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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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A Rant about Gender in Fiction

According to an article I read yesterday, men behave a certain way, and women behave a certain way. When, as a reader of fiction, you feel a character does not behave appropriately, it’s probably a gender problem.

For example, if a male character wants a relationship more than sex, or if he shows an interest or ability to care for a child, he’s acting like a woman in a man’s body. If a female character wants sex more than a relationship, or if she cares about legacy more than the immediate gratification of dealing with children, she’s acting like a man in a woman’s body. The writer offers no evidence–from theory, practice, or anywhere else–to support her views.

I wish I could laugh at stuff like this. It’s stereotypical crap. Unfortunately, a lot of people accept it as fact. One of the commenters says that although she can’t think of examples to support the writer’s view, the article feels right. Of course, when you go by feel without ever checking in with real life, it’s easy to convince oneself that reality is as it seems. Ah, the power of fiction.

As much as I disagree with these prescriptivist assumptions about gender, what the writer gets right is that readers, editors, and publishers have expectations about how characters may behave in regard to gender. And if men are limited to certain actions and feelings, the options become more limited as other aspects of identity are revealed. For a character to embody a multi-faceted identity (gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic class, and more) apparently risks overwhelming a reader. To avoid problems, some writers follow the rules by keeping their characters simple. They anticipate readers, editors, and publishing asking things like, “Why does the character’s sexual orientation (or race or religion or whatever) matter?” So they willingly create characters with only a few aspects of identity to avoid conflict. This practice resembles that of self-identified “friends of diversity” who prefer to focus on one or two categories rather than acknowledging how complexities of identity play out in an individual. Continue reading

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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

Felt Sense of the Story

I’m taking a course with the wonderful Elizabeth Stark to help get cranking on my novel. After writing pretty diligently for two months, we paused in January to read up on craft and figure out what makes the novels we love so lovable.

We return to our own novels next week. To prepare, Elizabeth asked us to write letters to ourselves to revisit what inspired our novels and what is central to them now. Here’s mine:

Dear Me,

You started writing this book on a generous dare, sort of to impress a new friend, which is the kind of nudge you’ve always needed. For the past two years and seven months you’ve been tapping keys, meandering down pages, expanding what was an incomplete short story into what is as yet an incomplete novel (a fresh rough draft, actually). You started with a thread of situation–a gay man trying to support his straight brother who has sought refuge as the victim of his wife’s abuse–and braided in a few more threads: the gay man’s partner is stationed in Iraq, and after his partner’s return, the teenage niece becomes a confidante to her new uncle.

You can’t remember exactly how you acquired the new threads. Maybe they came from other ideas that have ended up being minor plot points or aspects of character. Whatever, you wrote your way through it all, whether you were in the writing zone or scribbling ideas in your Moleskine. You’ve always been pretty good at finding possibilities through a process of writing, sifting, writing, sifting, which is really about exploring what you know of lived experience (yours and others) because you like stories that are believable, not merely possible. This novel, your novel, is packed with characters and situations you believe.

When you started writing it, the novel was about Blaine, the unacknowledged partner, but you wondered if you should give Henry, the soldier, just as much page time, maybe more. Wouldn’t it be gutless to try to write around his experience? And the brother and his kids–weren’t they important, too? Why were they in the book if they weren’t? Everything and everyone became important, including the characters who didn’t appear. And were you representing women fairly? Besides the niece, there’s an abusive wife and absent best girl-friend? Was something about writing the book turning you into an old-school, misogynophobic queen? Were the complexities of gender identity and expression coming through but not distracting as they are in real life (instead of the flat, Mars/Venus-style garbage that clogs popular culture)? These questions were important to ask, right? You weren’t just asking them to slow things down and avoid the writing, right? Continue reading

Going Around the Block to Get Next Door

1:29 p.m.
AAAAHHHHH! Everybody and everything are in my way today. I wanted nothing more than to get to the coffeehouse and do some writing. On my way out the door it started to rain and so one of the dogs freaked out a little, probably because she expected thunder. I had to wait until she calmed down then repeat parts of my crazy OCD routine because my anxiety was amped up.

On the way I got behind a moron in the passing lane, which isn’t unusual but always bad. The drive-up ATM wasn’t working, so I had to get out of the car and go inside. That took an extra 90 seconds! Then I got stuck behind a truck with an enormous load of lumber. It trudged along and of course didn’t turn off to 522 but continued straight down Market Street, right in front of me all the way to the side street where I usually park, but it was closed so five workers could re-paint lines for the six spaces on that street.

Okay. I’m here. I’m fine. Gosh, that really wasn’t so bad.

1:47 p.m.
Some under-parented child keeps hovering at the end of my table. She’s wearing ruby slippers (well, red sequined slippers, but still very Dorothy (Gale, not Zbornak)). So I’ve got to give her props, but her constant dancing and jabbering and staring at me are really pretty distracting, mainly because the two adults with her (parents I presume) aren’t paying much attention to her. They could be interacting with her, but apparently a laptop and a newspaper are more interesting than a child.

If it were a loud, annoying adult, I could just turn up my music. And if I were a truly vicious person, I’d have to point out that her little ruby slippers don’t exactly go with the lilac stripes in her sundress. But I hate to see a kid ignored. They probably think the looks I’m giving them is judgment on their kid. No, dude; I’m judging you. Parent is also a verb. Try it.

Oh, he’s talking to her. Hey, I’m good. Like a psychic supernanny.

2:03 p.m.
What did I come here to write? Continue reading

Once Upon a Time I Was Writing a Novel

For the past couple of days, I’ve gotten back to writing some scenes for the novel. Having lost momentum, I feel a little silly for fretting over the unstructured time I had this summer when I went to a writing retreat. That was a good problem to have.

But I’ve written a little over the last few months while tending to some big changes at work. I feel optimistic about gaining momentum. I’m just going to have fun and see where my characters take me.

Here’s a fresh excerpt. Hope you’re craving backstory. Continue reading

Are You Making This Up Just to Make Me Feel Better?

My week at Wellspring House is over.

The retreat was an opportunity to be a character as well as to write about characters. It was like being in a little play. My role was that of a writer getting away from my hectic schedule so I could work on The Next Big Thing, and every word I laid down had the potential to fascinate.

I usually don’t deal well with being in the middle of nowhere, and at the retreat wondered if I was perhaps visiting the capital of Nowhere, or one of its major cities. But it was an ideal setting to play my character, and over my time there the vitality of the setting became more obvious to me. There was little to distract me, which was in itself a little distracting at times, but that created the kind of slow-burning tension that makes improvisational theatre in isolated settings with no audience such an underappreciated style.

I flailed about, doing my best to crank out as many words as possible toward The Next Big Thing. Somehow I got pulled in by the desire to blog. It was an important, not entirely distracting move, allowing me to reflect on writing product and process. But I quickly became a little too obsessed with blog stats. On Thursday morning, I fretted about not having many views.

“Thursday mornings are usually slow,” said Jane, my co-star, who is a veteran blogger.

“But my stats went down yesterday, too.”

“Wednesdays tend to be slow, too.”

“Are you making this up just to make me feel better?” I asked, accusingly.

“No,” Jane said, calmly, so it was hard to tell if she was telling the truth. She’ll probably get a Tony nomination.

In a different scene, we started talking about injury while walking through the capital of Nowhere. Perhaps the symbolism was a bit heavy-handed, but it seemed important to talk about suffering for our art.

“I like to look at bruises,” Jane said. “But I don’t like looking at eczema.” It wasn’t offered for a laugh, the way some wacky supporting character might have tossed it out while scratching her head and shrugging. Rather, it was the kind of observation she offers a lot, offstage and onstage. After my initial response–a chuckle while thinking, “That’s so strange”–I realized how much the line fit her character, who juggles her practical nature and the ability to puzzle over details, finding the obvious in what’s strange and the strange in what’s obvious.

When it was time to leave the retreat, we packed up our cars and drove toward the interstate. It was Jane’s suggestion; she said it would help us make the transition out of retreat mode. We ate lunch, shopped for used CDs, and bought coffee for our trips home. All the while, we reflected on what we did and what we learned. We couldn’t come up with any big lesson or revelation. We didn’t learn much we didn’t know before, but it helped to have some time to focus. And it’s not as if we won’t keep talking about our writing, although it’s more fun to be in the same place at the same time.

It started to rain, so there was no time for a long goodbye. After a quick hug, we jumped in our cars and drove separately south on the interstate, talking by phone until we got to the place where she had to go her way and I had to go mine. At that point, our little play became a big movie, ending with one of those aerial shots that remind you how big the world can be.

What I’m Going For

My life has been an obstacle course of anxiety. I suppose this is true for a lot of people, but I’m willing to admit that I often don’t respond well to it. Writing reveals me, and I fear making a spectacle of myself. Who wants to be noticed if it means you’re the Ed Wood of literature, taking yourself seriously while readers laugh at your spectacular train wrecks? “Man’s inhumanity to man?” they ask with a chuckle. “Is that what you were going for?”

The less I stand out, the less anxious I feel. So to avoid making a fool of myself, maybe I should control every move I make. Hold still, I could tell myself, and no one will notice. But then, what’s the point? What could be worse than finding out that your writing doesn’t matter at all? Readers don’t disapprove, but they don’t care. “It’s so derivative,” they say. “Is that what you were going for?” they ask, with a yawn. “Is it, like, some postmodern thing?”

Letting go of control is crucial. You don’t make art as much as you realized you’ve made art. When I studied visual art (once upon a time, that was what I planned to do with my life), I learned that laying down brush strokes or composing a photograph is way too complex to control as you’re doing it. You have to step back from the painting or print a few photographs so you can see if you’re doing something meaningful. Ideally, you’re making the meaning you mean to make, but you may also realize you’re doing something interesting that you didn’t intend. Regardless, it takes skill, but you’re never quite sure your work is effective. At some point, the work goes on display, and you watch people looking at it, then smile at you, and you wonder if they get what you were going for.

It’s a lot like having something published only to find things you want to change. I’ve experienced that a few times and am willing to risk an occasional panic attack to experience it again–and again. But for that to happen, I’ve got to figure out my process for creating product. When I sit down to write during this retreat, I have trouble deciding where to begin. And once I begin writing, I don’t know when/where to stop. But I manage to find ways to begin and I find ways to stop, and I’ve repeated this process numerous times, resulting in somewhat purposeful, somewhat self-indulgent fragments of writing. I suppose this has been an effective use of my time.

So I guess I’ve figured out my process. Now I just have to trust it. I’ll take a step back from the following excerpt to see if I’m doing anything meaningful.

It is a dream, Blaine knows. Henry is far too serious to really be Henry, eyes narrowed, brows slanted. It could be a mean look, but Blaine can sense that dream Henry is concerned, even though when real Henry is concerned, his brows go up, eyes open wide. This Henry’s face is right there, so close to his, on the other side of the tempered glass.

Today’s total: 1189 words

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