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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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Threats, Contamination, Hallelujah

As a young queer, I read Dale Peck’s novel Martin and John. John escapes abuse, meets Martin, and suffers the loss of the person and love he’s found. The only detail that stays in my memory is blood in a yellow vinyl chair, “like the red speck in a spoiled egg yolk.” The threat of contamination runs throughout the novel: that the past will contaminate the present, that men infected with HIV will die before they’ve fully lived.

That’s an oversimplification of what the novel is “about,” nevertheless what it achieves, but the threat was certainly on my mind when I read it in the mid-90s. I was in my early 20s, newly out, and afraid of losing the freedom and happiness I’d gained by escaping the closet. Someone might beat me up outside a bar. A virus might kill me. Avoiding these threats–keeping them away from my life and body–was up to me. If I failed, I was to blame.

The stakes were much higher than in my own life, which was a relief, but the novel spoke to my experience metaphorically and thematically. The details didn’t matter because it a work of art I could find myself in. Reading Martin and John was the first time I got to experience that. The feeling remains with me almost two decades later.


I Hit the Paywall. It Hit Back.

I’m not one to complain, but–

Okay, I couldn’t even type that with a straight face. Let me put it this way: Complaining isn’t a hobby of mine. I simply find it impossible in some (read: many) situations to suggest complicity through silence, to let jerks get away with shit, etc.

A fresh if admittedly minor example is my recent attempt (and partial failure) to get a refund for the New York Times digital subscription I cancelled over a month ago. In late March, I signed up for the 99-cent trial to see if I might find full digital access interesting and/or useful. By April 24, I had not logged in to read the NYT, not even once. I figured the allowance of 20 articles per month without subscription would be sufficient, so with two days left before the next pay period would begin at $35 per month, I used the NYT’s online form to cancel.

But on April 26, my credit card was charged. A customer service rep said she could cancel the subscription and refund the money, no problem. On May 3, noticing the refund hadn’t posted to my credit card, I called and was told the refund could take 7-10 business days to go through. On May 11, still no refund. The customer service rep said whoever had claimed to cancel my subscription earlier in the month must not have done it properly, and it was too late in the billing cycle to grant a refund. I asked to speak with a supervisor, who called me back an hour later to tell me she’d taken care of it. Continue reading

My 2010 Book Picks

As a rather slow reader, I don’t get around to reading every book I should, nevertheless during the year it’s released. Instead of offering you a best-of list, I’ll simply comment on what I got around to reading. Keep in mind: it’s not the size of the list but what you do with it that counts.  Continue reading

MyNoRevMo Day 28: The Good News Is I’m a Slow, Forgetful Learner

I’ve been writing for about 35 years. I don’t mean simply forming letters with ink on paper. That’s how long I’ve been trying to communicate ideas that are at least somewhat “mine.” All that practice hasn’t left me feeling confident about what I do when I write. I have come to enjoy the process of exploring, but I don’t feel like an expert at/of writing. If I want bleeding stopped, an E/R nurse knows a procedure for doing that. If I want a room built on the back of my house, a contractor knows a procedure for making it happen. All I want to do is write some words to communicate ideas, and if feels like a mystery to be solved every time I try.

My current frustration is that I’m not sure I know what a story is. Yeah, I know: Protagonist. Point of view. Rising action, climax, falling action. Show, don’t tell. Blah, blah, blah. Those are elements to look for when reading a story, but I’m not convinced they’re present, or at least clear, as a writer writes a story. So, you tell me, I have to read the story and revise it again and again. I know. About twelve zillion writers/teachers have told me to do that, and I do it. They’re the “apply direct pressure” and “lay a solid foundation” of writing. And I’m almost completely convinced they don’t work very well most of the time.

Because I’ve read some great stories that don’t dwell on that stuff. The writer carves a not-necessarily-narrative-but-nevertheless-fascinating path. In some stories, it’s even less definite, more like the writer has rubbed a finger over a steamy mirror. The piece of writing has structure and tells some kind of a story, but the way it unfolds, you know the writer didn’t overthink the process.

Example: Sam D’Allesandro’s “The Zombie Pit.” The narrator ponders how a current boyfriend is and, mostly, isn’t like the perfect boyfriend who got away. It’s a gorgeous mix of past and present, of truth-telling and truth-withholding, as much an essay by a fictional character as a story about a fictional character.

Stories like this, the ones that fascinate me most, go against advice I’ve received to offer vivid details about characters and their actions. As a reader, I don’t care a lot about characters’ appearances, nor do I need to be able to picture every action in my mind. The experience of reading a book doesn’t need to feel like watching a movie. To the contrary, communicating via written words allows a writer to inspire the reader to imagine not just what might happen in the world but in the minds of others as well. I want to know what characters think and feel; that kind of information will probably tell me more about them than their hair color will. Maybe that’s what some of my teachers have meant when they’ve asked for vivid details, but most have indicated that it’s physical details they want.

But written stories are not movies. The purpose sharing information in a story is to give the reader a sense that something happens. It’s necessary to offer a few physical details to establish the characters exist in the world of the story. If you feel you don’t need quotes around dialogue and the reader plays along, it’s a story. If you mixed tenses and an editor plays along and approves it for publishing, it’s definitely a story. And even if I, the lowly writer, feel strongly convinced by what I’ve accomplished and refuse to change it, it’s a story. As long as I feel that way when I read it again. Even as  flaws become obvious (which happens with published work), it’s possible to see the success that no one else did. What I’ve learned from the attempt will inform the next attempt, but hopefully I’ll internalize the important parts of what I’ve learned and forget the rest. Focusing too much on the prescribed parts pulls us away from writing an interesting whole. Most of my writing time is spent translating personal, preverbal language into what others might understand. It takes an enormous amount of time. As frustrating as it is, I accept it as part of the job.

The rules are mostly bullshit. At best, they’re guideposts that are true often enough to keep the masses convinced they’re true, but in practice, they don’t lead you to where you need to go, nevertheless to places you want to go and probably need to invent. The guideposts are small and poorly constructed, obviously a bureaucratic excuse that help was offered. You can’t see the next one from this one, and there’s so much room between them, you can get lost, which is exactly what I’m trying to learn to do. I could bleed to death and die of exposure, but there really are so many other ways the story could go.

If the Product of Your Process Isn’t Cash, Kindly Eff Off.

Does Jonathan Franzen’s anointment as the latest Great American Novelist illustrate unconscious gender bias toward men? There’s a lot to consider in answering that question, but my short answer is that I agree with those you say yes.

Focusing on quantity, periodicals that review books tend to review more books by men. In regard to quality, books by women are commonly sorted into sub-genres rather than categorized as literary fiction. The numbers and discussion about this issue resonate with my experience in writing and lit programs, where the products that served as models of great writing were mostly written by men.

Our cultural failure to identify many women’s books as great literature (I won’t call it blindness–seeing but not acknowledging is not the same thing) is surely related to how great books are written. Simply put, products are the result of a process, and you get out of it what you put into it, based on the resources you have. Meghan O’Rourke observes, “[Writing a book] takes a lot of time and solitude. In my experience, women are not as good at insisting they need that time and solitude.” Most of the women I know who are writers struggle to find time to write, even if they have strong support systems.

Because traditional gender roles pervade, women tend to do most of the consistently thankless stuff: cooking of meals, the fetching of children, the fixing of problems, etc. In a workplace with mostly male workers, women still provide the kinds of support they’re expected to provide at home. Writing is rarely one of those duties, unless there’s something uncredited to be written, like a newsletter or press release.

To be fair, in some homes and workplaces, biological sex diverges from gender role, and the people with less power do the supporting. Those situations haven’t become very common yet, but they’re worth noting, because unconscious gender bias probably has more to do with gender roles and social class, i.e., one’s place in the hierarchy.

With this in mind, I’ve got to say that O’Rourke loses me with her next comment. She writes, “I wonder how many female writers have, like me, sometimes wished they were a man so everyone—family, friends, partners—would understand a little better when they go in the room and shut the door for weeks on end.” How I wish I could wag my penis and get a few weeks to do nothing but write. That doesn’t happen for any of the male writers I know (except maybe one, but that dude’s going to get that thing cut off if he keeps going like he is). Continue reading

What Makes Real Books Real?

I’m about as weary as weary gets from all the complaining about how ebooks aren’t real books. You can’t feel the smooth-but-rough texture of the paper or admire your vast, beloved collection of ebooks in the built-ins flanking your fireplace. Yeah, I get it. In other words, to some people, ebooks don’t feel like possessions as they read them, and enjoying an ebook feels like falling in love with a phantom.

Hey, I love the smell of books, old and new. I love to hold them, hear the pages flip. There’s a relationship to physical books, especially during the act of reading, that purists wish to preserve. I really do get it. Okay?

What about our long-term relationships with books? Although I own many books that I’ve enjoyed reading, I also own many that I’ve never read, having bought them for cheap somewhere because they were right there within reach and somehow seemed to fill some need I felt I had at that particular moment. Having those books in my possession hasn’t increased their chances that I will read them. Meanwhile, I learn about other books and, based on their descriptions, feel they’re better for me. I track them down, borrowing or buying them as necessary, but most important, I read them. 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

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