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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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    Elisse on The First Year of Grief Is as…
    The First Year of Gr… on Postmortem
    The First Year of Gr… on A Eulogy for My Father
    The First Year of Gr… on Keep on Truckin’
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Left to Our Own Devices

Mom came for our wedding in early October and expected to stay a month. Then she stayed for Thanksgiving, winter holidays, the new year, her birthday, and before we knew it, winter turned to spring. It’s an 1100-mile trip (she drove). Might as well make it worth everyone’s while, right?

Most of our time on this visit was spent without much talking, all of us interacting more with our various electronic devices: Mom on her iPad keeping up with sports scores, Doug on his laptop doing genealogy, I on my laptop working on my novel. We spent hours and hours in the same room, half-watching something on Netflix, the trees outside the picture window turning orange then brown then bare then budding. But we were in our own worlds, looking up occasionally to make sure we were all there.

I didn’t feel the clock ticking (rare for me). I didn’t worry about making good use of our time together. I didn’t feel compelled to force meaningful conversations only the have them fall flat. A stunner might happen while unloading the dishwasher. Or it might not.

We all needed this visit. It’s all been very fun and distracting, putting grief on paused even as we continue to slog through it. And boring. And, occasionally, irritating, the way life can be when you live with people you love and get in one another’s way but don’t want anyone to move out.

Friends asked me how things were going with Mom here so long, some of them giving me concerned looks, their eyes widening over the months of her stay.

Continue reading

Let’s Enchant This Garden

Once upon a time, I was a mouse. More specifically, I was in sixth grade performing a role in a play. My partner, a close friend, and I recently watched my performance on the surprisingly-not-so-grainy VHS tape my mother has saved since 1981. I, as mouse, discovered some of the world’s wonders as I ventured out for the first time on my own. My large, round pink ears flopped when I hit my spot and exclaimed in my pre-pubescent voice: “An enchanted garden! How lovely!”

The role couldn’t have fit anyone better than it fit me. I wasn’t acting so much as letting others in on my act. I remember loving the warm rush of excitement of being on stage with everyone focused on me. I stood in the spotlight and practiced pretty flawless comic timing. I was just being myself, nelly as the day is long, and for once, and for a very brief time, I wasn’t stopping myself.

From 30 years away, I’m amazed that none of my classmates at that time made fun of me for acting flamboyantly and obliviously gay. Maybe my openness won them over–the “what” of my identity didn’t matter because the “how” was so damn fabulous?

Perhaps. But the what was and is incredibly important to me (though I won’t deny how fabulous I am at it). Which is why I’m surprised to find some of my fellow queers avoiding specifics in their self-declarations. They’re coming out as themselves, but no aspect of their identities is more important than any other.

Hmmm.

The point of Coming Out Day is to do it your own way, so I shouldn’t judge. But…even more important than how one comes out is the what one comes out as. Regardless of the terminology, today is a day to celebrate being queer. If you have no other day when you don’t have to hide or blend in, this is the day to step out and say what makes you you in terms of sexuality and/or gender. This is not a day for veiled language. This is not a day for celebrating metrosexuals.

The world is our garden, too. Take root, queers and allies. Bring on the enchantment, openly and vigorously. How fucking lovely!

Keep on Truckin’

Mom stomps off from the salesman. I’m already out in the lot looking at cars. She rushes past me with the salesman gaining ground.

“I guess she doesn’t want to talk to me,” he says, chuckling and letting her go on. I wait until she’s out of earshot and apologize. Mom thinks this is effective strategy in the car-buying game, but rudeness won’t get any of us very far.

Mom test drives an SUV. The saleman attempts to make conversation, and she undercuts him. He patiently continues to tell her about the vehicle’s features, and I jump in to keep the conversation going. Back at the dealership, she relents a little as we do a lot of waiting, but her tone sharpens again when he tells us they’re going to offer us $3500 less than we’re expecting for the truck she’s trading in. My father’s truck. It’s an insult, Mom says. The salesman rationalizes that their customers don’t want trucks, that there’s a much smaller profit margin on their new vehicles than at other dealers, blah, blah. My sister and her husband, who know more about these things than either Mom or me, said to hold our ground and not take a penny less.

So we go to a different dealer. The salesman there seems young and like he might be learning on the job. But he’s just the right amount of chatty for Mom. She goes easy on him, laughing with him a little and giving him advice as if he were her grandson. But the trade-in offer is even lower. If anything we’ve expected this offer to be higher because it’s definitely a truck dealer. Getting the minimum amount is crucial so Mom can afford to make the payments. But the truck is also worth it. It’s in good shape. The only reason my sister and I want Mom to trade it in is because it’s for work, with dual rear tires and an enormous tool box. Dad loves his truck, but he won’t be able to use it anymore. And while Mom has no problem driving it, the warranty expired a few years ago. Dad’s not able to work part-time anymore, and now they have his medical bills on top of everything else. If the truck breaks down, she might not be able to afford to repair it, and it’s their only car.

Mom understands, but she’s held off to spare my father’s feelings. It’s taken her many months to get up the nerve to go car shopping. Having little patience for car dealer manipulations, she lets her displeasure rip. The salesman wants to know how much we want and where we’re getting our numbers. I can’t tell if he’s confused, concerned, or both, but he seems to sincerely want to understand our position. Just as we’re getting somewhere, my sister calls, so I rush out and tell her what’s been going on, feeling a little bit bad about leaving the guy with my angry mother. My sister wonders if the estimator doesn’t realize the truck has a diesel engine, which adds to the value. I rush back in to pass along what she’s told me. Continue reading

Alert

Cushioned benches, spaced
to keep sight lines open. Few
chances to neglect baggage or
walk away from responsibilities.
So much white light
to embolden noon glare
and temper comforts.

It has to be this way;
my fellow passengers and I agree.
We avoid eye contact and discussion,
but we’re on the same page:
It’s necessary to be careful.
Despite light-and-airy distractions,
we know what’s going on here,
which makes us glad that nothing goes on.
We wait to go. We thumb through magazines.
We mock pop singers
but stop short of joking about
acts of violence, realizing that’s how
we usually deal with tension outside of secured areas.

Who among these strangers
would dare betray me?

* Continue reading

MyNoRevMo Day 26: Weaving

With only a few days of November left, I’m struggling to maintain my usual working pace. For months, I’ve been doing about 1.5 hour per day. I definitely haven’t stopped, nor have I slowed considerably, but between dealing with narrative problems and distractions from real life, I feel as if I’ve trudging through mud during most of MyNoRevMo. Better to keep going than give up, so I’ll keep going.

The problems are opportunities. My first draft includes many lengthy scenes that need to be sliced apart and woven into other scenes. I’m trying to connect past and present. Instead of dropping some clunky flashback into the text, the characters remember relevant past events as new events unfold in the present action, emphasizing the “flash” in flashbacks rather than just dredging up the past.

As a writer I have been warned away from using flashbacks of any kind because it supposedly prevents the story from moving forward. But as a reader, I see this notion ignored all the time. And as the protagonist of my own life, I do this all the time. Past experiences inform choices I make in the present. New experiences inform my interpretations of past events. I’m constantly revising and, probably, fictionalizing my memories.

In both my reality and my fiction, revising reveals a lot of information that I can cut. It’s for me to know, to help me envision an arc or remember how the character go from then to now, but no one else needs to know. The information would distract a reader.

I learned this process as an art student. In high school, my teacher suggested I tear one of my abstract watercolors into strips and weave it back together. Doing so would get rid of what didn’t need to be there and reshape what was–a new approach to what felt too obvious. Continue reading

Seems Like Forever, or The End of the Beginning of the World

A woman in my writers’ group predicted that she won’t reach the deadline she has set for finishing her book. She’s glad that she’s pushing forward but feels frustrated not to be writing faster. The process is happening as fast as possible given the time she has to work on her book every week. That’s all there is to it.

Her frustration is my frustration. I work on my book every day for at least 1.5 hours, an amount of time I can pretty much guarantee I’ll have every day. Rather than shoot beyond that and fail on a regular basis, I aim for what’s doable and go for more as opportunities arise.

Moving forward feels good, but I, too, feel frustrated for not getting more work done during my allotted time. My process is quite ruminative, which is not, in fact, a euphemism for “slow.” I need to ruminate, or, more accurately, my brain ruminates, processing information at an average speed, but much more slowly than it is able to take in information.

Experts confirmed this ten years ago, but it’s taken ten years of experience after the test on top of the thirty years of experience before the test for me to accept that fact. I try not to fall into a determinist view about it. Sometimes I can write quickly, but it’s usually something short–a poem, a story, an email–and happens spontaneously. Slam poetry wouldn’t be impossible for me to do; I’d just need to start training well in advance of a performance. The point is that I am what I am, and I do what I do. Rather than wasting energy fighting myself, I can take a more positive approach.

Novel writing is arguably what I’m designed to do. Until I have a book deal, I’m on my own schedule, so there’s time to ruminate. I didn’t meet my super-ambitious goal for the summer (to finish revising my book by June 15) and probably won’t meet my revised goal (to finish by August 15). I’ll just keep going.

Part of the problem with setting goals is that I’m only now getting a sense of the scope of the project. I’ve never written a novel before, so for all my planning, I can’t anticipate what’s really going to happen as I work on this thing. As so many novelists say (and not just first-time novelists), we learn as we go through the process.

According to Kenneth Atchity, this cliche makes a lot of sense. In his book A Writer’s Time, he explains, “You must allow more time at the beginning of a project to accomplish less work.” Even a fast-processing writer would slog through the first stages of writing a novel. I’m finding this to be true for certain parts of the process as well as the overall process. I’ve been at it for three year and finished the first draft a few months ago. But when I started to revise, it felt as if I hit the reset button. Continue reading

The Front Side of 40

On Thursday, I celebrated my 40th birthday. By “celebrated,” I mean that my partner, Doug, took me to a local brewery where we gorged on foods made of cheese and bread and potatoes. Next, we waddled to a nearby bookstore to do some shopping. Just before we were about to crash from our carb-induced high, we got some coffee and rested up for a visit to our favorite ice cream stand.

The only way this birthday was different than others was that we didn’t know about that ice cream stand last year. Otherwise, My Big 4-0 was no big deal.

But a few of my friends made comments that got me wondering. “This is the big one. So…how are you doing?”

Of course, I’ve pondered what it would mean to reach age 40. Compelled to obsess, I ponder meanings. A few days before the big day, I started writing a poem, sort of an “On the Occasion of…” poem. It ended up being about Doug and me, particularly how much of my life we’ve been together. Our relationship has lasted 3/8 of my life, so far. I’d considered the numbers before, but I’d never done the math. Although I’m not exactly a numbers person, I know that’s a significant fraction. Continue reading

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