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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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Practice Makes Writers

Elizabeth Stark’s observation about writers’ tendency not to practice their art interests me a lot. I’ve been a writing center nerd for well over a decade, struggling to get college students to explore their writing processes, to engage with the page.

What students care about is product: getting the assignment done and getting a good grade. They don’t give a crap about practicing and/or don’t trust that practice will help them, which makes sense given that they probably weren’t taught to practice. Some of the students I’ve worked with assume that they are excellent writers already, unaware that the A’s they received in high school convey as much or more about their obedient classroom behavior than the quality of their prose.

Most, though, believe they aren’t writers. I don’t mean that they doubt their current status as writers. I mean they believe they simply aren’t writers and won’t ever be, that they lack the gift, and that no amount of practice would help them find it. (See Carol Dweck‘s work on fixed mindset vs growth mindset.)

Identifying as non-writers manifests in some annoying behavior and habits. For students who think they’ll never be textual artists, written communication is just a tool to achieve other goals. Writing is a product that should be cheap and easy to come by. Students protest their instructors’ seemingly unnecessary critiques. “You know what I mean,” they rail. “What I wrote in my paper is close enough.” The stakes aren’t high, or they shouldn’t be, they assume, and they’ve got better things to do with their time. Once they’re writing for “real” purposes in the “real” world–to get into grad school, to get published, to cut the deals that will make them zillionaires–they’ll be able to whip out the writing with no problem.

Of course, the practice they get in college-level coursework is supposed to help them prepare for the “real” stuff. But there isn’t much time to have students practice in class, and without modeling that behavior, it’s unrealistic to expect many of them to practice on their own “for fun.” So we give them assignments, expecting that will get them to practice. Maybe we have them write a draft or two, but again, there’s not much time, so we only ask for the “completed” assignment. The course becomes an obstacle course, and the student is given the textual equivalent of impossible tasks. From a standing position, leap over this 8-foot wall. No, you can’t have a rope. Just figure it out. Continue reading

A Bunch of Craft

What I’m learning from all I’ve been reading about craft lately is that I have developed good sense about making stories. I’m pretty good at creating pieces that make a complete picture. The tricky part is taking the pieces apart and handing them out in an order that will keep the reader curious enough to keep snapping pieces into place.

The craft readings have helped me think more clearly about other aspects of my process that I do sort of well with. Atchity says the goal should not be to avoid anxiety but, rather, to transform it into productive energy. That is the challenge of my life, and I mean that quite seriously. I experienced my first panic attack in first grade. My parents rushed me to the hospital in the middle of the night because I woke up screaming due to stomach pain. While waiting for the E/R doc to run tests, the pain subsided. No cause for the pain was found. That scenario played out four times. In fifth grade, the symptoms became more in line with what I would experience for decades: shallow, rushing breath; rapid heart rate. Continue reading

Structure: Thinking It / Feeling It

I get plot and structure when I *see* them; I don’t seem to be able to fully realize their potential when I *do* them. Like anyone, I know how to tell a story, to get the job done. I’m really trying to understand what I already know, so I understand why authors I admire get away with things I’m trying to do.

Analyzing the design of stories really does thrill me. I love tearing them apart to see how they work. I was an English major because I wanted to be; I wasn’t one of those students who ended up in the department by default. But analyzing stories (including novels) that have been praised and loved is different than analyzing a story (especially the novel) I’m writing.

Structural design is, for me at least, the algebra of the writing process. I got through algebra, but I had to go over lessons again and again. The work made my eye twitch and I had to keep it in my mind at all times so I wouldn’t lose what I’d learned. Algebra fulfilled my math requirement, so as soon as I got my A, I ran (did not walk) from anything math-related beyond balancing my checkbook.

When I try to apply principles, theories, rules to my own writing, I feel as if I’m doing algebra, which, considering I’ve forgotten so much about algebra, is probably not even an effective simile.

How about this: it’s an attempt to quantify what has been qualitative, to give my lump of literary clay some form. Which is a good thing, but fucking frustrating. I need to know if what I’m *trying* to communicate is making sense *at all*.

It reminds me of that episode of Golden Girls when Blanche spends 72 hours writing her memoir. She scrawls her life story in numerous spiral notebooks and, upon finishing, enters the kitchen to share her work of genius. Blanche’s brain is on the verge of collapse from lack of sleep, but she’s so cranked up on arrogance that she can’t wait to have Rose read it. Rose can’t make sense of the sprawling text. Continue reading

F**k the Establishment (Pending Approval)

Dan Chaon wishes young writers would read. And not the obvious stuff. He wants them to find really obscure writers, as kids who rock out in their garages find obscure bands to model themselves after.

Great idea. However, young people are so thoroughly trained in literary snobbery–to admire authors only if they appear on some canonical, pre-approved list–that they tend not to want to rebel. Rather, avoiding written texts of any kind becomes preferable.

The fun of finding obscure bands is that you get to add to The List or make your own. The selection process is up to you. There’s no need for pre-approval unless you’re majoring in music and must manage music snobbery by learning to enjoy and/or play like [professor’s favorite from her/his List].

The same is true of writing students, who learn to present their profs’ interests as their own and keep secret what really inspires them, lest they be accused of having pedestrian (or just plain ole fucking weird) tastes. Some fledgling writers do pursue obscure texts and do so openly, but are later chided by their writing professors for enjoying “genre fiction.”

Shouting “Fuck the Establishment!” is exciting, but writers know that we still depend on The Establishment to grant us credentials and publish us and put us on its lists. Because despite the romantic notion that writers should be more like budding rock stars (or, more likely, independent musicians), self-publishing by an unestablished writer is still not celebrated with the same gusto as a garage band self-producing and -promoting a CD/MP3. Only after getting The Establishment’s stamp of approval does a writer have the cred to claim such acceptance never mattered.

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.

1.
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.

2.
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. Continue reading

Blood and Rainbows

I feel tentative about reading other writers’ blogs because when their writing is really strong, I get a little depressed. It’s sort of the “wish-I’d-written-that” syndrome, but not necessarily that simple. Reading good writing makes me feel and think with such intensity that I have to stop reading for a while.

There’s something inspiring about that kind of experience. Case in point: I read “Blood Poem” by Lee Houck on his blog Grammar Piano, and for a minute or two wondered why I should bother to write a poem ever again.

Then the feeling transformed. I felt determined to begin writing a poem as quickly as possible. Level of quality didn’t matter. I just had to get back on the horse. Continue reading

Who Put the “Blah” in Blogging? Oh, I Did.

The title of my last post explains why it’s been five months since I’ve written here. I had enjoyed blogging but hit a wall and hit it hard. I thought too much about audience and shut down. Basic Peter Elbow stuff.

It didn’t help that I know some terrific bloggers who balance head and heart in their writing while posting enough content to readers interested. Most important, they care what readers think, but they’re really doing it for themselves, which is a generous gift to one’s readers.

Not posting felt good for about a month. Then I wanted to but got busy with my day job, so I didn’t have time to focus on blog posts that mattered-but-not-that-much. So I didn’t post, but the not-doing didn’t feel good so much as it felt relieving, as it does when I avoid the pressure of other challenges that I really don’t want to avoid. Writing, even a silly ole blog, meant too much. What could I write about writing, tutoring, teaching, learning, politics, being gay, and other topics important to me, that hadn’t been said before and more effectively?

I’m not fishing for compliments. I know that I’ve written some things that others have enjoyed for whatever reason. The point is that I tripped myself up. I fell to the ground, and it was just too easy to lie there.

It’s like party conversation. You’d find me near a corner or along a wall talking to one or two people, getting really into the discussion and probably saying geniunely interesting things I didn’t realize I’d be talking about. I love that. I’d also love to be the person who feels comfortable making the announcement about the honored guest. Sure, I could do that kind of thing, but would forget what I meant to say and, instead, say genuinely disjointed things I never meant to be talking about. Continue reading

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