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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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Want to Help LGBTQ Youth? Act Like a Grown-up.

I’m not a fan of Dan Savage. He seems like one of those celebrities who’s trying to prove something to himself but feels compelled to work things out in public. He makes provocative, unsubstantiated, and sometimes just cruelly ignorant statements, such as, “You can have too much sex. It is possible–gay people proved it in the 70s–to literally fuck yourself to death.” Comments like this one cause me to cringe every time he’s chosen to be the go-to gay pundit. With misinformed friends like him, who needs enemies?

Although he’s got no sympathy for old, dead queens, he’s apparently got a soft spot for LGBTQ youth. His latest effort, “It Gets Better,” is a YouTube channel where those of us who have survived and thrived can upload videos to encourage LGBTQ youth to persevere. To get things rolling, Savage posted a video of his partner and him talking about their individual experiences of being bullied before they met and building a family. They seem like a pleasant couple, but the video is self-indulgent and so boring I had to turn it off about halfway through, but if one kid finds some hope in it, it’s worth the effort. And presumably Savage’s celebrity will draw enough interest that there will be something for everyone on the “It Gets Better” channel.

It’s a nice idea, although ironic, given Savage’s recent use of a trans slur to attack a politician. But Savage deserves a nice word or two for this effort. But it’s important to acknowledge a collection of outreach videos aren’t going to do much to address this enormous problem. Kids need someone in their lives to stand next to them and guide them to the light at the end of the cliché.

Sadly, LGBTQ youth continue to feel great shame as they try to come out. Ellen and Will and Grace haven’t made things that much better for them. Various studies indicate that 1/4 to 1/3 of LGBTQ youth have attempted suicide.

Supporting LGBTQ youth should be the central issue in our movement. Fighting for equal rights in our personal lives and the workplace is important–definitely–and youth need to feel assured they’ll achieve equality as part of “the system,” not in spite of mainstream culture working against them. But we must keep people alive and help them feel empowered, not ashamed, so they’re equipped to stand up for themselves.

Yes, a lot of us who are adults now managed to hold on, day after day. But how many of us are still fighting the overwhelming feeling of shame that did almost kill some of us? In fact, some LGBTQ adults still feel such isolation and don’t feel safe to come out to certain people in their lives. Do we really believe it’s okay for our youth to suffer like we did/do? We may believe they watch the DADT and marriage equality battles and feel encouraged by the rights they’ll get to enjoy. However, that time is a long way off for them. And knowing that we’re not exactly winning right now probably doesn’t bolster their spirits as slurs and fists are thrown at them and friends and family turn backs on them.

LGBTQ youth need the adults in their lives to act like grown-ups. So if you’re already fighting for our rights, don’t forget to help the kids you know and support the efforts already set up to help them. The Ali Forney Center provides housing to homeless LGBTQ youth in New York City. The Trevor Project provides suicide prevention services, including a national hotline. And PFLAG, GLSEN, and The Matthew Shepard Foundation offer a wide range of national and community-based educational services to promote acceptance.

Build on these important efforts, whether you use the information they provide to help one kid or decide to start similar services in your own community. LGBTQ youth aren’t waiting for Dan Savage or some other celebrity to come and give them hugs. They need to know that people in their lives care about them. Don’t know any queer youth, you say? Then challenge the homophobic messages coming from the people in your community. Standing up to individuals you know can be scarier than marching past strangers in the street. Doing the little things is a bigger deal than you may realize.

A Gregarious Introvert’s Guide to Writing

As a tween and early teen, I spent a lot of time alone. Everyone in the family was busy but me, and I got sick of joining them. There were no structured activities that interested me, certainly not sports. In early elementary school, I had tried gymnastics and was the only boy in the class. Once the girls started on the uneven bars, they more or less kicked me out, probably afraid I’d end up odd. (Resisting the obvious follow-up to that.) They didn’t understand that I wanted to give it a try anyway, nor did they care.

I would have gotten into theatre if there had been a program, but there wasn’t. So once I was old enough to stay by myself, I stayed at home most every evening of the week, arriving at my house by bus after school and hanging out until my parents and sister came home, usually 9 p.m. or after. During all that tween time, I did homework, mastered the preparation of boxed macaroni and cheese, discovered the fleeting distraction of masturbation, and organized my life around the prime-time TV schedule. The TV had to be on and blaring. When my hands weren’t otherwise occupied, I wrote in my journal a lot, mostly about how lonely I felt, how I felt I was being punished for something I didn’t understand, sometimes creating abstractions that I wanted so badly to be arty. When my family came home, I didn’t know what to say to them, so I usually grabbed my journal and went to my room. It was about time to go to bed anyway.

In high school, I got into visual art, which was a relatively social experience compared to my experiences with writing. I got to study at the Kansas City Art Institute for three semesters in their high school program and spent a lot of time around black t-shirt-wearing, Cure-adoring teens. Besides being artists, we also had in common that we revised our own clothing with paint and graffiti. Whereas they went for morose colors and patterns, my hacked-up sweatshirts looked like they’d been distressed at a Skittles factory. My arty acquaintances were as kind as they could allow themselves to be without losing their status as non-conformists. They liked my artwork, though, and that was the point.

Socially, it wasn’t much different than being in school. When we weren’t elbow-deep in our art, we stood outside, where they smoked and I coughed. In The Breakfast Club terms, we were overstocked on Ally Sheedies and Judd Nelsons. Meanwhile, I was Anthony Michael Hall’s dorkier younger brother who wasn’t cool enough to get detention but who sneaked in anyway. I waited for something to happen that would make them want to be friends with me, because trying and failing would have devastated me. All of this went into my journal, where I attempted the textual version of the cool, nonconformist thing, albeit while listening to Duran Duran.

Near the end of high school and a few years after, I did theatre. I was constantly around people and usually the backstage dramas didn’t interfere with the feeling of family that develops when a group of people spends a ridiculous number of hours creating what we hoped were works of art. If the audiences and critics hated a show, that was almost better, because then the group could rally around itself, with plenty of self-deprecation and martyrdom to go around. The experience made for war stories our little ad hoc family would share for years. I loved that I was never alone, that I had the luxury of so much time with people that I got sick of some of them, and I even enjoyed the discomfort of missing them when a production ended.

But even then I was writing, and much more compulsively. Even though I was rarely alone, I felt lonely. Filled with angsty ideas, I had to get them out of me. 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

Showing Up Gay

In protest of anti-gay legislation, gay and lesbian people were encouraged to “call in gay” to work today and to spend as little money as possible. The purpose was to emphasize how important gays and lesbians are to the American workforce and to the economy.

The plan makes sense, but as with similar kinds of activism, I wonder if not doing something is effective. A boycott needs to be very focused. If every gay person in a national corporation or particular industry called in gay, the impact would be more obvious. Within the entire workforce, though, it’s more difficult to make sure people participate and to show that the effort has made a significant impact.

And what would calling in gay say to my colleagues, most of whom accept and support me? What would it say to my employer, which keeps making strides to create a positive work environment for LGBT employees? Continue reading

Get Inside

I’m wondering if students have trouble learning to take chances in their writing, or if a sense of adventure is worn out of them (by which I mean it may be taught out of them).

Today I covered a friend’s writing class. She told me what they’ve been doing and let me decide how I would work with the students. The final draft of an essay is due on Friday. They’ve received response from the instructor and peers, so I decided to lead an exercise that might help them with late-stage revision.

I gave them two options: 1) Select six to eight key points from the essay and write a six- to eight-line poem (an idea borrowed from friends who teach writing); 2) Or they could write an adventure story about the experience of writing the essay–how they overcame challenges, whether or not they achieved their goals, etc. Whether or not these were brilliant ideas (not my intention) or fun for them (I could hope, but probably not), I thought these prompts would help them learn something about what they’d written and how they’d written it.

Revision should help you get inside what you’ve written. It’s like when you’re trying to open a cereal box. You know where to open the package, but sometimes it’s difficult to get your finger underneath the tab and you need to use a butter knife. Or you may have trouble getting hold of the tab but you pull at an odd angle and mangle the tab, so you can’t get the box to close properly.

You want to get inside but without causing damage. It’s okay if you do; it’s not as if you’ve completely destroyed the box and contents, except in those rare situations when you pull apart the sides of the internal plastic bag with enough force to nearly dislocate your shoulder and send chunks of granola flying onto the counters, floor, and the top of the refrigerator. Sometimes you have to clear the mess, dump it, and start over because you can only pick up a few chunks before the five-second rule expires. Continue reading

Basic-Level Stretching

Long before today’s obsession with counting down pivotal moments in sluttiness and corruption, there was a weekly radio program called American Top 40 devoted to counting down the top 40 pop songs in America. During my early teens, I listened to it religiously, writing down every song, tracking the movement of each from week to week. A sexless closet case with no athletic skills, I had nothing better to do.

Yesterday, I heard one of the episodes, from June 1984, replayed on an XM radio channel. It was a strange experience, not as if I were living it all over again, but I kind of remembered that particular episode. Madonna’s “Borderline” fell significantly, and would probably fall below 40 the next week. Meanwhile, “State of Shock,” a collaboration by Mick Jagger and The Jacksons, jumped into the top ten; I barely remembered it and by the second verse wished it would fade out. The number one song was “When Doves Cry,” by Prince and the Revolution–still a great song.

The song that really threw me off balance was “Dancing in the Dark,” which was stuck at number two for the fourth week. It’s a decent song, but I was surprised by how boring and dated it sounds. And even though I’m not a major Bruce Springsteen fan, I think of his music as timeless or, more important, enduring. Whereas some artists captured the musical moment, 1984 was just a stop on a long journey for him. The keyboards on that record sound as resonant as I sound when humming through my nose, undermining the beauty of the song’s main point: “You can’t start a fire without a spark.”

Sometime between now and then, I made Mr. Springsteen the centerpiece of an essay I wrote in one of my high school writing classes. The text is not extant, but I remember the basics. I had to persuade my reader to agree with me about a topic of my choice. So I chose to argue “Why Bruce Springsteen Really Is The Boss.” Continue reading

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