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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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Sometimes You Have to Retreat If You Want to Advance

The university I work for organized a leadership development retreat for the last week of winter break, so I just spent the last week with 60 students and six colleagues. After being on winter break, I’d kind of regretted that I’d volunteered to do this. Despite all the great things I’d heard from last year’s group, I had trouble gearing up for the experience. I just wanted to ease back into work life, and I wasn’t looking forward to spending a week away from my partner and our dogs. And I didn’t want to lose writing time, which has become more and more precious the deeper I’ve gotten into my novel. But five minutes into facilitator training, I realized it was going to be worth my time. I’m not particularly resistant, but neither am I usually so easy to convince.

The curriculum was created by Leadershape. Two student affairs professionals (from other institutions but trained by Leadershape) guided us through the process at a lodge in the Poconos. The curriculum is designed to challenge everyone involved to develop a “healthy disregard for the impossible.” To those who are a little jaded, it may sound like an empty promise. But even if you know what to expect from similar training, you can’t avoid getting involved, because you’re completely submerged in the experience.

The curriculum’s goals are ambitious. The major goal is for each participant to create a vision for change that at first seems pretty much impossible. But subsequent exercises help you build a plan that will at least get you started. Maybe the plan will change, or maybe you’ll only get halfway to your vision. Better to realize that you can effect some change than not even try. What motivated me was finding similarities among others’ visions and mine, which gave me people to collaborate with in dreaming big as well as troubleshooting.

In fact, it was my ideal teaching/learning environment. Serious, complex discussion filled sessions, meal times, and free time. The students appreciated my openness and that I felt the power of the experience as deeply as they did. No one had to downplay their feelings or apologize for wanting to change the world in positive ways. There was precious little use of irony (even by me), except some of us occasionally made ironic comments to make fun of irony.

My big lesson is really a reminder for me: Everyone in a community is a valuable resource to the whole. That’s not touchy-feely, hearts-&-flowers bullshit. Continue reading

Off the Treadmill

The first two-thirds of December was a treadmill system of processes. Do some grading. Step off that treadmill to go to a meeting. Work with a student freaking out about finals. Back on the grading belt. When all those belts reached their termini, jump on the neverending deal-with-those-piles-of-papers-littering-your-office treadmill, on which I do what I can, make a little progress, then happily leave. All of these things had to get done, and I got them done.

In the second third of the month, I’ve been in vacation mode. It’s usually a pleasant time of maintaining daily/weekly chores, making sure I exercise, and otherwise figuring out what to do with time that is as yet unscheduled. I’m grateful for this time and understand most people don’t get so much; I’m not going to whine about that. But the openendedness messes with my head. I spend most of my life wishing I had time of my own, then when I do, I don’t know what to do with it. I’m not unusual in this way; lots of us feel this frustration. We’re too busy being busy to plan what we’ll do when we’re not busy.

Having more time has not resulted in spending more time on the novel, but I’ve maintained my daily time commitment, occasionally putting in a little more. If anything, I feel less optimistic about the project, which has become a small city of treadmills–imagine That OK Go Video but filmed on a backlot. The process is enormous. I know what I want to do, and it takes as much time as it takes. Having a windfall of time doesn’t speed things up. It’s like winning a $5000 scratch-off and thinking you’re going to buy a house with it. It’s a good thing, a minor boost, but when you land, you’ve got to keep pace so you don’t get tangled up in the conveyer belts.

Actually, the treadmill metaphor fits novel writing only if I add that I have to simultaneously ride the bike that powers the conveyance for the entire small city. I toss people on the belts, and they move along them, between them, among them, straight line to straight line. So much complexity devolves into tedious complication over years of this process, interesting like a puzzle, but where’s the story? Continue reading

Basic-Level Stretching

Long before today’s obsession with counting down pivotal moments in sluttiness and corruption, there was a weekly radio program called American Top 40 devoted to counting down the top 40 pop songs in America. During my early teens, I listened to it religiously, writing down every song, tracking the movement of each from week to week. A sexless closet case with no athletic skills, I had nothing better to do.

Yesterday, I heard one of the episodes, from June 1984, replayed on an XM radio channel. It was a strange experience, not as if I were living it all over again, but I kind of remembered that particular episode. Madonna’s “Borderline” fell significantly, and would probably fall below 40 the next week. Meanwhile, “State of Shock,” a collaboration by Mick Jagger and The Jacksons, jumped into the top ten; I barely remembered it and by the second verse wished it would fade out. The number one song was “When Doves Cry,” by Prince and the Revolution–still a great song.

The song that really threw me off balance was “Dancing in the Dark,” which was stuck at number two for the fourth week. It’s a decent song, but I was surprised by how boring and dated it sounds. And even though I’m not a major Bruce Springsteen fan, I think of his music as timeless or, more important, enduring. Whereas some artists captured the musical moment, 1984 was just a stop on a long journey for him. The keyboards on that record sound as resonant as I sound when humming through my nose, undermining the beauty of the song’s main point: “You can’t start a fire without a spark.”

Sometime between now and then, I made Mr. Springsteen the centerpiece of an essay I wrote in one of my high school writing classes. The text is not extant, but I remember the basics. I had to persuade my reader to agree with me about a topic of my choice. So I chose to argue “Why Bruce Springsteen Really Is The Boss.” Continue reading

Insert Keyboard Solo Here

It must take some guts to establish oneself as a songwriter. Even songs that are considered artistic achievements are often difficult to take seriously, especially backup lyrics. The “woo-woos” and “bay-bees” sound just right, conveying feeling in quasi-words transported by sound. You’ve got to be bold to write them down then sing them while strumming your acoustic guitar and insisting, “Oh yeah, this will totally work.”

A great song breaks new ground while drawing on listeners’ expectations of what a great song is. If it were completely new, it wouldn’t reach many people. That’s not to say that great songs must have mainstream appeal. But a great song should communicate, otherwise it’s a secret code designed to obfuscate meaning–a great mystery.

This is probably true for any kind of writing. It’s hard to strike a balance between connecting with an audience and retaining your uniqueness. Sometimes I write lines and my internal editor calls me out. “That’s just gratuitous,” xe says (my internal editor is trans). “That line fits, but just barely. You wrote it to show off, didn’t you? You think people are going to laugh with you. Trust me, you’ll get attention, but not the kind you’re after.”

Continue reading

Go Praise Yourself

Confession: I like some of my writing. Sometimes as I revise, I enjoy what I’m reading even though I’ve written it. I even like some of the stuff I wrote a long time ago. Not all of it. As with any writer’s work, I read my own critically, especially the personal stuff, concerned I’ve crossed the line between healthy exhibitionism and neurotic self-disclosure. But that’s the point, isn’t it, of developing skills as a writer: to write interesting things that people will read willingly and not only because they have assigned you to write them?

Writers tend to throw their younger writing selves under buses, and they do it willingly. “Oh, god, I can’t believe that story got published,” they might say. “It’s terrible. I hadn’t found my voice.” Occasionally, they go further, telling you how much their writing used to suck and how hearing it read makes them want to jab their eardrums with a fountain pen. You wonder if you will soon witness some Greek-tragedy-style violence and hope their self-hatred doesn’t take a sudden turn outward. The self-deprecation creates a cycle, leading to the next line: “My work is much stronger now.” There is usually a pause, and sometimes a self-conscious chuckle. “At least I hope my work is stronger now.” Is this their main point? Or are you supposed to say something to ensure their personal drama ends happily?

Maybe they just want to be honest; in their search for truth, they know they are not exempt. But they’re also revealing insecurities, which can be an admirable thing to do, but to do so in response to praise of their work is unsettling, selfish, and, well, a little rude.

To be fair, I have done this kind of thing myself, Continue reading

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