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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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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.

How My First Time Became Never

I first thought about killing myself in bio class junior year of high school. My teacher probably thought I was thinking big bio thoughts. My obedient behavior apparently gave her the impression that I cared about what we were doing. I had learned that the only reason to talk to her was to affirm that she was right.

The plans I was considering came from movies and TV, mostly. I knew not to talk to my teacher about them. She wouldn’t have drawn on her knowledge of human biology to help me choose the most efficient option. She would have told me I was wrong, and probably referred me to the appropriate administrators. Maybe I would have gotten the help I needed, and probably for that very reason I didn’t risk telling her or anyone else.

I’d already been through the psychological support process in fifth grade, when I freaked out in class about a gray cloud in the sky and panicked that a tornado would kill us all. I ended up spending six months or maybe a year in weekly sessions with the school district psychologist. We met in windowless storage spaces. She measured my IQ. One week we built a model airplane together as we talked. I thought she was a weirdo but trusted, and still trust, that she had some good intention. I just didn’t get it. And if it helped me, it didn’t work for long.

When I moved from elementary to junior high school, I had panic attacks throughout the first month of school, my body’s way of rejecting the transition that I didn’t want to go through. The school counselor did his best to talk me through it, but basically I just got used to the discomfort of the new environment. A lot of my classmates turned mean and, along with kids from the other schools that fed into our junior high, they turned on me. I’d taken some crap in elementary school; I’d been called “sissy” so many times I lost count. In junior high, it only got worse. They called me “faggot” and other slurs. When dressing out for gym class, other boys would point at my fleshy chest and say I had breasts, which was an extreme version of the more common attempt to insult me by saying I was a girl. I don’t remember teachers saying anything like that except my gym teachers, who called us “ladies” when we weren’t moving fast enough. Later, I would learn about gender expression and identity and come to understand that the “insult” hurt because it was mostly true for me.

So by the time I got to my junior high bio class, I felt pretty worn down. But I didn’t act on my plans. Things got better senior year. I made friends, spent more time with the friends I already had, and learned I had some talents I’d hoped I had. Although the good times didn’t erase the pain, I was too busy to acknowledge the feeling that everything would surely fall apart. I was avoiding the problem, yes, but I wasn’t aware of how I could get help. I did what I had to do to stay alive.

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Get Inside

I’m wondering if students have trouble learning to take chances in their writing, or if a sense of adventure is worn out of them (by which I mean it may be taught out of them).

Today I covered a friend’s writing class. She told me what they’ve been doing and let me decide how I would work with the students. The final draft of an essay is due on Friday. They’ve received response from the instructor and peers, so I decided to lead an exercise that might help them with late-stage revision.

I gave them two options: 1) Select six to eight key points from the essay and write a six- to eight-line poem (an idea borrowed from friends who teach writing); 2) Or they could write an adventure story about the experience of writing the essay–how they overcame challenges, whether or not they achieved their goals, etc. Whether or not these were brilliant ideas (not my intention) or fun for them (I could hope, but probably not), I thought these prompts would help them learn something about what they’d written and how they’d written it.

Revision should help you get inside what you’ve written. It’s like when you’re trying to open a cereal box. You know where to open the package, but sometimes it’s difficult to get your finger underneath the tab and you need to use a butter knife. Or you may have trouble getting hold of the tab but you pull at an odd angle and mangle the tab, so you can’t get the box to close properly.

You want to get inside but without causing damage. It’s okay if you do; it’s not as if you’ve completely destroyed the box and contents, except in those rare situations when you pull apart the sides of the internal plastic bag with enough force to nearly dislocate your shoulder and send chunks of granola flying onto the counters, floor, and the top of the refrigerator. Sometimes you have to clear the mess, dump it, and start over because you can only pick up a few chunks before the five-second rule expires. 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.”

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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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