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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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When I Make Time for #amwriting, I #amwriting.

I’ve become an avid follower of the hashtag #amwriting on Twitter. Writers typically use it to indicate they’re currently in the process of writing, although some add it to anything they post about the practice of writing.

Of course, a lot of #amwriting tweets are structured around the verb phrase “am writing,” e.g., “I #amwriting until I have to go to work.” Tweeting grammatically correct sentences with any particular verb phrase is harder than you’d think, even for writers. Because I’m a writer, I #amwriting a lot, (I lucked out there) and I have more to say than obediently adhering to “am writing” allows.

Twitter’s 140-character limit encourages creative usage of grammar, such as trimming unnecessary words and abbreviating spellings, but #amwriting tweeters go even further. Someone might write, “Kids woke early from nap; #amwriting time got cut short.” In this example, #amwriting replaces the noun form of “writing,” again to identify the practice of writing. The word “writing” would make sense in this context, but #amwriting leaves little doubt, emphasizing that the verb in this noun is not mere residue. Continue reading

Practice Makes Writers

Elizabeth Stark’s observation about writers’ tendency not to practice their art interests me a lot. I’ve been a writing center nerd for well over a decade, struggling to get college students to explore their writing processes, to engage with the page.

What students care about is product: getting the assignment done and getting a good grade. They don’t give a crap about practicing and/or don’t trust that practice will help them, which makes sense given that they probably weren’t taught to practice. Some of the students I’ve worked with assume that they are excellent writers already, unaware that the A’s they received in high school convey as much or more about their obedient classroom behavior than the quality of their prose.

Most, though, believe they aren’t writers. I don’t mean that they doubt their current status as writers. I mean they believe they simply aren’t writers and won’t ever be, that they lack the gift, and that no amount of practice would help them find it. (See Carol Dweck‘s work on fixed mindset vs growth mindset.)

Identifying as non-writers manifests in some annoying behavior and habits. For students who think they’ll never be textual artists, written communication is just a tool to achieve other goals. Writing is a product that should be cheap and easy to come by. Students protest their instructors’ seemingly unnecessary critiques. “You know what I mean,” they rail. “What I wrote in my paper is close enough.” The stakes aren’t high, or they shouldn’t be, they assume, and they’ve got better things to do with their time. Once they’re writing for “real” purposes in the “real” world–to get into grad school, to get published, to cut the deals that will make them zillionaires–they’ll be able to whip out the writing with no problem.

Of course, the practice they get in college-level coursework is supposed to help them prepare for the “real” stuff. But there isn’t much time to have students practice in class, and without modeling that behavior, it’s unrealistic to expect many of them to practice on their own “for fun.” So we give them assignments, expecting that will get them to practice. Maybe we have them write a draft or two, but again, there’s not much time, so we only ask for the “completed” assignment. The course becomes an obstacle course, and the student is given the textual equivalent of impossible tasks. From a standing position, leap over this 8-foot wall. No, you can’t have a rope. Just figure it out. Continue reading

A Bunch of Craft

What I’m learning from all I’ve been reading about craft lately is that I have developed good sense about making stories. I’m pretty good at creating pieces that make a complete picture. The tricky part is taking the pieces apart and handing them out in an order that will keep the reader curious enough to keep snapping pieces into place.

The craft readings have helped me think more clearly about other aspects of my process that I do sort of well with. Atchity says the goal should not be to avoid anxiety but, rather, to transform it into productive energy. That is the challenge of my life, and I mean that quite seriously. I experienced my first panic attack in first grade. My parents rushed me to the hospital in the middle of the night because I woke up screaming due to stomach pain. While waiting for the E/R doc to run tests, the pain subsided. No cause for the pain was found. That scenario played out four times. In fifth grade, the symptoms became more in line with what I would experience for decades: shallow, rushing breath; rapid heart rate. Continue reading

FWIW: Can’t Not Write.

After receiving my most recent rejection via email, I fired off manuscripts to four journals yesterday. One sent to triage; four sent back to battle–those are good odds, right?

Perhaps not. According to the editor, the journal that rejected me accepted fewer than 10% of the work that was submitted. One of the journals I contacted last night gave even worse odds in their submissions guidelines: only 2% of the manuscripts they receive are published.

Thinking statistically, that’s a lot more manuscripts than I have time to send out, nevertheless write. And, of course, resorting to bulk mailings would provide no guarantee of getting published. Meanwhile, sending the right piece to the right editor at the right time (in the right phase of the moon?) is all that matters, if only there were a way to determine which, who, and when.

All of this had me feeling a little hopeless last night. After a moment’s hesitation, I clicked the submit button. I mean, why not?

Today, a friend tweeted the link to an essay by Emily St. John Mandel that speaks to all of this. It provides no answers, but I feel better. I’m not the only writer who goes through this–most of us do. Call it drive, compulsion, whatever, we can’t stop writing and wanting to be read.

Mandel compares the hope of getting published (we’re talking book deal) with winning the lottery. I agree with that comparison almost entirely. 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.


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

QuotaPoll #1: Barriers

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