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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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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

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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

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

Among a Hundred, Maybe a Few

The biggest challenge with having a week of unstructured time is to avoid seeing it as a challenge and instead see it as an opportunity. To structure my work, I’ve started with a list of ideas for scenes and some notes that I’ve taken over the past few weeks. That’s gotten me started. As I flesh out those ideas, I’m thinking of other things I need to write, so I’m thinking that it will not be too difficult to use my time productively. It seems acceptable to make things up (retreat activities) as I go along, since that’s what I’m doing with my writing.

I’m also trying to avoid giving in to the temptation to savor the experience of writing and to make each word count. In other words, this is an opportunity to emphasize quantity over quality. Not that I’m allowing myself to throw down complete shit, but I’m keeping my internal editor otherwise occupied (e.g., encouraging him to put his energy into judging passersby, critiquing the theme of my blog, etc.).

Jane and I have made good use of the Wellspring House main room, and we’ve found some nearby places to work. Today, we spent a few hours at Mocha Maya’s in Shelburne Falls, which is where I cranked out most of today’s word quota. Here’s the excerpt:

Or he might see Blaine make the frowning face that meant he was getting a headache and forget himself and reach out to rub the back of Blaine’s neck casually with one hand, more to offer support than to fix the problem. This would happen among a hundred, maybe a few hundred people at a public place, a fraction of the few thousand people that Blaine and he would see in a day spent together, and of all of those people, Blaine was the only one he’d ever see again. Any disapproving strangers probably wouldn’t recognize him, nevertheless know his name, but he didn’t want to take any chances.

Some of you may be wondering: what exactly is my daily word quota? Well, I don’t have a firm number in mind. On the first day, I wanted to write at least 1000, which I did. And for today I wanted to write more than I wrote yesterday, which I did. That seems like a reasonable goal for my time at the retreat. Even if I only increase the total word count by one each day, it’s positive momentum. I’m not expecting to write some extraordinary number of words during this week. I’d rather use my time to develop good habits that I can maintain when I return to real life.

Today’s total: 1352 words

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