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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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My 2010 Book Picks

As a rather slow reader, I don’t get around to reading every book I should, nevertheless during the year it’s released. Instead of offering you a best-of list, I’ll simply comment on what I got around to reading. Keep in mind: it’s not the size of the list but what you do with it that counts.  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

MyNoRevMo Day 28: The Good News Is I’m a Slow, Forgetful Learner

I’ve been writing for about 35 years. I don’t mean simply forming letters with ink on paper. That’s how long I’ve been trying to communicate ideas that are at least somewhat “mine.” All that practice hasn’t left me feeling confident about what I do when I write. I have come to enjoy the process of exploring, but I don’t feel like an expert at/of writing. If I want bleeding stopped, an E/R nurse knows a procedure for doing that. If I want a room built on the back of my house, a contractor knows a procedure for making it happen. All I want to do is write some words to communicate ideas, and if feels like a mystery to be solved every time I try.

My current frustration is that I’m not sure I know what a story is. Yeah, I know: Protagonist. Point of view. Rising action, climax, falling action. Show, don’t tell. Blah, blah, blah. Those are elements to look for when reading a story, but I’m not convinced they’re present, or at least clear, as a writer writes a story. So, you tell me, I have to read the story and revise it again and again. I know. About twelve zillion writers/teachers have told me to do that, and I do it. They’re the “apply direct pressure” and “lay a solid foundation” of writing. And I’m almost completely convinced they don’t work very well most of the time.

Because I’ve read some great stories that don’t dwell on that stuff. The writer carves a not-necessarily-narrative-but-nevertheless-fascinating path. In some stories, it’s even less definite, more like the writer has rubbed a finger over a steamy mirror. The piece of writing has structure and tells some kind of a story, but the way it unfolds, you know the writer didn’t overthink the process.

Example: Sam D’Allesandro’s “The Zombie Pit.” The narrator ponders how a current boyfriend is and, mostly, isn’t like the perfect boyfriend who got away. It’s a gorgeous mix of past and present, of truth-telling and truth-withholding, as much an essay by a fictional character as a story about a fictional character.

Stories like this, the ones that fascinate me most, go against advice I’ve received to offer vivid details about characters and their actions. As a reader, I don’t care a lot about characters’ appearances, nor do I need to be able to picture every action in my mind. The experience of reading a book doesn’t need to feel like watching a movie. To the contrary, communicating via written words allows a writer to inspire the reader to imagine not just what might happen in the world but in the minds of others as well. I want to know what characters think and feel; that kind of information will probably tell me more about them than their hair color will. Maybe that’s what some of my teachers have meant when they’ve asked for vivid details, but most have indicated that it’s physical details they want.

But written stories are not movies. The purpose sharing information in a story is to give the reader a sense that something happens. It’s necessary to offer a few physical details to establish the characters exist in the world of the story. If you feel you don’t need quotes around dialogue and the reader plays along, it’s a story. If you mixed tenses and an editor plays along and approves it for publishing, it’s definitely a story. And even if I, the lowly writer, feel strongly convinced by what I’ve accomplished and refuse to change it, it’s a story. As long as I feel that way when I read it again. Even as  flaws become obvious (which happens with published work), it’s possible to see the success that no one else did. What I’ve learned from the attempt will inform the next attempt, but hopefully I’ll internalize the important parts of what I’ve learned and forget the rest. Focusing too much on the prescribed parts pulls us away from writing an interesting whole. Most of my writing time is spent translating personal, preverbal language into what others might understand. It takes an enormous amount of time. As frustrating as it is, I accept it as part of the job.

The rules are mostly bullshit. At best, they’re guideposts that are true often enough to keep the masses convinced they’re true, but in practice, they don’t lead you to where you need to go, nevertheless to places you want to go and probably need to invent. The guideposts are small and poorly constructed, obviously a bureaucratic excuse that help was offered. You can’t see the next one from this one, and there’s so much room between them, you can get lost, which is exactly what I’m trying to learn to do. I could bleed to death and die of exposure, but there really are so many other ways the story could go.

MyNoRevMo, Day 7: Performing Minor Surgery

During the first week of NaNoWriMo, I’ve been getting good news from my writer friends, who have either kept up the 1667-words-per-day pace or sprinted along to give themselves some room for days later in the month when they won’t have as much time to write.

Meanwhile, I’ve been doing my daily 1.5 hour of revision. I’m wandering around in part two, doing whatever I feel needs to be done. And there are basically two things that need to be done: add or cut. But it’s not quite that simple. Cutting involves slashing a paragraph here, then performing minor surgery on a paragraph there. Adding involves extending this sentence, adding that completely new sentence, and keeping a list of scenes to write later (and, some days, writing one of those scenes).

The process comes dangerously close to being aimless, but it’s more accurate to say it’s a necessarily flexible way to explore the structure I laid down in planning and writing the first draft. I’m figuring out how the story works. Working in Scrivener is crucial to this process. The application allows a writer to create individual text files as large or as small as necessary, so I can drag-and-drop the parts to explore the possibilities of the whole.

For example, I had a set of scenes that felt connected, but for months I didn’t know how they would fit together. On Friday evening, the time came to play with them. I started trimming the big, chunky scenes into pieces and began weaving them together. With a little cutting and adding, I think they tell a story now as two chapters that keep the bigger story moving. Maybe they’ll need more work (I’m certain they will), but I’ve done all I can do for now. I may get the urge to work on them again tomorrow, or maybe months from now.

I’m relieved to have freed myself of the notion that I can only revise a piece of writing so many times without damaging its integrity or that I must impose a deadline on the writing I do for myself. As if writers must attend to time and material the same way an ice sculptor does. As if writers’ processes still revolve around writing longhand with a quill instead of taking advantage of technologies that allows us to take our time. I don’t mean that I’m going to smush together whatever crap I’ve written, admire it for months, and call it brilliant. I’m just going to trust my process. And I’m going to enjoy it. I’m surely not in it for the money.

The most important part of the process is putting in my time every day, which I haven’t done yet. It’s amazing to me how much harder it is to fit writing in on the weekends than during the workweek. Working on my novel this evening will be my reward doing everything else I’ve got to do today. Seeing writing as reward (rather than a setup for punishment) is the biggest change in my process in the past few years. Everything about writing takes longer than I think it should, but since I feel it’s worth the time it takes, that’s about all that matters.

If the Product of Your Process Isn’t Cash, Kindly Eff Off.

Does Jonathan Franzen’s anointment as the latest Great American Novelist illustrate unconscious gender bias toward men? There’s a lot to consider in answering that question, but my short answer is that I agree with those you say yes.

Focusing on quantity, periodicals that review books tend to review more books by men. In regard to quality, books by women are commonly sorted into sub-genres rather than categorized as literary fiction. The numbers and discussion about this issue resonate with my experience in writing and lit programs, where the products that served as models of great writing were mostly written by men.

Our cultural failure to identify many women’s books as great literature (I won’t call it blindness–seeing but not acknowledging is not the same thing) is surely related to how great books are written. Simply put, products are the result of a process, and you get out of it what you put into it, based on the resources you have. Meghan O’Rourke observes, “[Writing a book] takes a lot of time and solitude. In my experience, women are not as good at insisting they need that time and solitude.” Most of the women I know who are writers struggle to find time to write, even if they have strong support systems.

Because traditional gender roles pervade, women tend to do most of the consistently thankless stuff: cooking of meals, the fetching of children, the fixing of problems, etc. In a workplace with mostly male workers, women still provide the kinds of support they’re expected to provide at home. Writing is rarely one of those duties, unless there’s something uncredited to be written, like a newsletter or press release.

To be fair, in some homes and workplaces, biological sex diverges from gender role, and the people with less power do the supporting. Those situations haven’t become very common yet, but they’re worth noting, because unconscious gender bias probably has more to do with gender roles and social class, i.e., one’s place in the hierarchy.

With this in mind, I’ve got to say that O’Rourke loses me with her next comment. She writes, “I wonder how many female writers have, like me, sometimes wished they were a man so everyone—family, friends, partners—would understand a little better when they go in the room and shut the door for weeks on end.” How I wish I could wag my penis and get a few weeks to do nothing but write. That doesn’t happen for any of the male writers I know (except maybe one, but that dude’s going to get that thing cut off if he keeps going like he is). Continue reading

What Makes Real Books Real?

I’m about as weary as weary gets from all the complaining about how ebooks aren’t real books. You can’t feel the smooth-but-rough texture of the paper or admire your vast, beloved collection of ebooks in the built-ins flanking your fireplace. Yeah, I get it. In other words, to some people, ebooks don’t feel like possessions as they read them, and enjoying an ebook feels like falling in love with a phantom.

Hey, I love the smell of books, old and new. I love to hold them, hear the pages flip. There’s a relationship to physical books, especially during the act of reading, that purists wish to preserve. I really do get it. Okay?

What about our long-term relationships with books? Although I own many books that I’ve enjoyed reading, I also own many that I’ve never read, having bought them for cheap somewhere because they were right there within reach and somehow seemed to fill some need I felt I had at that particular moment. Having those books in my possession hasn’t increased their chances that I will read them. Meanwhile, I learn about other books and, based on their descriptions, feel they’re better for me. I track them down, borrowing or buying them as necessary, but most important, I read them. Continue reading

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