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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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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

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F**k the Establishment (Pending Approval)

Dan Chaon wishes young writers would read. And not the obvious stuff. He wants them to find really obscure writers, as kids who rock out in their garages find obscure bands to model themselves after.

Great idea. However, young people are so thoroughly trained in literary snobbery–to admire authors only if they appear on some canonical, pre-approved list–that they tend not to want to rebel. Rather, avoiding written texts of any kind becomes preferable.

The fun of finding obscure bands is that you get to add to The List or make your own. The selection process is up to you. There’s no need for pre-approval unless you’re majoring in music and must manage music snobbery by learning to enjoy and/or play like [professor’s favorite from her/his List].

The same is true of writing students, who learn to present their profs’ interests as their own and keep secret what really inspires them, lest they be accused of having pedestrian (or just plain ole fucking weird) tastes. Some fledgling writers do pursue obscure texts and do so openly, but are later chided by their writing professors for enjoying “genre fiction.”

Shouting “Fuck the Establishment!” is exciting, but writers know that we still depend on The Establishment to grant us credentials and publish us and put us on its lists. Because despite the romantic notion that writers should be more like budding rock stars (or, more likely, independent musicians), self-publishing by an unestablished writer is still not celebrated with the same gusto as a garage band self-producing and -promoting a CD/MP3. Only after getting The Establishment’s stamp of approval does a writer have the cred to claim such acceptance never mattered.

Blood and Rainbows

I feel tentative about reading other writers’ blogs because when their writing is really strong, I get a little depressed. It’s sort of the “wish-I’d-written-that” syndrome, but not necessarily that simple. Reading good writing makes me feel and think with such intensity that I have to stop reading for a while.

There’s something inspiring about that kind of experience. Case in point: I read “Blood Poem” by Lee Houck on his blog Grammar Piano, and for a minute or two wondered why I should bother to write a poem ever again.

Then the feeling transformed. I felt determined to begin writing a poem as quickly as possible. Level of quality didn’t matter. I just had to get back on the horse. 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

Who Put the “Blah” in Blogging? Oh, I Did.

The title of my last post explains why it’s been five months since I’ve written here. I had enjoyed blogging but hit a wall and hit it hard. I thought too much about audience and shut down. Basic Peter Elbow stuff.

It didn’t help that I know some terrific bloggers who balance head and heart in their writing while posting enough content to readers interested. Most important, they care what readers think, but they’re really doing it for themselves, which is a generous gift to one’s readers.

Not posting felt good for about a month. Then I wanted to but got busy with my day job, so I didn’t have time to focus on blog posts that mattered-but-not-that-much. So I didn’t post, but the not-doing didn’t feel good so much as it felt relieving, as it does when I avoid the pressure of other challenges that I really don’t want to avoid. Writing, even a silly ole blog, meant too much. What could I write about writing, tutoring, teaching, learning, politics, being gay, and other topics important to me, that hadn’t been said before and more effectively?

I’m not fishing for compliments. I know that I’ve written some things that others have enjoyed for whatever reason. The point is that I tripped myself up. I fell to the ground, and it was just too easy to lie there.

It’s like party conversation. You’d find me near a corner or along a wall talking to one or two people, getting really into the discussion and probably saying geniunely interesting things I didn’t realize I’d be talking about. I love that. I’d also love to be the person who feels comfortable making the announcement about the honored guest. Sure, I could do that kind of thing, but would forget what I meant to say and, instead, say genuinely disjointed things I never meant to be talking about. Continue reading

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

What the Story Needs

I saw the film Doubt and liked it. Some critics have complained that the filmmaker attempts to get away with something by not revealing the truth about whether or not wrongdoing occurred. They apparently miss the point and, more important, don’t understand what story is being told.

The characters know what they know, but there is no one to confirm for the viewer what “really” happened. The story is “about” the tension among the characters’ various versions of the story and the lack of a definitive answer. Everything learned about the characters and the situation is revealed through talk and action that takes place in the present. Whether the lack of omniscience in a religious setting is poignant or heavy-handed, it is, likely, intentional.

Viewers who believe it’s the writer’s job to play god probably won’t like this film. (Since I don’t, I did.) As a writer, I get peeved out when readers expect me to completely satisfy their curiosity. Writing effectively isn’t always about closure. It’s impossible to fill in every detail that every reader wants; it’s challenging enough to provide sufficient information. Continue reading

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