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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

Portrait of the Writer as a Li’l Whippersnapper

j3black in 1974, age 5.

j3black in kindergarten (1974, age 5)

This kid was a real pip. I liked being him/her/me.

The picture was taken when I was in kindergarten. Life was already starting to wear me down, but I still had some fire. By third grade, I’d be lost for a while as I did a slowburn implosion for about ten years, until I came out, which sparked a slow-motion explosion that is still affecting the universe.

But then, at five, in my dissheveled red/pink (what color *is* that?) leisure suit, I was thrilled to be sitting there to have my picture taken. You can see my excitement to have woken up that day. Anything was possible.

I love looking at my eyes in this photo. I was already experiencing anxiety at that age. Before that photo was taken, on my first day of school ever, I weeped when Mom dropped me off. I didn’t want to go to school. Others felt the same way, including my friend Jan, who cried harder than I did. I remember feeling that my pain couldn’t compare to hers, so I let mine go. The first few weeks of kindergarten were pretty good.

But after this photo was taken, at the Halloween party, I completely lost my shit when The Wicked Witch of the West showed up. The other students taunted her, which riled her up, and I ran screaming to a corner of the room. She came to me, and I screamed harder until I realized she was a room mother hiding behind green makeup and a black, pointy hat. 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

Journaling Tip #58: Install Pocket Doors

Fear drives me. But as anyone who’s known Fear will tell you, fear is an erratic driver (drunk-while-driving-and-talking-on-a-cell-phone-and-applying-mascara-and-shaving bad).

Lately, my fears have been: Fear of writing. Fear of being disorganized. Fear of writing something interesting and losing it, so why write?

I’ve missed journaling (i.e., the practice of journaling) that was central to my life for many years. I just sort of played in those journals and wrote a lot of short pieces. My purpose was not to write anything in particular. I did more or less plan to write poems, but I achieved that goal by sneaking up on myself, stumbling onto each poem and feeling lucky to find it.

Now that I’ve got some actual projects I really want to write, and especially because revision is a bigger part of the writing I *need* to do, I haven’t been sure how to use journaling. Organizing the writing of a novel requires a more complex process than writing stumbled-upon poems. I carry a small, bright red Moleskine and record ideas that come to me as I’m doing other things. Although I try to review these ideas every day, I often forget. I’ve gotten away from daily writing practice. If I’m not completely distracted from writing by my day job, I’m working on a writing project (maybe the novel, maybe something else), and although that can be fun, that kind of writing practice doesn’t always allow for a lot of play, especially if I’m in revision mode.

So at some point each day, I’ve got to play with words. And I’ve got to work with words. And fuck with them. Make art with them. Exploit any/all possibilities. Continue reading


I wanted feathered bangs like Farrah’s.

I wanted to make the sidewalk light up with each step as Michael did in the “Billie Jean” video.

Farrah’s cleavage turned me on when I was a kid, mainly because I thought I wasn’t supposed to see it, even though that beaded gown was designed to show it off, and that photo was on the cover of Time for all to see.

Michael moved his body in oddly graceful ways that put me in a trance. I don’t care if it makes me one of the mindless masses; his moonwalk was thrilling to watch, even when he lip-synched.

Both of them worried too much about how they looked and went too far with cosmetic surgeries. They were beautiful. Maybe didn’t realize it. Or maybe they did and hoped they could preserve their youth.

I won’t think about this for long. I wasn’t a big fan of either. It was impossible not to notice them, though. They were big, bright stars, and I was a kid who wanted to matter. They were there for me to admire, and no one gave me a reason not to.

They seem like people I once knew well, but at some point, we grew apart.

Remembering them is a pleasant distraction, not sorrowful at all, except for remembering how sad I was back then and how much time I spent gazing at stars, hunting for my place in the constellations.

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