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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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Felt Sense of the Story

I’m taking a course with the wonderful Elizabeth Stark to help get cranking on my novel. After writing pretty diligently for two months, we paused in January to read up on craft and figure out what makes the novels we love so lovable.

We return to our own novels next week. To prepare, Elizabeth asked us to write letters to ourselves to revisit what inspired our novels and what is central to them now. Here’s mine:

Dear Me,

You started writing this book on a generous dare, sort of to impress a new friend, which is the kind of nudge you’ve always needed. For the past two years and seven months you’ve been tapping keys, meandering down pages, expanding what was an incomplete short story into what is as yet an incomplete novel (a fresh rough draft, actually). You started with a thread of situation–a gay man trying to support his straight brother who has sought refuge as the victim of his wife’s abuse–and braided in a few more threads: the gay man’s partner is stationed in Iraq, and after his partner’s return, the teenage niece becomes a confidante to her new uncle.

You can’t remember exactly how you acquired the new threads. Maybe they came from other ideas that have ended up being minor plot points or aspects of character. Whatever, you wrote your way through it all, whether you were in the writing zone or scribbling ideas in your Moleskine. You’ve always been pretty good at finding possibilities through a process of writing, sifting, writing, sifting, which is really about exploring what you know of lived experience (yours and others) because you like stories that are believable, not merely possible. This novel, your novel, is packed with characters and situations you believe.

When you started writing it, the novel was about Blaine, the unacknowledged partner, but you wondered if you should give Henry, the soldier, just as much page time, maybe more. Wouldn’t it be gutless to try to write around his experience? And the brother and his kids–weren’t they important, too? Why were they in the book if they weren’t? Everything and everyone became important, including the characters who didn’t appear. And were you representing women fairly? Besides the niece, there’s an abusive wife and absent best girl-friend? Was something about writing the book turning you into an old-school, misogynophobic queen? Were the complexities of gender identity and expression coming through but not distracting as they are in real life (instead of the flat, Mars/Venus-style garbage that clogs popular culture)? These questions were important to ask, right? You weren’t just asking them to slow things down and avoid the writing, right? Continue reading

Blinky, Smiley Pundits

A few years ago, I got to see and hear Tony Kushner in person. He is a gentle, polite human being offstage, and a ferocious, intelligent persona on stage. He offered an observation that has kept me thinking for these years. He said that art is not activism. In that moment, I agreed and disagreed, and have puzzled over this comment since. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how what he said relates to the presidential campaign process: rhetoric, which is an art, is not action. Writing and speaking can illuminate us to what the writer/speaker wishes to do and wants us to do. It’s not action, but it’s useful.

Candidates tell us what they think they will do, but the campaign process involves pundits telling us what the candidates really mean, what we should really think about them, and–my favorite part–telling us what the future holds if this or that so-and-so is elected. It reminds me a lot of when critics and fans of the American version of The Office insist that it’s amazing and brilliant, and go on to explain why it’s funny, and how it’s going to go down in history as one of the greatest television shows ever. Political and entertainment pundits alike tend to promote too much, and I tend not to buy what they’re selling.

It’s kind of fun to watch the pundits giggle condescendingly at one another in the split screen, eager to explain why they’re right and the others are wrong. Right now I’m watching a particularly blinky, smiley Republican economist shaking her head as one of Obama’s advisers speaks. As soon as she has an opening, she flings two accusations at the “Obama camp,” which the Obama adviser immediately dismisses before offering some accusations herself. The Republican pundit continues to smile through all of this, blinking faster when she’s not speaking. The Obama adviser is stone-faced through it all. Finally, Wolf Blitzer must go to a commercial, and I have learned nothing from this segment, except that I should have trusted my instinct not to waste my time on this trash.

Not that I don’t enjoy a good rhetorical brawl, but I’d really like some follow-through on some issues. To my surprise, this sort of thing happened on The View last week when John McCain was a guest. During the first segment, I felt uncomfortable because Barbara Walters went right after him despite the “let’s sit on the couch and chat” environment. She asked a clear question (Who does he expect Palin to reform?) and demanded a clear answer (Congress? Him? Someone else?), pointing out that he’s been in Washington for two decades and his party has held president’s office for eight years. It was exciting to see her act like a journalist again. She can be impressive when she’s on.

The next segment made me uncomfortable because the tone softened. The hosts settled for McCain’s weak answers. When he said he thought Roe v. Wade was a bad decision, 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.

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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