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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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Felt Sense of the Story

I’m taking a course with the wonderful Elizabeth Stark to help get cranking on my novel. After writing pretty diligently for two months, we paused in January to read up on craft and figure out what makes the novels we love so lovable.

We return to our own novels next week. To prepare, Elizabeth asked us to write letters to ourselves to revisit what inspired our novels and what is central to them now. Here’s mine:

Dear Me,

You started writing this book on a generous dare, sort of to impress a new friend, which is the kind of nudge you’ve always needed. For the past two years and seven months you’ve been tapping keys, meandering down pages, expanding what was an incomplete short story into what is as yet an incomplete novel (a fresh rough draft, actually). You started with a thread of situation–a gay man trying to support his straight brother who has sought refuge as the victim of his wife’s abuse–and braided in a few more threads: the gay man’s partner is stationed in Iraq, and after his partner’s return, the teenage niece becomes a confidante to her new uncle.

You can’t remember exactly how you acquired the new threads. Maybe they came from other ideas that have ended up being minor plot points or aspects of character. Whatever, you wrote your way through it all, whether you were in the writing zone or scribbling ideas in your Moleskine. You’ve always been pretty good at finding possibilities through a process of writing, sifting, writing, sifting, which is really about exploring what you know of lived experience (yours and others) because you like stories that are believable, not merely possible. This novel, your novel, is packed with characters and situations you believe.

When you started writing it, the novel was about Blaine, the unacknowledged partner, but you wondered if you should give Henry, the soldier, just as much page time, maybe more. Wouldn’t it be gutless to try to write around his experience? And the brother and his kids–weren’t they important, too? Why were they in the book if they weren’t? Everything and everyone became important, including the characters who didn’t appear. And were you representing women fairly? Besides the niece, there’s an abusive wife and absent best girl-friend? Was something about writing the book turning you into an old-school, misogynophobic queen? Were the complexities of gender identity and expression coming through but not distracting as they are in real life (instead of the flat, Mars/Venus-style garbage that clogs popular culture)? These questions were important to ask, right? You weren’t just asking them to slow things down and avoid the writing, right? 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

Journaling Tip #58: Install Pocket Doors

Fear drives me. But as anyone who’s known Fear will tell you, fear is an erratic driver (drunk-while-driving-and-talking-on-a-cell-phone-and-applying-mascara-and-shaving bad).

Lately, my fears have been: Fear of writing. Fear of being disorganized. Fear of writing something interesting and losing it, so why write?

I’ve missed journaling (i.e., the practice of journaling) that was central to my life for many years. I just sort of played in those journals and wrote a lot of short pieces. My purpose was not to write anything in particular. I did more or less plan to write poems, but I achieved that goal by sneaking up on myself, stumbling onto each poem and feeling lucky to find it.

Now that I’ve got some actual projects I really want to write, and especially because revision is a bigger part of the writing I *need* to do, I haven’t been sure how to use journaling. Organizing the writing of a novel requires a more complex process than writing stumbled-upon poems. I carry a small, bright red Moleskine and record ideas that come to me as I’m doing other things. Although I try to review these ideas every day, I often forget. I’ve gotten away from daily writing practice. If I’m not completely distracted from writing by my day job, I’m working on a writing project (maybe the novel, maybe something else), and although that can be fun, that kind of writing practice doesn’t always allow for a lot of play, especially if I’m in revision mode.

So at some point each day, I’ve got to play with words. And I’ve got to work with words. And fuck with them. Make art with them. Exploit any/all possibilities. Continue reading


Transitions flummox me. I sit there. Metaphorically, physically, emotionally, whateverly, I get stuck for a while.

In an elementary school science class, I learned about inertia. To put it in a less-than-nuanced way, inertia means what’s going keeps going until it’s stopped; what’s stopped remains stopped until something gets it going.

Inertia should not be a problem for me since I’m not an inanimate object. But sometimes I’m just a lump of stuckness and can’t help it. I have spent years resolving to make a plan to counter my chronic inertia. I’ve taken advantage of every kind of new year I can think of to reset my resolution: Calendar new year. Jewish new year. Fiscal new year. Continue reading

Unpacking My Lunch Box

At an antique mall today, I noticed many lunchboxes that I coveted as a child. In my early elementary school days, my friends got to carry lunch boxes that featured pictures of the Peanuts gang, the Six Million Dollar Man, Scooby Doo, etc.

I, however, had to shlep a purple box–with a matching handle–adorned with the faces of the Osmond Brothers. If it had been a Donny and Marie lunch box, that might have made sense. I watched their show all the time (and, for the record, I was more than a little bit rock-n-roll). I don’t know where my mom got the idea I was into the entire Osmond clan.

The lunch box quickly rusted, so Mom got me a blue plastic lunch box the next year. It had no distinguishing features, which was fine with me. Fine, that is, until I realized its durability and inoffensive color meant I was stuck with it indefinitely.

I didn’t find any simple blue lunch boxes at the antique mall. I found nothing that inspired my interest for more than 90 seconds. If only I could have that feeling in every store and with my own stuff. Continue reading

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