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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


Off the Treadmill

The first two-thirds of December was a treadmill system of processes. Do some grading. Step off that treadmill to go to a meeting. Work with a student freaking out about finals. Back on the grading belt. When all those belts reached their termini, jump on the neverending deal-with-those-piles-of-papers-littering-your-office treadmill, on which I do what I can, make a little progress, then happily leave. All of these things had to get done, and I got them done.

In the second third of the month, I’ve been in vacation mode. It’s usually a pleasant time of maintaining daily/weekly chores, making sure I exercise, and otherwise figuring out what to do with time that is as yet unscheduled. I’m grateful for this time and understand most people don’t get so much; I’m not going to whine about that. But the openendedness messes with my head. I spend most of my life wishing I had time of my own, then when I do, I don’t know what to do with it. I’m not unusual in this way; lots of us feel this frustration. We’re too busy being busy to plan what we’ll do when we’re not busy.

Having more time has not resulted in spending more time on the novel, but I’ve maintained my daily time commitment, occasionally putting in a little more. If anything, I feel less optimistic about the project, which has become a small city of treadmills–imagine That OK Go Video but filmed on a backlot. The process is enormous. I know what I want to do, and it takes as much time as it takes. Having a windfall of time doesn’t speed things up. It’s like winning a $5000 scratch-off and thinking you’re going to buy a house with it. It’s a good thing, a minor boost, but when you land, you’ve got to keep pace so you don’t get tangled up in the conveyer belts.

Actually, the treadmill metaphor fits novel writing only if I add that I have to simultaneously ride the bike that powers the conveyance for the entire small city. I toss people on the belts, and they move along them, between them, among them, straight line to straight line. So much complexity devolves into tedious complication over years of this process, interesting like a puzzle, but where’s the story? Continue reading

I Kissed a Book

Last night I finished a book I’d been reading for a few weeks. I held the book to my lips and kissed it goodbye, then tweeted that fact to my 194 followers and the world.

Just finished the novel I've been #amreading. So beautiful. Will miss the characters. Had to kiss the book goodnight/goodbye. #bookgrief

I was having a moment. And I told the Twitterverse. And I'd do it again.

Two people I don’t know (they’re not in my galaxy of the Twitterverse) RT’d me to their thousands of tweeps. Of course, my really clever tweets go ignored, but the moment I let my guard down and admit it, I’m at risk of trending.

The kiss and the tweet were impulses I don’t regret 24 hours later. The arcs of character and story are complete. The author definitely did his job. (Yes, I’ll tell you who in a bit. The point here is love of books. Patience, gentle reader.) So I have no right to want to know what happens to the characters beyond the ending even though I understand that for practical and artistic reasons books must have endings. I mean, I’m a writer, dammit, not some sentimental ignoramus. But if a book is good to me, I’m loyal, and I grieve not getting to read it anymore.

I’m curious to know if Mattia invites his parents to visit them and if Alice follows through with the divorce. It seems damn likely those things will happen, but can’t I read on just so I can stay connected? It doesn’t matter to me that the characters are honestly dysfunctional and that the author (Hold on! I’ll tell you soon!!) doesn’t let them off easy.

My wonderful writing coach Elizabeth Stark would admire the way the stakes keep increasing in this novel. 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

Ambiguous, Clear, and Sprawling by Design

I’ve been revising some pieces of writing during the past few weeks in my spare time. By “spare time,” I mean that I’ve been sitting my butt down and limiting distractions as much as possible. As a writer with a day job that doesn’t allow me time to write what I want (i.e., like anybody who writes), I’ve got to give myself deadlines, because no one else is going to do it for me. And it’s shameful to note how much time I have wasted over many years–so I won’t dwell. Moving on.

A few weeks ago, I began revising an essay about, among other subjects, grief. There was way too much of it (grief, but especially text) when I began writing it five years ago, and since then I’ve pared it down, sent it out, got rejected, etc., etc. This round of revising felt good, and I think it’s as finished as it’s going to be. If it’s rejected, I feel pretty confident that I’ll consider it their loss and send it elsewhere.

The short story I’m revising now is a very different situation. I started it in grad school, about ten or so years ago. The original version was well received in workshop, and I had many ideas for revision. Then many obstacles (some real, some imagined) appeared on my path, so I didn’t even read the story again until about four years ago. It wasn’t horrible but had more problems and gaps than I remembered.

After some revision, I shared a draft with my friend Alex, who began his response with the most useful comment: “I thought it needed to be more ambiguous , but also somehow clearer.” Yes, exactly. Even without his comments about specific passages, his overview would have made sense to me. I just didn’t know exactly what I would do clarify and ambiguize (if it’s not a word, it should be) in proper scale. Continue reading

Books: Real and Imagined

Today, I traversed the rows of an enormous field of used books, and I reaped hard. A local library held its annual book sale. For $15, you can fit as many books as possible in a medium-sized shopping bag. As the librarian who took my money pointed out, I had a little bit of room left in mine. Oh well.

It was fun not to know what I might find and to end up with so many books I’ve wanted. Like most people who love books (and really–isn’t this cohort as unique as lovers of major holidays or chocolate?), the enjoyment comes from the sensations: the heft of the book in my hands, the way it smells, the sound of the pages as I turn them.

The tactile pleasures of books-as-objects don’t mean so much to me that I would resist using e-texts. I’m still holding out for an option I can afford and would feel comfortable using. Using new formats takes patience and practice. Since I’m not the best reader of paper-based books, I’m open to new possibilities.

My biggest concern is that it won’t be possible to share virtual books. I must emphasize the verb “share.” In computer terms, I’m making a distinction here between moving book files and simply copying them. The former is a way to share books, whereas the latter is how you give them away, which is problematic when the book is yours but the rights are not. Continue reading

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