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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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Sometimes You Have to Retreat If You Want to Advance

The university I work for organized a leadership development retreat for the last week of winter break, so I just spent the last week with 60 students and six colleagues. After being on winter break, I’d kind of regretted that I’d volunteered to do this. Despite all the great things I’d heard from last year’s group, I had trouble gearing up for the experience. I just wanted to ease back into work life, and I wasn’t looking forward to spending a week away from my partner and our dogs. And I didn’t want to lose writing time, which has become more and more precious the deeper I’ve gotten into my novel. But five minutes into facilitator training, I realized it was going to be worth my time. I’m not particularly resistant, but neither am I usually so easy to convince.

The curriculum was created by Leadershape. Two student affairs professionals (from other institutions but trained by Leadershape) guided us through the process at a lodge in the Poconos. The curriculum is designed to challenge everyone involved to develop a “healthy disregard for the impossible.” To those who are a little jaded, it may sound like an empty promise. But even if you know what to expect from similar training, you can’t avoid getting involved, because you’re completely submerged in the experience.

The curriculum’s goals are ambitious. The major goal is for each participant to create a vision for change that at first seems pretty much impossible. But subsequent exercises help you build a plan that will at least get you started. Maybe the plan will change, or maybe you’ll only get halfway to your vision. Better to realize that you can effect some change than not even try. What motivated me was finding similarities among others’ visions and mine, which gave me people to collaborate with in dreaming big as well as troubleshooting.

In fact, it was my ideal teaching/learning environment. Serious, complex discussion filled sessions, meal times, and free time. The students appreciated my openness and that I felt the power of the experience as deeply as they did. No one had to downplay their feelings or apologize for wanting to change the world in positive ways. There was precious little use of irony (even by me), except some of us occasionally made ironic comments to make fun of irony.

My big lesson is really a reminder for me: Everyone in a community is a valuable resource to the whole. That’s not touchy-feely, hearts-&-flowers bullshit. Continue reading

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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

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

Blood and Rainbows

I feel tentative about reading other writers’ blogs because when their writing is really strong, I get a little depressed. It’s sort of the “wish-I’d-written-that” syndrome, but not necessarily that simple. Reading good writing makes me feel and think with such intensity that I have to stop reading for a while.

There’s something inspiring about that kind of experience. Case in point: I read “Blood Poem” by Lee Houck on his blog Grammar Piano, and for a minute or two wondered why I should bother to write a poem ever again.

Then the feeling transformed. I felt determined to begin writing a poem as quickly as possible. Level of quality didn’t matter. I just had to get back on the horse. Continue reading

Cooking 101, as Taught by The Universe

My novel has been on the back burner for a few months. I have to admit that I’ve turned the heat off a few times. A big reason for that, I’m guessing, is that one of my characters is in the military, and I don’t know much about that world. I’ve done some reading, watched some documentaries, etc., all of which have been helpful. But obviously I need to talk to some people with some real-world experience.

I don’t tend to believe in signs, whether from a god, the universe, or whatever. I’ve seen that belief abused too many times to find much credibility in it. My mother gets signs all the time. More than a few times, she has praised the heavens upon finding an open parking space near a mall entrance, or a jar of mustard lost in the back of the refrigerator. Is this really how divine intervention works? So when I can’t find a close parking place, it’s not bad luck? Or when I get stuck on my novel, it’s because I’m waiting for a sign? Continue reading

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda Been Gayer

Today, while talking with coworkers about some recent good fortune, I threw my hands above my head and voiced excitement as I might, but probably wouldn’t, do in public. I may or may not have exclaimed, “Woo!”

One of them leaned into me, touched my arm, and said, “Could that have been any gayer?” She smiled, apparently quite pleased with herself.

I stopped, stunned, my lips forming the silent syllable, “Wha-?!”

There are some people in my life who can say something like this and I don’t blink an eye or probably even notice. They know me well. They defend me, so they’re allow to give me shit. This person doesn’t know me well. She may have gay friends, but I am not one of them. We don’t divulge our greatest hopes and fears by cell phone at all hours of the day. I am not the Rupert Everett to her Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding.

The thing she said is not horrible. Her presumptuousness, the familiarity, bothers me more than anything. If I knew her deeply, the comment would have skimmed the surface of my consciousness. But because we’re really just acquaintances, the words found their way in and went deep. Oh gawd, my life is an after-school special.

It doesn’t help that the comment was a gender slap: Men aren’t supposed to show excitement, and we sure ain’t supposed to exclaim, “Woo!” Unless we do it ironically, mocking the possibility that we might have had an unapproved emotion.

What really bothers me–so much so that I feel compelled to process it via blog and drag you into it–is that I didn’t say or do something in the moment. I must have really been off my game. I should have given her a disapproving look (I’m so good at those). Something like, “Please tell me you didn’t just say that out loud.”

Better yet, I should have said, “Gayer? You know it, girlina!” Then I could’ve cut loose, reading her beads in a flurry of snaps.

I. Am. So. Fierce. When I let myself be.

Portrait of the Artist as an Aging Man Returning to His Roots

For my birthday, Jane sent me R.E.M.’s latest album, Accelerate. She knows I’ve been listening to them since 1986. Except for one album in the early 00’s, I tend to buy them on the day of release or very soon after. The press about Accelerate sort of pissed me off, so I was in no rush. Critics praised the album, saying the band had returned to their guitar-driven roots. I hate when critics say such things, as if a band is always better when they sound like they did in the beginning. For one thing, Accelerate doesn’t sound like jangly, early-80s R.E.M.; it’s more like the band’s howling, mid-90s sound. Rather than returning to their roots, it sounds as if they revised an earlier style by merging it with the sound of their last album.

Which brings me to another point about what those critics seem to be missing: the last album was very much guitar-driven, although it was quieter than Accelerate. I’m guessing that critics get off on Accelerate‘s loud, garage-band energy. Their last few albums were more quiet and reflective, which are qualities allowed only by a few rock or country dinosaurs. From anyone else, quiet-and-reflective points to self-indulgence and pretention, which are located about halfway down the slippery slope to unmanliness. (Except for rare exceptions–e.g., glam, Prince–this seems to be considered a bad thing.)

What rock critics–at least many who write for the corporate rock publications–seem to yearn for most is the sound of a smart band playing loud music; it’s like watching a well-designed car chase sequence that is actually integral to the plot of a movie. But they can’t just say they like Accelerate for that reason, which really should be enough. They have to make grand claims that R.E.M. have saved themselves from Adult Contemporary irrelevance. (Oh, yes, in the past few years, I haven’t known whether I was listening to R.E.M. or Celine Dion. Thank you, Oh Divine rock critics, for saving ME as well.)

There seems an extreme distrust of experimentation, unless, of course, the results work brilliantly according to a particular listener’s standards. I’m betting that the album of remixes from earlier this decade must have pissed off a lot of R.E.M. purists. I’m all for change, because for all the times it’s a move of desperation, more often it pays off. For example, I’m fascinated by two apology-centered songs, the jangly “So. Central Rain” from 1984 and 1998’s “The Apologist” with its rich mix of piano, organ, guitar, and electronic percussion. In both, singer/lyricist Michael Stipe sings “I’m sorry” repeatedly. In the former, he is sorry for things beyond his control, whereas in the latter he seems to admit responsibility. They both have the R.E.M. sound, but are quite distinct. Maybe because the band members are more mature. Or maybe because over 14 years’ time, things are bound to change, at least a little, if you let them.

Staying the same for years guarantees irrelevance, too. If R.E.M. and other artists who simply won’t go away did not experiment, then purists could not experience the thrill of the so-called homecoming, which is really what satisfies. “Oh, the band sounds like I remember them back when I was in high school. How comforting.” Which is sadly un-cool of them.

Artists are not responsible for comforting the audience. They should explore new possibilities and be willing to make the audience uncomfortable. That’s actually why I started listening to R.E.M. They sounded different, and the lyrics were odd. Much of my Angry Young Man writing was an attempt to find my inner Michael Stipe. I made A’s in English; I knew the rules. But I wanted to say things that weren’t designed to win permission. Writing songs that was freeing but frustrating; I liked creating them, but not having the skills to write music for them made me feel as if I were singing to myself, which I guess I was. I realized I wanted an audience, even though the threat of being found out as someone with unrevised thoughts to share is enough to shut some writers down completely.

I still struggle with the tension between what Linda Flower calls writer-based and reader-based writing. Every writer struggles with this. A thought doesn’t necessarily have form that will make sense to others, or that will be easy to translate into language. Writing is the process of helping others understand those thoughts. Even if I wrote lyrics for a band whose reputation was largely grounded in cryptic lyrics, I would take some shit when audience members didn’t get my point. The trick seems to be to get them to care enough that they might be missing something interesting, so they will ask for clarification, or at least complain in a public forum.

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