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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.

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.

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

Ambiguous, Clear, and Sprawling by Design

I’ve been revising some pieces of writing during the past few weeks in my spare time. By “spare time,” I mean that I’ve been sitting my butt down and limiting distractions as much as possible. As a writer with a day job that doesn’t allow me time to write what I want (i.e., like anybody who writes), I’ve got to give myself deadlines, because no one else is going to do it for me. And it’s shameful to note how much time I have wasted over many years–so I won’t dwell. Moving on.

A few weeks ago, I began revising an essay about, among other subjects, grief. There was way too much of it (grief, but especially text) when I began writing it five years ago, and since then I’ve pared it down, sent it out, got rejected, etc., etc. This round of revising felt good, and I think it’s as finished as it’s going to be. If it’s rejected, I feel pretty confident that I’ll consider it their loss and send it elsewhere.

The short story I’m revising now is a very different situation. I started it in grad school, about ten or so years ago. The original version was well received in workshop, and I had many ideas for revision. Then many obstacles (some real, some imagined) appeared on my path, so I didn’t even read the story again until about four years ago. It wasn’t horrible but had more problems and gaps than I remembered.

After some revision, I shared a draft with my friend Alex, who began his response with the most useful comment: “I thought it needed to be more ambiguous , but also somehow clearer.” Yes, exactly. Even without his comments about specific passages, his overview would have made sense to me. I just didn’t know exactly what I would do clarify and ambiguize (if it’s not a word, it should be) in proper scale. Continue reading

Less Than Stellar

Advertisers love me because I know what’s true: commercials are the reason TV exists. I only pretend to understand the term “commercial interruption.” As so-called programming transitions into a commercial, I harumph along with my fellow TV watchers, but I don’t share their frustration. I feel relieved to finally get down to business.

Any commercial may grab my attention. I appreciate high-quality persuasion. A fine balance of pathos, logos, and ethos rocks my world in advertising just as it does in other forms. But I admit that I am drawn to a certain characteristic: less-than-stellar production values. When it’s clear that a company has set a limit on how far it will go to get me to buy a product, well, I probably won’t buy it, but I admire that kind of honesty.

Currently, I’m a little fascinated by the Snuggies Designer Series commercial. I find no false advertising in it. The advertiser unashamedly shows you how you can look wearing a backward bathrobe made of zebra- or leopard-print fleece. The disembodied voice says it “looks as good as it feels,” and I’m going to trust she’s telling me the truth.

If only I had some of the problems that Snuggie allegedly addresses, I might buy one, but I have no problem staying warm while lounging on my sofa, petting my dog, or any of the other issues mentioned. The free gift (a press-and-open booklight) does not sweeten the deal. Somehow I am able to appreciate yet resist the offer.

It’s amazing how much this kind of commercial has not changed over the years. Within a minute or two, you are presented with images of people (actors) happy because of the product, and you learn that you can get the product and more (a free gift and/or double the offer) if you call immediately. I can’t remember ever calling, but I enjoy the game.

For a brief time many years ago, I wanted to become a star of less-than-stellar commercials, perhaps because I loved the irony of such a goal. I was signed up with a talent agent, who sent me out on go-sees for print, TV, and industrial jobs. I quickly learned most talent, including me, didn’t have the look to do fashion modeling. But there was decent money to be made playing common people. I rose to the challenge to be common and landed a commercial for a product called the Stretch-Out Strap. The strap was designed with loops that help the customer do various stretching exercises.

The director guided me and a young woman through various scenarios in which the product made our workouts easier. I remember smiling a lot, but I had to be prompted. I understood that the product was useful (and I’m impressed to see that it’s still being sold), but I did not have a gift for communicating unfiltered glee about poking my foot through a loop. Continue reading

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