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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 Bunch of Craft

What I’m learning from all I’ve been reading about craft lately is that I have developed good sense about making stories. I’m pretty good at creating pieces that make a complete picture. The tricky part is taking the pieces apart and handing them out in an order that will keep the reader curious enough to keep snapping pieces into place.

The craft readings have helped me think more clearly about other aspects of my process that I do sort of well with. Atchity says the goal should not be to avoid anxiety but, rather, to transform it into productive energy. That is the challenge of my life, and I mean that quite seriously. I experienced my first panic attack in first grade. My parents rushed me to the hospital in the middle of the night because I woke up screaming due to stomach pain. While waiting for the E/R doc to run tests, the pain subsided. No cause for the pain was found. That scenario played out four times. In fifth grade, the symptoms became more in line with what I would experience for decades: shallow, rushing breath; rapid heart rate. Continue reading

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Structure: Thinking It / Feeling It

I get plot and structure when I *see* them; I don’t seem to be able to fully realize their potential when I *do* them. Like anyone, I know how to tell a story, to get the job done. I’m really trying to understand what I already know, so I understand why authors I admire get away with things I’m trying to do.

Analyzing the design of stories really does thrill me. I love tearing them apart to see how they work. I was an English major because I wanted to be; I wasn’t one of those students who ended up in the department by default. But analyzing stories (including novels) that have been praised and loved is different than analyzing a story (especially the novel) I’m writing.

Structural design is, for me at least, the algebra of the writing process. I got through algebra, but I had to go over lessons again and again. The work made my eye twitch and I had to keep it in my mind at all times so I wouldn’t lose what I’d learned. Algebra fulfilled my math requirement, so as soon as I got my A, I ran (did not walk) from anything math-related beyond balancing my checkbook.

When I try to apply principles, theories, rules to my own writing, I feel as if I’m doing algebra, which, considering I’ve forgotten so much about algebra, is probably not even an effective simile.

How about this: it’s an attempt to quantify what has been qualitative, to give my lump of literary clay some form. Which is a good thing, but fucking frustrating. I need to know if what I’m *trying* to communicate is making sense *at all*.

It reminds me of that episode of Golden Girls when Blanche spends 72 hours writing her memoir. She scrawls her life story in numerous spiral notebooks and, upon finishing, enters the kitchen to share her work of genius. Blanche’s brain is on the verge of collapse from lack of sleep, but she’s so cranked up on arrogance that she can’t wait to have Rose read it. Rose can’t make sense of the sprawling text. 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

FWIW: Can’t Not Write.

After receiving my most recent rejection via email, I fired off manuscripts to four journals yesterday. One sent to triage; four sent back to battle–those are good odds, right?

Perhaps not. According to the editor, the journal that rejected me accepted fewer than 10% of the work that was submitted. One of the journals I contacted last night gave even worse odds in their submissions guidelines: only 2% of the manuscripts they receive are published.

Thinking statistically, that’s a lot more manuscripts than I have time to send out, nevertheless write. And, of course, resorting to bulk mailings would provide no guarantee of getting published. Meanwhile, sending the right piece to the right editor at the right time (in the right phase of the moon?) is all that matters, if only there were a way to determine which, who, and when.

All of this had me feeling a little hopeless last night. After a moment’s hesitation, I clicked the submit button. I mean, why not?

Today, a friend tweeted the link to an essay by Emily St. John Mandel that speaks to all of this. It provides no answers, but I feel better. I’m not the only writer who goes through this–most of us do. Call it drive, compulsion, whatever, we can’t stop writing and wanting to be read.

Mandel compares the hope of getting published (we’re talking book deal) with winning the lottery. I agree with that comparison almost entirely. 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

Vi-Char’s Customized Mish-Mash

Jane and I are in Vermont to attend a workshop on disabilities training, which begins tomorrow. We’ve managed to get in some talk about writing and life and general gossip, but she has to respond to papers. Witness how diligently she works.

Jane, working.

Jane, working.

Meanwhile, I am working on an outline. My deadline: June 30, or thereabouts. Actually, I finished, but writing the explanation that will accompany it is the hard part.

Jane and I work well together, or more accurately, not quite together. She does her thing, and I do mine.

However, I’m distracted by the scary, pee-colored lighting. And there’s a portrait of a woman in Victorian garb with bows on her shoulders and around her neck.  She is understandably bug-eyed. We worry that Violet-Charlotte (our name for her, or Vi-Char for short) suffocated while being photographed.

Jane says the same portrait is hanging in her room in the same spot on the same wall. The layout of our rooms is the same, although each room has a customized mish-mash of decor that is at once 60s, 80s, colonial, and lodge–yet achieves the style or comfort of none of these. The portrait only adds to the feeling of unease, despite Vi-Char’s dedication to watching over everything.

Dressing Up for Game Day

Watching Sarah Palin’s appearance at the Republican National Convention reminded me of a ritual my sister had to go through repeatedly in high school. Like Palin, my sister was an athlete. She lettered in every sport she played all through high school. On game days, she and her teammates were expected to dress up, preferably in skirts or dresses, but at minimum, they were supposed to put on heels and hose. The boys’ teams dressed up on their game days, too, but more was at stake for the female athletes. Many of their peers didn’t take them seriously as athletes because they were girls, and because they were athletes, their gender and sexuality were questioned, too. Dressing up for game days didn’t change many hearts or minds.

Based on how pundits have been spinning Palin’s story, things have changed a little. Not only does a tough gal get some respect, the boys want her on their team. Palin is the Republicans’ spitfire who cleans up real good. They want voters to know that she is capable of leadership, but that she doesn’t let that get in the way of her roles as mother, wife, woman.

Their ability to present her as a human being stands in sharp contrast to their confused smears of Hillary Clinton. One day they would brand Clinton an ice maiden; the next they said she was too emotional to lead the country. (To be fair, Obama’s supporters did this, too.) But lately, Republicans have been acknowledging, even celebrating, Clinton’s historic run for President. Palin herself acknowledged Clinton’s feat, but her nomination shows an effort by Republicans to smooth over the 18 million cracks Clinton’s supporters made in the proverbial glass ceiling.

The only change Palin would bring is that Republicans would have the first VP in a long time whom they’d want to show off. “See,” they could say, “we don’t discriminate.” They’d be a little bit right but so, so wrong. Palin’s place would be second place at best. They might let her think and speak for herself now and then, perhaps not realizing that she probably wants to voice her own ideas rather than merely serving as a Republican megaphone. Continue reading

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