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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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MyNaPoWriMo Is Over

As other writers spent November 30 fulfilling their NaNoWriMo obligations of 50,000 words, I have just fulfilled my promise to write a poem a day in November, a.k.a. MyNaPoWriMo. For those keeping score, my friend Devi (whose idea this was in the first place) successfully completed her 30 poems, too. You can read them at Book Writing World.

I planned to write my daily poems rather quickly and continue revising my novel, but I found myself focusing on poetry writing. It was kind of like going back twenty years. Before I wrote anything else, I wrote poetry but have gotten away from it the past few years. I won’t let that happen again.

Here are some of my takeaways:

  • I need the breaks from writing prose, and especially from writing/revising a long project.
  • Cranking out a poem a day allowed me to explore other ideas. Creating a (solid draft of a) product by the end of every day helped me understand how I become inspired. I just need a small bit of something, but that something has got to spark or else I can’t sustain even a short writing and revision process.
  • I enjoyed the openendedness of the process, allowing exploration of form as well as content. I could literally see the shape of each poem. Although that’s harder to do with a novel of a few hundred pages, I need to imagine the structure graphically or as a visual metaphor, not just in terms of an outline or other textual system. But I concerned myself with what shape worked best for the poem rather than what some supposed expert would give me permission to do, as I should do with every project no matter the size.
  • Playing with words is why I like to write and revise. With a novel, the wordplay begins to feel like a job. With a new poem each day for a month, the process is more art-for-art’s-sake. I recognize that when I’m revising to the best of my ability, I’m drawing on my skills as a poet.

MyNaPoWriMo was definitely not a vacation from writing-as-work. Many days I felt a great deal of pressure to produce when I just didn’t feel like, and I had to push myself pretty. But because my poems could be as long as they needed to be, I could devote myself to producing something well done instead of churning out a minimum number of lines or words. And that freedom allowed me to find something enjoyable about writing every day.

A real writer writes every day, but if s/he enjoys doing it, that’s even better. Tomorrow, I’m back to work revising my novel, hopefully bringing some renewed joy to that process.

Sophie, My Protector

Sophie, Thanksgiving 2000

Sophie, Thanksgiving 2000

Sophie was my protector. Not so much physically. At 25 pounds she couldn’t have fended off a mugger or a monster, but she saved me from loneliness, which is one of my greatest fears.

I was lonely for the first year after we moved to Pennsylvania. I couldn’t find a job in the area, and even though I worked part-time online for my former university, I wasn’t making enough money to contribute my fair share, and the limited contact I had with my former colleagues only emphasized how isolated I was. Doug went to work to teach all day and stayed most evenings for rehearsals. I knew no one else.

On fall break, Doug insisted we go dog shopping, their eyes met, and we came home with her. The only reason I was opposed was because I took the responsibility seriously and worried I would screw up as a pet parent the way I felt I was screwing up in general. To a lesser extent, I felt left out of whatever bond Doug and this dog had. Sophie was never as excited as when she reunited with Doug upon his return to the den. Throughout the day, we would look at each other not with hostility, but with confusion. What were we supposed to do while the guy we loved, albeit differently, was out of the house?

Continue reading

A Rant about Gender in Fiction

According to an article I read yesterday, men behave a certain way, and women behave a certain way. When, as a reader of fiction, you feel a character does not behave appropriately, it’s probably a gender problem.

For example, if a male character wants a relationship more than sex, or if he shows an interest or ability to care for a child, he’s acting like a woman in a man’s body. If a female character wants sex more than a relationship, or if she cares about legacy more than the immediate gratification of dealing with children, she’s acting like a man in a woman’s body. The writer offers no evidence–from theory, practice, or anywhere else–to support her views.

I wish I could laugh at stuff like this. It’s stereotypical crap. Unfortunately, a lot of people accept it as fact. One of the commenters says that although she can’t think of examples to support the writer’s view, the article feels right. Of course, when you go by feel without ever checking in with real life, it’s easy to convince oneself that reality is as it seems. Ah, the power of fiction.

As much as I disagree with these prescriptivist assumptions about gender, what the writer gets right is that readers, editors, and publishers have expectations about how characters may behave in regard to gender. And if men are limited to certain actions and feelings, the options become more limited as other aspects of identity are revealed. For a character to embody a multi-faceted identity (gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic class, and more) apparently risks overwhelming a reader. To avoid problems, some writers follow the rules by keeping their characters simple. They anticipate readers, editors, and publishing asking things like, “Why does the character’s sexual orientation (or race or religion or whatever) matter?” So they willingly create characters with only a few aspects of identity to avoid conflict. This practice resembles that of self-identified “friends of diversity” who prefer to focus on one or two categories rather than acknowledging how complexities of identity play out in an individual. Continue reading

Resolution: Form Fits Content

I resolve to set reasonable minimum expectations and meet them. This approach isn’t new to me. I’ve used it for years, finding it motivating to say, “Well, at least I’ll do five pushups” or “Writing one sentence shouldn’t be too hard,” and then blast past the ridiculously minimal goal. To push past fear or indifference, I’ve had to mess with my head, but it’s become a very silly game. Some parental part of me treats myself like an irresponsible child, and then the childish part of me proves the old guy to be a suspicious jerk. It’s like I’m doing a one-person version of The Breakfast Club. Continue reading

Off the Treadmill

The first two-thirds of December was a treadmill system of processes. Do some grading. Step off that treadmill to go to a meeting. Work with a student freaking out about finals. Back on the grading belt. When all those belts reached their termini, jump on the neverending deal-with-those-piles-of-papers-littering-your-office treadmill, on which I do what I can, make a little progress, then happily leave. All of these things had to get done, and I got them done.

In the second third of the month, I’ve been in vacation mode. It’s usually a pleasant time of maintaining daily/weekly chores, making sure I exercise, and otherwise figuring out what to do with time that is as yet unscheduled. I’m grateful for this time and understand most people don’t get so much; I’m not going to whine about that. But the openendedness messes with my head. I spend most of my life wishing I had time of my own, then when I do, I don’t know what to do with it. I’m not unusual in this way; lots of us feel this frustration. We’re too busy being busy to plan what we’ll do when we’re not busy.

Having more time has not resulted in spending more time on the novel, but I’ve maintained my daily time commitment, occasionally putting in a little more. If anything, I feel less optimistic about the project, which has become a small city of treadmills–imagine That OK Go Video but filmed on a backlot. The process is enormous. I know what I want to do, and it takes as much time as it takes. Having a windfall of time doesn’t speed things up. It’s like winning a $5000 scratch-off and thinking you’re going to buy a house with it. It’s a good thing, a minor boost, but when you land, you’ve got to keep pace so you don’t get tangled up in the conveyer belts.

Actually, the treadmill metaphor fits novel writing only if I add that I have to simultaneously ride the bike that powers the conveyance for the entire small city. I toss people on the belts, and they move along them, between them, among them, straight line to straight line. So much complexity devolves into tedious complication over years of this process, interesting like a puzzle, but where’s the story? Continue reading

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