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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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MyNoRevMo Day 26: Weaving

With only a few days of November left, I’m struggling to maintain my usual working pace. For months, I’ve been doing about 1.5 hour per day. I definitely haven’t stopped, nor have I slowed considerably, but between dealing with narrative problems and distractions from real life, I feel as if I’ve trudging through mud during most of MyNoRevMo. Better to keep going than give up, so I’ll keep going.

The problems are opportunities. My first draft includes many lengthy scenes that need to be sliced apart and woven into other scenes. I’m trying to connect past and present. Instead of dropping some clunky flashback into the text, the characters remember relevant past events as new events unfold in the present action, emphasizing the “flash” in flashbacks rather than just dredging up the past.

As a writer I have been warned away from using flashbacks of any kind because it supposedly prevents the story from moving forward. But as a reader, I see this notion ignored all the time. And as the protagonist of my own life, I do this all the time. Past experiences inform choices I make in the present. New experiences inform my interpretations of past events. I’m constantly revising and, probably, fictionalizing my memories.

In both my reality and my fiction, revising reveals a lot of information that I can cut. It’s for me to know, to help me envision an arc or remember how the character go from then to now, but no one else needs to know. The information would distract a reader.

I learned this process as an art student. In high school, my teacher suggested I tear one of my abstract watercolors into strips and weave it back together. Doing so would get rid of what didn’t need to be there and reshape what was–a new approach to what felt too obvious. Continue reading

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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

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

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

F**k the Establishment (Pending Approval)

Dan Chaon wishes young writers would read. And not the obvious stuff. He wants them to find really obscure writers, as kids who rock out in their garages find obscure bands to model themselves after.

Great idea. However, young people are so thoroughly trained in literary snobbery–to admire authors only if they appear on some canonical, pre-approved list–that they tend not to want to rebel. Rather, avoiding written texts of any kind becomes preferable.

The fun of finding obscure bands is that you get to add to The List or make your own. The selection process is up to you. There’s no need for pre-approval unless you’re majoring in music and must manage music snobbery by learning to enjoy and/or play like [professor’s favorite from her/his List].

The same is true of writing students, who learn to present their profs’ interests as their own and keep secret what really inspires them, lest they be accused of having pedestrian (or just plain ole fucking weird) tastes. Some fledgling writers do pursue obscure texts and do so openly, but are later chided by their writing professors for enjoying “genre fiction.”

Shouting “Fuck the Establishment!” is exciting, but writers know that we still depend on The Establishment to grant us credentials and publish us and put us on its lists. Because despite the romantic notion that writers should be more like budding rock stars (or, more likely, independent musicians), self-publishing by an unestablished writer is still not celebrated with the same gusto as a garage band self-producing and -promoting a CD/MP3. Only after getting The Establishment’s stamp of approval does a writer have the cred to claim such acceptance never mattered.

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.

1.
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.

2.
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

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