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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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Light in Darkness

Yes, all of you hyper-logical types, we get it: New Year’s Day is an arbitrarily chosen re-starting point. I have attempted to kill this buzz myself, but I’ve come to realize it’s not necessary. New Year’s is plenty dull on its own. As with my birthday, I’m left feeling a day older and, having bought into the idea that something major will happen, I end up a little more melacholy than usual once the champagne buzz wears off.

But I like the opportunity for a collective reboot. If I’m going to get my hopes up but feel underwhelmed, it’s nice not to have to do it alone. Last year I broke my own pattern of not making resolutions by resolving not to over-enforce my goal-setting, especially with writing projects. The idea was that I would determine very minimal goals on a daily and weekly basis, and they would be so minimal that I couldn’t help but fulfill them. The short version:

I resolve to treat myself well and hold myself accountable.

The plan was conveniently loosey-goosey. If I failed to follow through, I’d only hurt myself. Honestly, who was going to care if I never wrote? I would berate myself, a few of my writing friends would encourage me, but it’s not as if I had an editor breathing down my neck. To keep writing, what I need more than anything is to strike a balance of nudges and guilt, and that can only be found in the midst of things.

As those of you who know me or have read this blog know, 2011 provided a few significant life-gets-in-the-way events. Some illness. Some death. A wedding. Like the really bad first draft of a real-life novel. All of that was done by mid-October. Looking to December 31 as the end of this year’s story, the denouement has been long. I’ve felt like a Sondheim character searching/waiting for the great lesson.

The gift of the denouement has been a long visit from my mother. She came in early October for the wedding and decided to extend her visit. I swear this is okay with my husband–in fact, he’s the one who’s encouraged it. She didn’t want to go back to her house and experience the first Thanksgiving and Christmas without her husband, my father. My sister’s family lives nearby and have been able to take care of her house, so why not? Our hope was that through avoidance the great lesson would sneak up on us, and that is more or less what has happened. We’ve found light in darkness, the true reason for the season.

Her presence hasn’t interrupted my writing. To the contrary: she inspires. The events of the year had already done that, but not in the ways I assumed they would. I ultimately wrote more than I thought I would last January. My writing energy went where I needed it. I had to write through grief as a way of lifting rubble off of me. I wrote posts and poems–new material that has energized me. Even though I wrote for myself, others appreciated what I wrote. Without having any of my work formally published, I experienced what it means to be read.

Progress on revising my novel slowed a bit, but I didn’t stop. Somehow I’m ending this arbitrarily defined year having almost finished the second draft of my novel, and I feel more driven than ever to continue the journey to having it published. More important, I confronted obstacles by writing. My heart broke, so with words I patched it up and continue to alternate between dwelling and moving on. It wasn’t quite a journey to the underworld, but it wasn’t completely not that. And since I’m the one writing this story, I’m going to say I’ve nailed the ending. Once the buzz wears off, I’ll get over myself and begin again.


Dream On

A week ago, a friend wrote to tell me she dreamed of my dog, Sophie, who recently died. She dreamed she was walking Sophie and that dogs from the neighborhood surrounded them. She reported the incident to a local official, concerned that the dogs would somehow be in danger. The official told her to talk to her neighbors and solve the problem together. Back on the street, the dogs had vanished. When she set Sophie down, Sophie ran away across a beach and into a city.

My friend asked me what it meant. If there’s an intended message from The Universe, I don’t know what it is. But I’m jealous that she’s having dreams of Sophie and I’m not. Supposedly we all dream, but I almost never remember mine.

Her dream makes me think of something that actually happened. Shortly after we adopted Sophie, my parents visited. Sophie barked at my father for a day and a half until Dad offered her a Triscuit. That simple gesture won Sophie’s trust. Whether she was easy to win over or had been demanding some kind of payment from him, who knows. Once while Dad had her outside, she ran into the corn field behind our house. We lived about a quarter of a mile from a highway, so I worried not just that she would get lost but that she would get run over.

I’ve forgotten the details, but Doug tells me he was inside and heard me yell her name and saw me run after her. All I remember is feeling relieved that she stopped, that she came back home. I couldn’t have taken the pain of responsibility if she’d gotten hurt or disappeared. Even though Dad was with her, I’d trusted him, so it would have been my fault.

I do have a brief, apparently false memory of my father running after her, disappearing into the stalks of corn. Not only did he not run after her, but the corn would have been harvested by the time they visited, which was around Thanksgiving, so there would have been nothing to block my view. Considering Dad died just before Sophie, I’ve probably rewritten the scene to connect them. They’ve both run off, and this time they haven’t come back. I’m impatiently waiting for something I know isn’t going to happen. I’m feeling responsible for something I didn’t do. I’m feeling abandoned when neither of them would have done anything to hurt me.

Knowing they’re together would comfort me if I could believe it’s true. I’m open to the possibility, and maybe my friend’s dream is a faint sign. But where the hell are my dreams? My dead loved ones never come to me. I’m as open to their visits as I could consciously be, and still there’s no pixie dust sprinkled in my dreams, no irreverent voices from Beyond telling me they can see me peeing. No sublimity, no ridiculousness. Just absence.

I’m assuming their presence in dreams would fill the emptiness I feel when I remember them in waking moments. “They’re always with you” is a nice idea, but in day-to-day life, it’s kind of a bunch of crap. A colleague noticed Sophie’s photo as we ended a meeting in my office. I explained that she recently died. His response? “She has the sweetest face.” His observation happened in the present tense, tempting me to avoid talking about her in the past tense, which I do to acknowledge reality. It’s the same with my father. It’s the same with friends who died on me nearly 20 years ago.

If I love you, I don’t let go. I want to have you around in present tense again. I want to feel some confusion about which moments are happening now or even real. Every now and then, I want to take a staycation from reality without plunging headlong into psychosis, and I want you to be there. I don’t do faith, but I’m faithful. I’m like a dog that way, waiting on the front porch for you.

Happy 3rd Anniversary to Me

When i started Quota, i intended to write regularly to fill a daily or weekly quota of words. I was going to share the product of my process without getting too hung up on quality or quantity.

As it turns out, I haven’t approached the blog that way at all. It’s turned into a place where I post essay-like pieces motivated by anger and other similarly warm emotions. I don’t post without cooling down and revising. The blogosphere is packed to bursting with garbage that could use revision, reconsideration, and other “re-” words; I don’t need to add to that.

Whether or not my reflective approach has produced high-quality reading, it has certainly resulted in a lower-quantity catalog of material than I originally intended. I don’t regret taking the time I need, but I wish I could crank a little faster. Although I don’t have something to say every day, I could offer something at least once a week. Pushing myself would be good for me, as I think I tend to dwell a bit too much on anything and everything i write at this point. At the rate I’m going, by the time I finish my latest grocery list, the yogurt I intend to buy may well expire. (That’s a joke, but I’m not going to run it by a test audience. Impressed? I’m taking risks, and not just with my writing! Expired yogurt can really fuck you up.)

A feature I’d like to bring back is including samples of what I’m currently writing besides the blog. I’m writing a novel, which is probably why my process has slowed so much. In the early days of Quota, i shared some excerpts without much or any context. But that’s part of the fun.

Here’s today’s:

They’d had some of the hottest, angriest sex of either of their lives in the past four years while at their most dysfunctional, not a word spoken, not a bit of cuddling. With their arms and legs tangled together, Henry would feel his love for Penn emerge, as if it dripped with his sweat or were forced by grunts from deep within his lungs.

Threats, Contamination, Hallelujah

As a young queer, I read Dale Peck’s novel Martin and John. John escapes abuse, meets Martin, and suffers the loss of the person and love he’s found. The only detail that stays in my memory is blood in a yellow vinyl chair, “like the red speck in a spoiled egg yolk.” The threat of contamination runs throughout the novel: that the past will contaminate the present, that men infected with HIV will die before they’ve fully lived.

That’s an oversimplification of what the novel is “about,” nevertheless what it achieves, but the threat was certainly on my mind when I read it in the mid-90s. I was in my early 20s, newly out, and afraid of losing the freedom and happiness I’d gained by escaping the closet. Someone might beat me up outside a bar. A virus might kill me. Avoiding these threats–keeping them away from my life and body–was up to me. If I failed, I was to blame.

The stakes were much higher than in my own life, which was a relief, but the novel spoke to my experience metaphorically and thematically. The details didn’t matter because it a work of art I could find myself in. Reading Martin and John was the first time I got to experience that. The feeling remains with me almost two decades later.

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

A Rant about Gender in Fiction

According to an article I read yesterday, men behave a certain way, and women behave a certain way. When, as a reader of fiction, you feel a character does not behave appropriately, it’s probably a gender problem.

For example, if a male character wants a relationship more than sex, or if he shows an interest or ability to care for a child, he’s acting like a woman in a man’s body. If a female character wants sex more than a relationship, or if she cares about legacy more than the immediate gratification of dealing with children, she’s acting like a man in a woman’s body. The writer offers no evidence–from theory, practice, or anywhere else–to support her views.

I wish I could laugh at stuff like this. It’s stereotypical crap. Unfortunately, a lot of people accept it as fact. One of the commenters says that although she can’t think of examples to support the writer’s view, the article feels right. Of course, when you go by feel without ever checking in with real life, it’s easy to convince oneself that reality is as it seems. Ah, the power of fiction.

As much as I disagree with these prescriptivist assumptions about gender, what the writer gets right is that readers, editors, and publishers have expectations about how characters may behave in regard to gender. And if men are limited to certain actions and feelings, the options become more limited as other aspects of identity are revealed. For a character to embody a multi-faceted identity (gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic class, and more) apparently risks overwhelming a reader. To avoid problems, some writers follow the rules by keeping their characters simple. They anticipate readers, editors, and publishing asking things like, “Why does the character’s sexual orientation (or race or religion or whatever) matter?” So they willingly create characters with only a few aspects of identity to avoid conflict. This practice resembles that of self-identified “friends of diversity” who prefer to focus on one or two categories rather than acknowledging how complexities of identity play out in an individual. 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.

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