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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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Once Upon a Time I Was Writing a Novel

For the past couple of days, I’ve gotten back to writing some scenes for the novel. Having lost momentum, I feel a little silly for fretting over the unstructured time I had this summer when I went to a writing retreat. That was a good problem to have.

But I’ve written a little over the last few months while tending to some big changes at work. I feel optimistic about gaining momentum. I’m just going to have fun and see where my characters take me.

Here’s a fresh excerpt. Hope you’re craving backstory. Continue reading


Lost in a Tunnel

It’s been almost a month since Jane’s and my retreat. I’m reflecting on my experiences, by which I mean I’m daydreaming about the freedom of the retreat, the kind of freedom that allows you to figure things out as you go along, which is slightly different than navigating the murky waters of work-related troubleshooting.

One morning as Jane and I drank our coffee, a fellow retreater sat with us and shared advice she had learned. The advice was to live each day as if you’re emerging from a tunnel.

The image struck me as particularly fitting, an appropriate metaphor for my retreat experience. Each time I sat down to write, I didn’t know what I was getting into, and as I began to write, I felt unsure of my direction. I got lost in the writing as much as I could, torn between feeling like that was a good thing or not, but at some point I usually forgot to care and just allowed myself to lay down some words. At the end of a writing session, I would emerge, feeling I’d learned something, and usually ready for something to eat.

While at the retreat, I finished reading the latest collection by David Sedaris. In one of the essays is a line that seems to respond, from an oblique angle, to our fellow retreater’s shared advice: “Leaving the tunnel was like being freed from a clogged drain.” My joy in emerging from writing, I have to admit, is more about relief than discovery. Do things get hairy? Ugh, yes. But I persevere, no Liquid Plumr involved. Free, until the next time.

The freedom, the open-endedness, makes the tunnel of writing challenging. I don’t have to do it in the same way I have to do my job. But I have to do it, i.e., am compelled to. I can put it off, and I do, quite often, but eventually I head back in.

It’s so dark in there, and messy, and as journeys go, it’s pretty mundane. After a while of feeling my way along the damp, curved wall, I see light. Sensing a hair on my tongue from the clog I battled about a hundred paces ago, I become distracted for a moment as I rub my tongue on my sleeve. “Eeeeewwwwww.” My voice echoes. I realize I’ve made it all this way alone.

Then I give my full attention to the light, move a step closer, feel a rush of air, and say, “Ahh…”

Revised Strategy

As you may have noticed, I haven’t set a specific quota for my daily writing. The idea of a quota is enough, and is serving me well. I need to make sure I do things every day that move my writing forward. While on retreat, it was important to focus on quantity and on a specific project. Since arriving home a week ago, I’ve needed to alter my strategy.

Work has kept me busy with various projects that, although exciting, have me feeling fragmented. Quite a bit of energy goes to writing emails, revising copy for promotional materials, etc. For the writing I choose to do, I do whatever I can. Blogging has helped a lot. Even though some would advise me not to waste time on it, that it’s taking time away from “real” projects, blogging has made me more productive. I enjoy doing it, so instead of sitting around thinking I should probably get to writing, I write something, knowing that at least a few people will read it. Also, the topics I’m writing about here have been on my mind for years, so I consider my blog posts to be quite real, even if they’re early drafts. And the increased output seems to help me generate ideas, to the benefit of my other real projects, and new ones.

To give you some specifics, beyond the work-related writing and blogging, my focus is on finishing up some projects that have been almost-finished for too long. It’s time to show some guts and send them out. I have revised two pieces (one a short-short story; the other, an essay that’s been in the works for almost two years). I submitted them for publication, so we’ll see what happens. I have few more that I’ll nudge out of the nest in the next few weeks.

I’ve been writing so much lately that I’m concerned I might be developing repetitive stress injury (RSI). On Friday evening, I noticed some minor swelling in my right (ha–at first, I wrote “write”) elbow. I’ve kept myself informed about RSI, but it’s time to brush up and make sure I prevent injury.

What about you? Have you been writing? Anything you want to write but haven’t had time? Is something distracting you? Do you have swelling in your elbow?

Are You Making This Up Just to Make Me Feel Better?

My week at Wellspring House is over.

The retreat was an opportunity to be a character as well as to write about characters. It was like being in a little play. My role was that of a writer getting away from my hectic schedule so I could work on The Next Big Thing, and every word I laid down had the potential to fascinate.

I usually don’t deal well with being in the middle of nowhere, and at the retreat wondered if I was perhaps visiting the capital of Nowhere, or one of its major cities. But it was an ideal setting to play my character, and over my time there the vitality of the setting became more obvious to me. There was little to distract me, which was in itself a little distracting at times, but that created the kind of slow-burning tension that makes improvisational theatre in isolated settings with no audience such an underappreciated style.

I flailed about, doing my best to crank out as many words as possible toward The Next Big Thing. Somehow I got pulled in by the desire to blog. It was an important, not entirely distracting move, allowing me to reflect on writing product and process. But I quickly became a little too obsessed with blog stats. On Thursday morning, I fretted about not having many views.

“Thursday mornings are usually slow,” said Jane, my co-star, who is a veteran blogger.

“But my stats went down yesterday, too.”

“Wednesdays tend to be slow, too.”

“Are you making this up just to make me feel better?” I asked, accusingly.

“No,” Jane said, calmly, so it was hard to tell if she was telling the truth. She’ll probably get a Tony nomination.

In a different scene, we started talking about injury while walking through the capital of Nowhere. Perhaps the symbolism was a bit heavy-handed, but it seemed important to talk about suffering for our art.

“I like to look at bruises,” Jane said. “But I don’t like looking at eczema.” It wasn’t offered for a laugh, the way some wacky supporting character might have tossed it out while scratching her head and shrugging. Rather, it was the kind of observation she offers a lot, offstage and onstage. After my initial response–a chuckle while thinking, “That’s so strange”–I realized how much the line fit her character, who juggles her practical nature and the ability to puzzle over details, finding the obvious in what’s strange and the strange in what’s obvious.

When it was time to leave the retreat, we packed up our cars and drove toward the interstate. It was Jane’s suggestion; she said it would help us make the transition out of retreat mode. We ate lunch, shopped for used CDs, and bought coffee for our trips home. All the while, we reflected on what we did and what we learned. We couldn’t come up with any big lesson or revelation. We didn’t learn much we didn’t know before, but it helped to have some time to focus. And it’s not as if we won’t keep talking about our writing, although it’s more fun to be in the same place at the same time.

It started to rain, so there was no time for a long goodbye. After a quick hug, we jumped in our cars and drove separately south on the interstate, talking by phone until we got to the place where she had to go her way and I had to go mine. At that point, our little play became a big movie, ending with one of those aerial shots that remind you how big the world can be.

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

I Went to Thank Her

Today Jane and I went to Amherst. I wanted to see the ghost of Emily Dickinson, but I had no such luck. Her kitchen has been converted to a gift shop, and the bookshelves in her family’s library are mostly bare, so it makes sense that her ghost would prefer to be somewhere else. I felt a little silly hoping to have a metaphysical experience. I wouldn’t have had much time to savor it in the hour of the tour, the last hour before the museum closed for the day.

Her room was particularly underwhelming. The tour guide shared a laminated facsimile of notes Dickinson had written on the back of a chocolate wrapper. The guide said Dickinson was frugal, but I don’t think that’s the only reason she wrote on wrappers. Even if she kept a journal nearby as she went about daily chores, wouldn’t she grab the first thing handy to catch an idea before it flew out of reach? Isn’t this a habit common to artists–we grasp, afraid of losing ideas, willing to scrawl graffiti on every wall of the house if necessary?

I couldn’t imagine Dickinson in her room. I believe that she had been there, but something about the arrangement of the furniture made it feel like no one could be comfortable there, the bed, wash basin, tiny desk and chair shoved to one side of the room so we could enter, look, and leave without disturbing anything. Again I felt foolish for expecting that the museum could preserve more than is reasonable. I could see the place, but it’s probably not possible to get a sense of how the place felt to her.

But I did feel something as I stood in her room. The tour guide said Dickinson cared about words, loved the dictionary, felt her lexicon was important. Duh, duh, duh. Then she read one of Dickinson’s poems. I can’t remember which one, just the feeling I had, which was approximately what I’d wanted to feel all along. Just a few lines made me so happy, so full. I listened to every word. It was all I wanted to do at that moment.

Later, Jane and I went to her grave, laid large white paper over part of her name and birth date, and rubbed it with a brown crayon. Then we did the other half, then with a third piece we captured the year she was “called back.” Jane insisted that we do a rubbing of Lavinia’s grave, too. Having shared Emily’s poetry with the world, she should be honored. Of course.

Here’s today’s excerpt, started before we left for Amherst and finished while sitting at Amherst Coffee after our visit to Dickinson’s house and grave

He has nothing but time, too much of it. Too much sand through the hourglass, slowly dumped on him, into his house, hardly noticeable until it rises above his ankles, making it hard to walk to the garage for a shovel, too heavy to scoop it all away, his bed and other furniture lost, it fills his room, the attic, until there is no room for him in his own life. It spills out from open doors and windows, so he stays as far away as he can but finds grains in his pockets, stuck to his sweaty body, in the corners of his eyes like after a long sleep that doesn’t refresh.
Time flies away, its flapping wings dark against the setting sun, it could be a seagull looking for food, a crow frightened away from a cemetery, a dove with no place to land.

Today’s total: 1629 words

Coming Apart All Over Again

My novel is “about” a lot of things, including the war in Iraq: the “Mission” that was “Accomplished” many years ago but that continues to drag on and drag down many lives in the process. Although I have the right to speak openly about it here, in the novel, I need to tell the stories of some characters affected by the war. If my feelings come through, fine, and maybe that even strengthens the writing, but the emphasis needs to be on characters, settings, scenes, actions, choices. Telling the story is not enough; I have to make you believe it.

The metaphor for my novel is an explosion. Or maybe I mean that’s the shape. The point of impact is where you expect to find the most damage. In that sense, the characters closest to one another at any given moment are what the novel is about. But in an explosion pieces break off. Abstractions seem real when they’re flying at you. Here’s the excerpt:

You find fingers and bits of bone and maybe an eye among toys and garbage and jagged pieces of the Humvee that was torn apart by the IED placed in a ditch or the shell from a Bradley tank. You haven’t expected to find these things, but they force you to stop and think about what’s going on. You trace their trajectories, put the objects and people back together in your mind, use hindsight to imagine the soldiers in the Humvee driving on patrol past the children in front of the house, unaware of what is about to happen.

But you don’t see the finger on the button that sets off the explosion, and you don’t have time to count the shards of metal that fly through the air, that rip through the bodies of the vehicle, the soldiers, and the children. You barely notice a pink mist of blood that hangs briefly in the air. Later, when you play it all over again in your mind, you remember that the mist seemed to hover forever, but within seconds it evaporated. You think you make sense of senselessness, but knowing that something’s going to happen wouldn’t have helped you prevent everything from coming apart all over again; it just would have given you time to flinch.

Today’s total: 1532 words

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