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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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Sophie, My Protector

Sophie, Thanksgiving 2000

Sophie, Thanksgiving 2000

Sophie was my protector. Not so much physically. At 25 pounds she couldn’t have fended off a mugger or a monster, but she saved me from loneliness, which is one of my greatest fears.

I was lonely for the first year after we moved to Pennsylvania. I couldn’t find a job in the area, and even though I worked part-time online for my former university, I wasn’t making enough money to contribute my fair share, and the limited contact I had with my former colleagues only emphasized how isolated I was. Doug went to work to teach all day and stayed most evenings for rehearsals. I knew no one else.

On fall break, Doug insisted we go dog shopping, their eyes met, and we came home with her. The only reason I was opposed was because I took the responsibility seriously and worried I would screw up as a pet parent the way I felt I was screwing up in general. To a lesser extent, I felt left out of whatever bond Doug and this dog had. Sophie was never as excited as when she reunited with Doug upon his return to the den. Throughout the day, we would look at each other not with hostility, but with confusion. What were we supposed to do while the guy we loved, albeit differently, was out of the house?

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My 2008 List, in No Particular Order

I love year-end lists. I hate year-end lists. It’s helpful to take time to reflect, and I invariably learn about music, books, etc. that I would have otherwise missed. But there’s also something lazy about this list-making.

There’s an assumption that artistic achievement is obvious and measurable, even though most critics’ arguments for the greatness of particular works reveal the subjectivity of individual taste. And I suspect those lists reveal as much about critics’ concerns about their reputations as what they enjoyed in the past year. Some like to show how much they agree with others; some insist they are nonconformist royalty.

I’m also frustrated by the assumption that what has been produced in the past year is somehow more important, more timely, than older works. Keeping up is difficult (and I’m a relatively devout consumerist), so I’m still learning about what I’ve missed in past years. But I also find myself revisiting older stuff. Whether it serves my current interests and needs is important; I don’t care when it was created.

So here are some of the artistic products that jazzed me this year, in no particular order. Continue reading

To the Photographer I Inadvertently Offended

When I said your portrait of me was better than my driver’s license photo, I meant it as a compliment. Really. It was the best I could do at the moment.

Getting my picture taken freaks me out a little. Not so much that I melt down in a public display with onlookers shouting, “Dammit, man, get help!” It’s more of a mild anxiety. When someone points a camera at me, I evade visual capture any way possible. I turn away. I make a face. I break the photographer’s knee caps. Whatever it takes to get free.

Most of the time the fear lies dormant. I forget that it bothers me. So when I saw the bulletin offering employees free sittings for head shots, I thought it was something I should probably get done. If nothing else, on the off chance that fate provides me with unintended fame, CNN might use the professionally taken portrait instead of one of the snapshots tagged in various friends’ Facebook photo albums. Realizing this, I made a note of the time and place.

As I approached the improvised photography studio, I felt the urge to stop and reverse direction–not by turning around, but by simply backing away, as if bumping ass-first into people or walls would be less conspicuous than casually turning around. Continue reading

What I’m Going For

My life has been an obstacle course of anxiety. I suppose this is true for a lot of people, but I’m willing to admit that I often don’t respond well to it. Writing reveals me, and I fear making a spectacle of myself. Who wants to be noticed if it means you’re the Ed Wood of literature, taking yourself seriously while readers laugh at your spectacular train wrecks? “Man’s inhumanity to man?” they ask with a chuckle. “Is that what you were going for?”

The less I stand out, the less anxious I feel. So to avoid making a fool of myself, maybe I should control every move I make. Hold still, I could tell myself, and no one will notice. But then, what’s the point? What could be worse than finding out that your writing doesn’t matter at all? Readers don’t disapprove, but they don’t care. “It’s so derivative,” they say. “Is that what you were going for?” they ask, with a yawn. “Is it, like, some postmodern thing?”

Letting go of control is crucial. You don’t make art as much as you realized you’ve made art. When I studied visual art (once upon a time, that was what I planned to do with my life), I learned that laying down brush strokes or composing a photograph is way too complex to control as you’re doing it. You have to step back from the painting or print a few photographs so you can see if you’re doing something meaningful. Ideally, you’re making the meaning you mean to make, but you may also realize you’re doing something interesting that you didn’t intend. Regardless, it takes skill, but you’re never quite sure your work is effective. At some point, the work goes on display, and you watch people looking at it, then smile at you, and you wonder if they get what you were going for.

It’s a lot like having something published only to find things you want to change. I’ve experienced that a few times and am willing to risk an occasional panic attack to experience it again–and again. But for that to happen, I’ve got to figure out my process for creating product. When I sit down to write during this retreat, I have trouble deciding where to begin. And once I begin writing, I don’t know when/where to stop. But I manage to find ways to begin and I find ways to stop, and I’ve repeated this process numerous times, resulting in somewhat purposeful, somewhat self-indulgent fragments of writing. I suppose this has been an effective use of my time.

So I guess I’ve figured out my process. Now I just have to trust it. I’ll take a step back from the following excerpt to see if I’m doing anything meaningful.

It is a dream, Blaine knows. Henry is far too serious to really be Henry, eyes narrowed, brows slanted. It could be a mean look, but Blaine can sense that dream Henry is concerned, even though when real Henry is concerned, his brows go up, eyes open wide. This Henry’s face is right there, so close to his, on the other side of the tempered glass.

Today’s total: 1189 words

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