beginning that our time with Sophie would end, sooner or later. It’s easy to get lost in imagining that a loved one is immortal, and we did, but we also took her to the vet at the slightest indication of trouble. We’ve been dreading her death for the past eleven years. On Tuesday, the day came. Sophie had been limping for a month and had been tested and treated for various ailments, but her problems didn’t go away, and her pain increased.

As it turned out, I wasn’t with her. Two weeks ago, my father died after months of suffering from lung cancer. Doug and I both attended the funeral, but Doug sensed he needed to get back even though our dogsitter reported no problems while we were gone, and we hoped Sophie was on the mend. Doug had to go it alone, taking her back to the vet (she’d been so many times in the past month) and then to a specialist who identified a perplexing spot on her x-ray as bone cancer. There was no miracle cure, just painkillers that probably wouldn’t make things even temporarily better for her.

For the past few days, I’ve been sobbing off and on like that woman I saw on Sophie’s adoption day. I haven’t cried like this in years, since the summer of 1994, when two of my friends died within two weeks of each other (but that’s a story for another time). Even after Dad died, I had a hard cry once or twice, but it just didn’t hurt like this hurts. He loved his cats like Doug and I love Sophie, so I know he would understand. There was so much happiness in our eleven years with her. More than our share. We were lucky, and now we’re greedy for more. Continue reading

Keep Verbing Until You Noun

I haven’t felt compelled to write lately. It’s sort of a non-paying job that I get done more often than not, for what it’s worth. (I guess I mean it’s a bit of a chore.) Is that bad? Can I call myself a writer if I’m not brimming with ideas and driven by the need to process every thought in writing?

I used to feel that need. I felt compelled. Thoughts zapped in my head and came out my fingers as words in problematic, passionate order. Now my writing life is all about the novel. Occasionally I’ll feel a blog post come on like the need for a chocolate bar, except that need comes to me daily. Of course, consumption is easier than output. No poems anymore. Sure as hell no songs anymore. No short stories. Not even stories? Even after writing so many in undergrad and grad school? What’s up with that?

I’m not sure I know how to write a story anymore. If I’m honest, I should admit I stopped trying to write stories before I mastered the form. What is mastery? Does it involve jotting some quite autobiographical notes fueled by the assumption that they could, in first-draft form, tell anyone’s story, but some specific anyone might emerge if I let the notes simmer long enough?

I hope so, because I wrote something like that today. I think it’s called “a mess.” The most structure I’ve had in my writing lately is what you’re seeing here: paragraphs that begin with “I” and end with whiny, desperate, open-ended questions. I wonder if this is what my writing is becoming. Could it be so? Continue reading

“Ooo-They’re-Gay” Jokes Are Still Cutting-Edge 1980s Comedy

I overheard an offensive-to-me joke–that ole chestnut about insulting two presumably heterosexual men by insinuating they’re a couple. It’s the kind of “humor” that closet cases and straight people who are insecure about their own relationships use to feel better about themselves, blending the ick factor with a dash of gay panic. I do remember that shit seemed fresh in the locker room back in junior high, and did my best to laugh along. (My time in the junior high locker room was all about trying but failing to cover what made me ashamed.)

Instead of simply fuming about the latest telling of this joke, I got a chance to respond directly and in writing. Having some time to puzzle over the situation was helpful, as it usually is for how my brain processes information. I’m all for bringing the funny, and people have a right to say what they want. I’m even open to being the butt of a joke that’s actually funny. (Ha! I just said “butt.”) But when your tired words and ideas enter my airspace, prepare to engage. Free speech is about as multi-player as you can get.

The topic is important to plenty of people other than me in this age of openly pursued “bromances,” which are decidedly “no-homo” in contrast to civil unions or marriages, but not as “no-homo” as plain ole friendship. Gay panic seems to be cooling into gay anxiety, for some, at least. I encourage them to get help with that cultural shit. I probably wouldn’t be alive if I hadn’t.

For what it’s worth, I offer the bulk of my letter here, without identifiers, to inspire, entertain, infuriate, and/or bore my dear readers. Or pick a verb of your very own. Continue reading

How My First Time Became Never

I first thought about killing myself in bio class junior year of high school. My teacher probably thought I was thinking big bio thoughts. My obedient behavior apparently gave her the impression that I cared about what we were doing. I had learned that the only reason to talk to her was to affirm that she was right.

The plans I was considering came from movies and TV, mostly. I knew not to talk to my teacher about them. She wouldn’t have drawn on her knowledge of human biology to help me choose the most efficient option. She would have told me I was wrong, and probably referred me to the appropriate administrators. Maybe I would have gotten the help I needed, and probably for that very reason I didn’t risk telling her or anyone else.

I’d already been through the psychological support process in fifth grade, when I freaked out in class about a gray cloud in the sky and panicked that a tornado would kill us all. I ended up spending six months or maybe a year in weekly sessions with the school district psychologist. We met in windowless storage spaces. She measured my IQ. One week we built a model airplane together as we talked. I thought she was a weirdo but trusted, and still trust, that she had some good intention. I just didn’t get it. And if it helped me, it didn’t work for long.

When I moved from elementary to junior high school, I had panic attacks throughout the first month of school, my body’s way of rejecting the transition that I didn’t want to go through. The school counselor did his best to talk me through it, but basically I just got used to the discomfort of the new environment. A lot of my classmates turned mean and, along with kids from the other schools that fed into our junior high, they turned on me. I’d taken some crap in elementary school; I’d been called “sissy” so many times I lost count. In junior high, it only got worse. They called me “faggot” and other slurs. When dressing out for gym class, other boys would point at my fleshy chest and say I had breasts, which was an extreme version of the more common attempt to insult me by saying I was a girl. I don’t remember teachers saying anything like that except my gym teachers, who called us “ladies” when we weren’t moving fast enough. Later, I would learn about gender expression and identity and come to understand that the “insult” hurt because it was mostly true for me.

So by the time I got to my junior high bio class, I felt pretty worn down. But I didn’t act on my plans. Things got better senior year. I made friends, spent more time with the friends I already had, and learned I had some talents I’d hoped I had. Although the good times didn’t erase the pain, I was too busy to acknowledge the feeling that everything would surely fall apart. I was avoiding the problem, yes, but I wasn’t aware of how I could get help. I did what I had to do to stay alive.

Continue reading

A Gregarious Introvert’s Guide to Writing

As a tween and early teen, I spent a lot of time alone. Everyone in the family was busy but me, and I got sick of joining them. There were no structured activities that interested me, certainly not sports. In early elementary school, I had tried gymnastics and was the only boy in the class. Once the girls started on the uneven bars, they more or less kicked me out, probably afraid I’d end up odd. (Resisting the obvious follow-up to that.) They didn’t understand that I wanted to give it a try anyway, nor did they care.

I would have gotten into theatre if there had been a program, but there wasn’t. So once I was old enough to stay by myself, I stayed at home most every evening of the week, arriving at my house by bus after school and hanging out until my parents and sister came home, usually 9 p.m. or after. During all that tween time, I did homework, mastered the preparation of boxed macaroni and cheese, discovered the fleeting distraction of masturbation, and organized my life around the prime-time TV schedule. The TV had to be on and blaring. When my hands weren’t otherwise occupied, I wrote in my journal a lot, mostly about how lonely I felt, how I felt I was being punished for something I didn’t understand, sometimes creating abstractions that I wanted so badly to be arty. When my family came home, I didn’t know what to say to them, so I usually grabbed my journal and went to my room. It was about time to go to bed anyway.

In high school, I got into visual art, which was a relatively social experience compared to my experiences with writing. I got to study at the Kansas City Art Institute for three semesters in their high school program and spent a lot of time around black t-shirt-wearing, Cure-adoring teens. Besides being artists, we also had in common that we revised our own clothing with paint and graffiti. Whereas they went for morose colors and patterns, my hacked-up sweatshirts looked like they’d been distressed at a Skittles factory. My arty acquaintances were as kind as they could allow themselves to be without losing their status as non-conformists. They liked my artwork, though, and that was the point.

Socially, it wasn’t much different than being in school. When we weren’t elbow-deep in our art, we stood outside, where they smoked and I coughed. In The Breakfast Club terms, we were overstocked on Ally Sheedies and Judd Nelsons. Meanwhile, I was Anthony Michael Hall’s dorkier younger brother who wasn’t cool enough to get detention but who sneaked in anyway. I waited for something to happen that would make them want to be friends with me, because trying and failing would have devastated me. All of this went into my journal, where I attempted the textual version of the cool, nonconformist thing, albeit while listening to Duran Duran.

Near the end of high school and a few years after, I did theatre. I was constantly around people and usually the backstage dramas didn’t interfere with the feeling of family that develops when a group of people spends a ridiculous number of hours creating what we hoped were works of art. If the audiences and critics hated a show, that was almost better, because then the group could rally around itself, with plenty of self-deprecation and martyrdom to go around. The experience made for war stories our little ad hoc family would share for years. I loved that I was never alone, that I had the luxury of so much time with people that I got sick of some of them, and I even enjoyed the discomfort of missing them when a production ended.

But even then I was writing, and much more compulsively. Even though I was rarely alone, I felt lonely. Filled with angsty ideas, I had to get them out of me. Continue reading

Seems Like Forever, or The End of the Beginning of the World

A woman in my writers’ group predicted that she won’t reach the deadline she has set for finishing her book. She’s glad that she’s pushing forward but feels frustrated not to be writing faster. The process is happening as fast as possible given the time she has to work on her book every week. That’s all there is to it.

Her frustration is my frustration. I work on my book every day for at least 1.5 hours, an amount of time I can pretty much guarantee I’ll have every day. Rather than shoot beyond that and fail on a regular basis, I aim for what’s doable and go for more as opportunities arise.

Moving forward feels good, but I, too, feel frustrated for not getting more work done during my allotted time. My process is quite ruminative, which is not, in fact, a euphemism for “slow.” I need to ruminate, or, more accurately, my brain ruminates, processing information at an average speed, but much more slowly than it is able to take in information.

Experts confirmed this ten years ago, but it’s taken ten years of experience after the test on top of the thirty years of experience before the test for me to accept that fact. I try not to fall into a determinist view about it. Sometimes I can write quickly, but it’s usually something short–a poem, a story, an email–and happens spontaneously. Slam poetry wouldn’t be impossible for me to do; I’d just need to start training well in advance of a performance. The point is that I am what I am, and I do what I do. Rather than wasting energy fighting myself, I can take a more positive approach.

Novel writing is arguably what I’m designed to do. Until I have a book deal, I’m on my own schedule, so there’s time to ruminate. I didn’t meet my super-ambitious goal for the summer (to finish revising my book by June 15) and probably won’t meet my revised goal (to finish by August 15). I’ll just keep going.

Part of the problem with setting goals is that I’m only now getting a sense of the scope of the project. I’ve never written a novel before, so for all my planning, I can’t anticipate what’s really going to happen as I work on this thing. As so many novelists say (and not just first-time novelists), we learn as we go through the process.

According to Kenneth Atchity, this cliche makes a lot of sense. In his book A Writer’s Time, he explains, “You must allow more time at the beginning of a project to accomplish less work.” Even a fast-processing writer would slog through the first stages of writing a novel. I’m finding this to be true for certain parts of the process as well as the overall process. I’ve been at it for three year and finished the first draft a few months ago. But when I started to revise, it felt as if I hit the reset button. Continue reading

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