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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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Left to Our Own Devices

Mom came for our wedding in early October and expected to stay a month. Then she stayed for Thanksgiving, winter holidays, the new year, her birthday, and before we knew it, winter turned to spring. It’s an 1100-mile trip (she drove). Might as well make it worth everyone’s while, right?

Most of our time on this visit was spent without much talking, all of us interacting more with our various electronic devices: Mom on her iPad keeping up with sports scores, Doug on his laptop doing genealogy, I on my laptop working on my novel. We spent hours and hours in the same room, half-watching something on Netflix, the trees outside the picture window turning orange then brown then bare then budding. But we were in our own worlds, looking up occasionally to make sure we were all there.

I didn’t feel the clock ticking (rare for me). I didn’t worry about making good use of our time together. I didn’t feel compelled to force meaningful conversations only the have them fall flat. A stunner might happen while unloading the dishwasher. Or it might not.

We all needed this visit. It’s all been very fun and distracting, putting grief on paused even as we continue to slog through it. And boring. And, occasionally, irritating, the way life can be when you live with people you love and get in one another’s way but don’t want anyone to move out.

Friends asked me how things were going with Mom here so long, some of them giving me concerned looks, their eyes widening over the months of her stay.

Continue reading

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.

Happy 3rd Anniversary to Me

When i started Quota, i intended to write regularly to fill a daily or weekly quota of words. I was going to share the product of my process without getting too hung up on quality or quantity.

As it turns out, I haven’t approached the blog that way at all. It’s turned into a place where I post essay-like pieces motivated by anger and other similarly warm emotions. I don’t post without cooling down and revising. The blogosphere is packed to bursting with garbage that could use revision, reconsideration, and other “re-” words; I don’t need to add to that.

Whether or not my reflective approach has produced high-quality reading, it has certainly resulted in a lower-quantity catalog of material than I originally intended. I don’t regret taking the time I need, but I wish I could crank a little faster. Although I don’t have something to say every day, I could offer something at least once a week. Pushing myself would be good for me, as I think I tend to dwell a bit too much on anything and everything i write at this point. At the rate I’m going, by the time I finish my latest grocery list, the yogurt I intend to buy may well expire. (That’s a joke, but I’m not going to run it by a test audience. Impressed? I’m taking risks, and not just with my writing! Expired yogurt can really fuck you up.)

A feature I’d like to bring back is including samples of what I’m currently writing besides the blog. I’m writing a novel, which is probably why my process has slowed so much. In the early days of Quota, i shared some excerpts without much or any context. But that’s part of the fun.

Here’s today’s:

They’d had some of the hottest, angriest sex of either of their lives in the past four years while at their most dysfunctional, not a word spoken, not a bit of cuddling. With their arms and legs tangled together, Henry would feel his love for Penn emerge, as if it dripped with his sweat or were forced by grunts from deep within his lungs.

Threats, Contamination, Hallelujah

As a young queer, I read Dale Peck’s novel Martin and John. John escapes abuse, meets Martin, and suffers the loss of the person and love he’s found. The only detail that stays in my memory is blood in a yellow vinyl chair, “like the red speck in a spoiled egg yolk.” The threat of contamination runs throughout the novel: that the past will contaminate the present, that men infected with HIV will die before they’ve fully lived.

That’s an oversimplification of what the novel is “about,” nevertheless what it achieves, but the threat was certainly on my mind when I read it in the mid-90s. I was in my early 20s, newly out, and afraid of losing the freedom and happiness I’d gained by escaping the closet. Someone might beat me up outside a bar. A virus might kill me. Avoiding these threats–keeping them away from my life and body–was up to me. If I failed, I was to blame.

The stakes were much higher than in my own life, which was a relief, but the novel spoke to my experience metaphorically and thematically. The details didn’t matter because it a work of art I could find myself in. Reading Martin and John was the first time I got to experience that. The feeling remains with me almost two decades later.

Getting Elevated

The doors shut me in the elevator. I can’t reach any of the buttons. To get into the elevator, I hoisted myself up onto the ash can that was about as high as my waist and I felt the rim of it dig into my little almost-four-year-old knees so I could poke the call button. I wanted really bad to make it light up like my Dad did after we checked into the motel.

But there’s no ash can in the elevator, just flat, brown carpeting, which can’t give me a boost. The elevator doors are shiny but dull metal, so I can only sort of see myself in them. My face looks like a blob I’ve colored with a peach crayon, and my t-shirt is red and goes way outside the lines. My reflection only reaches halfway up the doors as I stand in the middle of the elevator car, then feeling it start to sink downward, I brace myself against the rail on the fake-wood wall. The ceiling seems to be made of an eerie, bluish, buzzing light, not too bright for me to stare at.

When the doors open, there are people pushing into the elevator with legs like small trees too big for a little kid like me to dodge around. I’m not good at games about dodging or running or even hiding. I like to look at pictures and make up stories so my Mom or Grama make pleased faces or laugh. That’s all I want to do now, and I’ll never run off again if I can find them. They’re somewhere in the motel, which is in someplace called Houston, a “sweaty hell hole,” according to my Dad, where we came to visit some relative who’s getting married. I don’t know what that means except that I get to wear the suit I’ve worn the few times Mom has dragged me to church. The doors shut again. 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

Stand for Equality

While it seemed that everyone else at the National Equality March in DC wanted to see Lady Gaga, my Starstruck Moment happened when Lt. Dan Choi’s personal space overlapped the orbit of mine. There are a lot of people I respect, but I usually don’t lose my shit over any of them. Choi’s a rockstar. His golden aura blasted through my sunglasses, I shit you not.

Approaching the Capitol--Natl Equality March 2009

Approaching the Capitol--Natl Equality March 2009

The person I’ll remember most held a sign that stated, “This Straight Woman Stands With You.” As I remember, she held the sign above her head. The vertical presentation struck me; she looked immovable. But she was alone. No one around her interacted with her. She appeared pleasant but unremarkable, someone I could pass in the grocery store and not give a second thought. The people near me cheered, and I cheered with them. The straight woman who stood with us gave a smile but seemed shy about the attention.

She made an impact on me, but I had to keep going. The day was about travel: By van and train and foot. From central PA to DC. From McPherson Square to the White House and on to the Capitol. From separation to unity. But not from discrimination to equality.

The March inspired me, but it’s too early to say what sort of historic significance it will have. If those who are throwing that term around believe it was precedent-setting, I’d argue it was decidedly unhistoric. Continue reading

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