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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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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

Ambiguous, Clear, and Sprawling by Design

I’ve been revising some pieces of writing during the past few weeks in my spare time. By “spare time,” I mean that I’ve been sitting my butt down and limiting distractions as much as possible. As a writer with a day job that doesn’t allow me time to write what I want (i.e., like anybody who writes), I’ve got to give myself deadlines, because no one else is going to do it for me. And it’s shameful to note how much time I have wasted over many years–so I won’t dwell. Moving on.

A few weeks ago, I began revising an essay about, among other subjects, grief. There was way too much of it (grief, but especially text) when I began writing it five years ago, and since then I’ve pared it down, sent it out, got rejected, etc., etc. This round of revising felt good, and I think it’s as finished as it’s going to be. If it’s rejected, I feel pretty confident that I’ll consider it their loss and send it elsewhere.

The short story I’m revising now is a very different situation. I started it in grad school, about ten or so years ago. The original version was well received in workshop, and I had many ideas for revision. Then many obstacles (some real, some imagined) appeared on my path, so I didn’t even read the story again until about four years ago. It wasn’t horrible but had more problems and gaps than I remembered.

After some revision, I shared a draft with my friend Alex, who began his response with the most useful comment: “I thought it needed to be more ambiguous , but also somehow clearer.” Yes, exactly. Even without his comments about specific passages, his overview would have made sense to me. I just didn’t know exactly what I would do clarify and ambiguize (if it’s not a word, it should be) in proper scale. Continue reading


They stuffed their pockets
with divined words,
then, full as ticks,
took to the skies in search
of the Spires that caged
so many piggies, piggies
who rolled in their own
shit before eating it.

They ached to rip through
steel and glass and asbestos, to feel
all of it under their fingernails,
for the taste of blood.
They weren’t prepared to seep
into the rubble, the very stew they made,
while so many piggies
rose like ghosts, like
patient ghosts.

19 September 2001

Jane’s School Bag Meme

Jane invited me and some of her other buddies to play Show and Tell, or perhaps a better name would be Spill It. On her blog, she shared a lovely photograph of the miscellaneous in her school bag (her stuff is so photogenic) and catalogued the items. There’s her stuff for all the world to see, textually and visually.

So here’s what’s in my bag. It’s a roomy courier bag. You might be sorry Jane asked.

In the front pockets:

  • Approximately 20 of my business cards
  • Pens (3 ballpoints, 2 rollerballs, 1 fountain)
  • Pencil (1 eversharp)
  • Markers (2 Sharpies, 1 yellow highligher)
  • A reimbursement check for $11.72 that I need to deposit
  • A mailer from Verizon Wireless about new wireless phones*

In the compartment right in front of the main compartment:

  • My glasses case
  • My checkbook
  • My Moleskine
  • Earbuds
  • My digital camera
  • Temporary filling material, which I had to use when my crown came loose* Continue reading

An Olive Branch Wrapped in a Burning Rainbow Flag

In last night’s debate of the candidates for vice president, there was a disturbing moment when Joe Biden pointed out that he and Sarah Palin agreed that marriage should not be redefined to include same-sex couples. As I remember it, he extended his arm, as if he grasped an olive branch or a burning rainbow flag.

If all else fails, politicians can express bipartisanism by playing smear the queer, or in this case by steering clear of the queers as fast as they could. What disturbed me was that Biden retreated from the position he’d taken moments before. After Gwen Ifill asked the question about the rights of same-sex couples, Biden said, “In an Obama-Biden administration, there will be absolutely no distinction from a constitutional standpoint or a legal standpoint between a same-sex and a heterosexual couple.” He didn’t hesitate, spoke passionately, and seemed proud to speak out.

Palin’s response was tepid at best. She said that she would not interfere with adults’ choices of partners, repeated a few times that she is “tolerant” as she made a “ewww” face. She made it clear, though, that she doesn’t support marriage equality, but didn’t explain how such a position is even remotely tolerant. She mentioned having friends who disagree with her position on these issues. Apparently she thinks it’s important for voters to know that some of her best friends are liberal and/or gay, and she tolerates them. I wonder if they tolerate her? Continue reading


On this day a few years ago, I sent an email to some friends asking for them to share their experiences of 9/11/2001. One of them wrote about being in New York that day. Another friend shared that she was in Israel, where the locals didn’t understand her feeling of horror since violence is common there.

Of course, I wanted to share my story, but I held back because it’s not that interesting. I found out about the attack on the World Trade Center while waiting in line to buy a bagel. The manager at the snack bar mentioned it as she rushed from her office to change a $20 bill for quarters. I imagined a Cessna crumbling against steel, maybe cracking some windows. Maybe I knew I was wrong and noticed the manager was in a big rush to get back to the TV, or maybe I’m adding that now. Regardless, it’s not much of a story.

The story that interested me, and the one that I told, was about people who lost people they loved. Lost them. Gone. What surprised me–although it shouldn’t have–was that the news coverage on 9/11/2001 and in the days following suggested a hierarchy of relationships. Immediate relatives and married partners were in the top tier. Distant relatives, unmarried opposite-sex partners, and friends were in the second tier.

Same-sex partners didn’t fit into the hierarchy and seemed not to exist. They learned that their partners were gone by hearing news from their non-in-laws, if they were on speaking terms, or by realizing the loss after so many unanswered cell phone calls. Suddenly alone, they couldn’t claim their lost family as family; they had no legal right to the body, could do little more than imagine their partners carried off with the rubble. The compassion showed to them depended on the humanity of their partners’ families and employers, and on the kindness of legislators (few have been kind to them).

This is what I remember of 9/11/2001. In related news, the events of that day led to two wars that are still going on, long after the mission was supposedly accomplished. Not that those wars are in the news much anymore. You may have assumed they were imaginary. So I thought I’d mention them, to make them as imaginary as the hum of rushing blood in a moment of silence.

Dressing Up for Game Day

Watching Sarah Palin’s appearance at the Republican National Convention reminded me of a ritual my sister had to go through repeatedly in high school. Like Palin, my sister was an athlete. She lettered in every sport she played all through high school. On game days, she and her teammates were expected to dress up, preferably in skirts or dresses, but at minimum, they were supposed to put on heels and hose. The boys’ teams dressed up on their game days, too, but more was at stake for the female athletes. Many of their peers didn’t take them seriously as athletes because they were girls, and because they were athletes, their gender and sexuality were questioned, too. Dressing up for game days didn’t change many hearts or minds.

Based on how pundits have been spinning Palin’s story, things have changed a little. Not only does a tough gal get some respect, the boys want her on their team. Palin is the Republicans’ spitfire who cleans up real good. They want voters to know that she is capable of leadership, but that she doesn’t let that get in the way of her roles as mother, wife, woman.

Their ability to present her as a human being stands in sharp contrast to their confused smears of Hillary Clinton. One day they would brand Clinton an ice maiden; the next they said she was too emotional to lead the country. (To be fair, Obama’s supporters did this, too.) But lately, Republicans have been acknowledging, even celebrating, Clinton’s historic run for President. Palin herself acknowledged Clinton’s feat, but her nomination shows an effort by Republicans to smooth over the 18 million cracks Clinton’s supporters made in the proverbial glass ceiling.

The only change Palin would bring is that Republicans would have the first VP in a long time whom they’d want to show off. “See,” they could say, “we don’t discriminate.” They’d be a little bit right but so, so wrong. Palin’s place would be second place at best. They might let her think and speak for herself now and then, perhaps not realizing that she probably wants to voice her own ideas rather than merely serving as a Republican megaphone. Continue reading

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