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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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Roger Ebert Will Be So Proud of Me

Writers who set up their laptops at Starbucks have been getting a bad rap lately.  On Family Guy, Chris disses Meg by saying she’s like “one of those people who sit in Starbucks and publicly write on their laptops.”

And Roger Ebert tweeted very plainly, “You can’t really write in Starbucks[…]”.

That almost hurts. I write in Starbucks and other coffee-selling facilities. If it were just a few years ago, my need for acceptance by people I’ll never meet would force me to stay at home, drink Folger’s, and write no less than 100 pages per day. Lucky for me I turned 40 last August and magically no longer give a shit what anyone thinks of my writing habits. (Yeah, that’s why.)

It helps to know that they’re simply wrong. Continue reading

Aaron Sorkin Needs to Apologize for Wasting Space

In a response to criticism about a Newsweek editorial that argues gay actors (especially men) can’t convincingly play straight, Aaron Sorkin sort of defends the writer, Ramin Setoodeh, mainly by urging Setoodeh’s critics to direct their energy toward the “pig-ignorant bigots” in Congress. Apparently, fighting ignorance and bigotry conveyed through mainstream media is not a good use of resources.

Sorkin says the editorial isn’t homophobic, just incorrect. However, one of Setoodeh’s main points is that once people find out an actor is gay, they don’t feel convinced when that actor plays characters who are straight, even if we found the performance convincing before we found out that the actor is gay. In my opinion, that’s the kind of irrational thinking that is part of homophobia, so it’s difficult for me not to see that editorial as homophobic.

If that term is inaccurate, fine, but to say Setoodeh’s editorial is merely wrong doesn’t get at the bigger issues. For one thing, such a reading of a gay actor’s performance says a lot more about viewers than it does about the actor. Why does it matter to audience members whether or not the actor playing the role has the same sexual orientation as the character he plays? Have they considered that some gay actors don’t play straight convincingly because, rather than lacking some inherent ability to perform heterosexuality they are simply bad actors?

Also, why is the topic being covered at all, and what is the occasion for covering it now? Will a piece on actors’ unwillingness to do their own stunts be next? Of course, gay bashing is provocative, getting the attention of those who agree and those who don’t. And Newsweek could use some attention.

Another point Sorkin gets wrong is that you can’t play gay or straight, just femme or butch. I sort of get what he means, but this comment is based on the assumption gender and sexual orientation have clear relationships, i.e., that gay men perform effeminate behavior and that lesbian women perform butch behavior. What about butch gay men who like to kiss other men? A straight actor playing a butch gay male character must perform the appropriate behavior convincingly, e.g., not appearing grossed out as he approaches the other male actor and and willingly opening his mouth at least a little bit when they kiss. Whether or not the actors actually touch tongues, they should make it look like it happens, but I realize I should leave this up to the director. Continue reading

If You Want A Character Killed Off Right, You’ve Got to Do It Yourself

Just finished the weekly call of my book writing group. Elizabeth asked us to think of someone we know who has experienced a major life change. We discussed how someone’s behavior reflects the changes they go through and how even a positive change involves conflict.

Observing change, I realize, is enormously different than writing change. When I watch someone I care about going through a significant transition, my impulse is to support her/him, whether the change is for good or bad. If I can’t do something to help, at worst all I have to do is stay out of the way and watch.

When writing a story, I am the one who has to make things happen to my characters. Yes: my characters. I care about them. I even love some of them. When they hurt, I hurt. I cannot protect them. Whether or not the pain is my idea, I must deliver it. Continue reading

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

Can I Help You Find Something?

You’re looking for something, so you type some search terms and get some blog called Quota. You’re pulled in by the elegant prose and can’t help but admire the depth of the writer’s insight, but you wonder why the Web 2.0 oracle directed you to some whiny writer’s blog when you were looking for a Donny and Marie lunchbox. How did that happen?

Good question.

Short answer: Hell if I know.

But your journey to my virtual front porch fascinates me, dear reader. Actually, the Donny & Marie lunchbox example isn’t completely illogical. I’ve written about having an Osmond Brothers lunchbox. Pop culturally speaking, Donny & Marie (as a duo, not individuals) is the next logical step (would that be up?).

It also makes sense that the greatest number of hits have resulted from searches involving some kind of self-praise. I’ve written about that, too. I consider myself an expert on that topic and am sure you would agree. Continue reading

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