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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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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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The Great Chain of Being in Contact

My friend Jane posted this on my Facebook wall: “Had a lovely imaginary conversation with you yesterday, which made me think it’s time for a real one.” Which brought to mind categories of conversations.

Face-to-Face: Or F2F. This kind of conversation happens in real time. You get to experience the facial expressions and gestures of the person you’re talking to and receive and give immediate feedback.

Presentational: Somewhat F2F, but one speaker addresses many audience members. If there’s time for questions, which in a very limited way resembles conversation, some jackass usually eats up the time by spouting nonsense in an attempt to outshine the speaker. 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.

Jane’s School Bag Meme

Jane invited me and some of her other buddies to play Show and Tell, or perhaps a better name would be Spill It. On her blog, she shared a lovely photograph of the miscellaneous in her school bag (her stuff is so photogenic) and catalogued the items. There’s her stuff for all the world to see, textually and visually.

So here’s what’s in my bag. It’s a roomy courier bag. You might be sorry Jane asked.

In the front pockets:

  • Approximately 20 of my business cards
  • Pens (3 ballpoints, 2 rollerballs, 1 fountain)
  • Pencil (1 eversharp)
  • Markers (2 Sharpies, 1 yellow highligher)
  • A reimbursement check for $11.72 that I need to deposit
  • A mailer from Verizon Wireless about new wireless phones*

In the compartment right in front of the main compartment:

  • My glasses case
  • My checkbook
  • My Moleskine
  • Earbuds
  • My digital camera
  • Temporary filling material, which I had to use when my crown came loose* Continue reading

TTFN, Darling

Just a few days ago I was anticipating the arrival of Jane and her husband Jimmy. They visited this weekend to see the production of Fiddler on the Roof that my partner, Doug, directed. They arrived on Friday, and we spent Saturday driving around, talking, and writing before going to the show in the evening. Every minute was precious, and we savored like crazy.

Around noon yesterday, I said goodbye to them and headed to campus to visit some former students who came back to see Fiddler. We shared some laughs and hugs, then they went to the show and I went home to catch up on chores. For the rest of the day, I felt unmotivated. After a weekend of great conversations, my life seemed quieter than usual as I folded towels.

No matter how much I prepare, I’m never quite ready for goodbyes. They surprise me. I try to anticipate how to make them go well. I suppose I try to write the goodbyes I’m involved with, which is not quite the same as trying to control them. But goodbyes are odd when scripted. At best, they’re moments of improvisation. If something memorable happens, it’s by chance. Usually, though, they don’t seem significant. It’s time to go, so you say “bye,” or you avoid saying it. No one likes a long goodbye filled with “farewells” and “darlings,” except for Norma Shearer’s fans. You simply wave, hug, maybe salute, or lovingly flip the bird. Then you get on with your day. Continue reading

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.

Lost in a Tunnel

It’s been almost a month since Jane’s and my retreat. I’m reflecting on my experiences, by which I mean I’m daydreaming about the freedom of the retreat, the kind of freedom that allows you to figure things out as you go along, which is slightly different than navigating the murky waters of work-related troubleshooting.

One morning as Jane and I drank our coffee, a fellow retreater sat with us and shared advice she had learned. The advice was to live each day as if you’re emerging from a tunnel.

The image struck me as particularly fitting, an appropriate metaphor for my retreat experience. Each time I sat down to write, I didn’t know what I was getting into, and as I began to write, I felt unsure of my direction. I got lost in the writing as much as I could, torn between feeling like that was a good thing or not, but at some point I usually forgot to care and just allowed myself to lay down some words. At the end of a writing session, I would emerge, feeling I’d learned something, and usually ready for something to eat.

While at the retreat, I finished reading the latest collection by David Sedaris. In one of the essays is a line that seems to respond, from an oblique angle, to our fellow retreater’s shared advice: “Leaving the tunnel was like being freed from a clogged drain.” My joy in emerging from writing, I have to admit, is more about relief than discovery. Do things get hairy? Ugh, yes. But I persevere, no Liquid Plumr involved. Free, until the next time.

The freedom, the open-endedness, makes the tunnel of writing challenging. I don’t have to do it in the same way I have to do my job. But I have to do it, i.e., am compelled to. I can put it off, and I do, quite often, but eventually I head back in.

It’s so dark in there, and messy, and as journeys go, it’s pretty mundane. After a while of feeling my way along the damp, curved wall, I see light. Sensing a hair on my tongue from the clog I battled about a hundred paces ago, I become distracted for a moment as I rub my tongue on my sleeve. “Eeeeewwwwww.” My voice echoes. I realize I’ve made it all this way alone.

Then I give my full attention to the light, move a step closer, feel a rush of air, and say, “Ahh…”

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