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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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Keep Verbing Until You Noun

I haven’t felt compelled to write lately. It’s sort of a non-paying job that I get done more often than not, for what it’s worth. (I guess I mean it’s a bit of a chore.) Is that bad? Can I call myself a writer if I’m not brimming with ideas and driven by the need to process every thought in writing?

I used to feel that need. I felt compelled. Thoughts zapped in my head and came out my fingers as words in problematic, passionate order. Now my writing life is all about the novel. Occasionally I’ll feel a blog post come on like the need for a chocolate bar, except that need comes to me daily. Of course, consumption is easier than output. No poems anymore. Sure as hell no songs anymore. No short stories. Not even stories? Even after writing so many in undergrad and grad school? What’s up with that?

I’m not sure I know how to write a story anymore. If I’m honest, I should admit I stopped trying to write stories before I mastered the form. What is mastery? Does it involve jotting some quite autobiographical notes fueled by the assumption that they could, in first-draft form, tell anyone’s story, but some specific anyone might emerge if I let the notes simmer long enough?

I hope so, because I wrote something like that today. I think it’s called “a mess.” The most structure I’ve had in my writing lately is what you’re seeing here: paragraphs that begin with “I” and end with whiny, desperate, open-ended questions. I wonder if this is what my writing is becoming. Could it be so? Continue reading

Showing Can Be So Telling

In my writing group’s weekly call, I had a breakthrough about writing detailed scenes, an A-ha/Duh moment that allowed me to internalize something I’ve known but didn’t quite know-know.

Elizabeth had us select a character and put him/her in a setting that the writer knows but the character doesn’t. I wrote a scene in which one of the characters in my novel comes to visit me at work. I called up all the complaints I’ve heard about the space: it’s in a basement; it’s hard to find; it’s ugly and depressing; it’s hard to get into my office because the door collides with another door. (I’m going to share; don’t diss.)

The director’s office is in the basement far from the stairs through a set of doors and I miss the sign telling me where I need to go, finding only bathrooms one way and a bunch of seemingly forgotten books the other way. I turn around and walk through the first open door. A student reads at a table not noticing me at first, so I say hello, louder than I mean to. The room is small with boloney-colored walls. There’s a piece of equipment, an old compact CD player maybe, stuck to the ceiling, which feels low. I reach up but to my surprise can’t touch it, even give a few swipes to make sure. The student looks up and sees me waving my arm above my head. “Is everything alright, sir? Can I help you with something?” “Looking for James Black.” “He’s in his office.” She points, and I look to where she points, but all I see is a woman in an office, stepping around her desk, approaching me. She, the admin asst, asks to help me and apologizes for not noticing. I understand given that her desk is back in a corner sort of behind a pole. Mr. Black is located in yet another office off her office. She checks to make sure Mr. Black is available, then steps out of the way. Her office door bonks into his office door. There’s enough clearance, but it’s a bit precarious getting by them.

Most of the details came together pretty well considering we only wrote for a few minutes. But Elizabeth pointed out that “[A] student” in the third sentence isn’t descriptive, especially compared to the other details. I got what she meant. My character might be able to infer that the person in that room is a student, but why would someone in a new space jump to that conclusion? The character is just taking in sensory information. Processing the information leads to more information gathering (e.g., is the ceiling low? can he get past the weird doors?).

FYI, I decided to revise “[A] student” as “[A] young woman in a lumpy aqua sweater.” For the sake of the exercise, I think the change offers more information. If I decided to use the scene, I’d play with the colors and what they suggest about mood. I’d probably also change the description of the object on the ceiling. It’s just a wireless router, and although it does look like a compact CD player, that image seems confusingly specific.

The point is not simply to show rather than tell, but to show in a way that develops character along with setting. In this scene, the character isn’t quite ready make assumptions without testing them, which the reader probably appreciates, being as new to the setting as the character is. A different character would take a different approach, perhaps bringing more knowledge to the experience or comparing this setting to a similar setting. Showing would still be important, but it might involve more telling.


Tomorrow is the first day of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), during which participants attempt to write a 50000-word novel in 30 days. Anyone who finishes is a winner regardless of the quality of the product. Success is in the doing, not what is written, which makes perfect sense considering a writer’s failure usually comes from not doing enough writing. I know too many would-be writers who just don’t take/make time to practice writing.

That was true for me for years, and I credit my participation last year in NaNoWriMo with helping me start to figure out how to make time for practice and to push through the first draft of a big project. Actually, I bent the rules a little. You’re supposed to write a novel from scratch, but I focused on the third part of a novel I had already started. I did start that part from scratch and played along as much as I could, imagining that the piece could be a novel of its own. I ended up with a novel-length draft of that part with a lot of material to play with.

This year I’m not going to be able to join the NaNoWriMo fun. I’m chest deep in the second draft of my novel. I’ve been working on it almost every day, the kind of pace I kept up last November. But it’s difficult to quantify my daily results. It’s not the kind of work that requires a word-count goal. I’m cutting and revising what’s in the first draft, and although I’m adding a scene here and there, there are no empty spots within the narrative that could justify devoting a month to exploring 50000 words’ worth of possibilities.

After far too many years, I’m learning to deal with my process, which fits my particular strengths and needs. I don’t proceed in linear fashion from beginning to end. I’m bouncing around, but for me, that’s a well organized process. I’m deepening the story and characters. I just need to put in my time every day, and because I’m enjoying the work, I make sure to do it.

I’m on a roll, so I’d best keep rolling. For me, November will be My Novel Revising Month (MyNoRevMo)–one of many, and hopefully one of the last for this draft. If all goes well, I’ll celebrate the new year with a freshly completed second draft.

Meaningfully Meaningless

About twenty years ago, standing before the selection of oranges at the supermarket near work, I heard a voice whisper: “Get the smooth ones; they’re juicier.”

What I pictured was a Morticia Adams-like figure leaning in to dish me this advice. In reality, I saw my informer was gnome-like, dressed in greenish gray tweed, the top of her pert, old-lady ‘do barely reaching my shoulder. She put the twist tie on her bag of oranges and was off before I could speak.

I set down the bumpy, thick-skinned behemoth and have not bought another. Every so often, someone will offer me an orange and I say yes before I see they’re about to hand me a small orange planet. By then it’s too late to say no. The satisfaction I find in the dry, tasteless wedges is knowing that the weird old lady was right. The smooth ones have thinner skin, which makes them more vulnerable to bruising, but juicier, yes, and sweeter.

This is not the kind of advice most people take seriously, nor is it the kind of story others have accepted as complete. It’s just a scene or a vignette, they complain. It’s a had-to-be-there moment that may not resonate with anyone but me. People want to be entertained with big humor and big lessons, for our little true-life stories to have impact and obvious importance.

I’m more likely to share the story about the time my father helped me after a painful break-up. It happened probably a year after the weird orange lady passed through my life. I had broken up with the guy I lived with and went home to after that shopping trip. I was in my early 20s and needed all the help I could get.

My family had gotten together one evening, either at my parents’ or my grandmother’s. Wherever we were, I wasn’t being good company. I couldn’t stop thinking about breaking up with Jeff. I felt sort of relieved not to be by myself but didn’t want to talk to anyone. Dad found me–I’d gone outside to get away from everyone–and asked what was wrong. I started telling him. It felt strange because Dad had never been openly emotional. On the rare occasions he’s shown feelings, it’s an accident, something not to regret, exactly, but not to brag about either. And we hadn’t ever really talked about me being gay. I’d told my parents three years before that, shortly after the beginning of the relationship that was now ending, and although I’d wanted their acceptance, I didn’t require it.

But in those weeks after the breakup, I felt vulnerable. Continue reading

Practical Grief

After news of death,
prayers, rationalizations
flood inboxes and Facebook walls
from ghouls ready to bleed virtual grief
before numbness has given way
to the tingling pain that must fill you–
a true deluge: plastic as air, heavy
as grease. The pain fades to some dull
awareness that you’ve been occupied. You must
find places to stow it in your body before trudging on.

Even if you’ve felt this burden before
you must feel it again each time
news like that comes while fending off
unsolicited testimony that she’s
no longer in pain
and in a
better place now
. You think
you know how it will feel,
and you want to believe
the ghouls, so numb
with belief and so
busy typing they
have the luxury
of not feeling.

But you know
when you look at her face
that she only looks
like she’s sleeping
. No one is
there anymore. You find
your way to a chair, sway
as you sit, feel the pain collect
into a sebaceous lump
and lodge itself
where it will slow you down but
not throw you off balance
as long as you remember
it’s there.

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