Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Notes on PodCamp

I’m at Podcamp today, sitting in a couple of sessions about basic blogging, which have been interesting and useful. I’m writing notes and making to do lists, things to change or tweak about my own blog, and to think about as I start putting together a second blog (this one for the Writing Program) that I’ll mostly curate and yet a third blog Id like to create for own teaching.

What’s immediately interesting is the kinds of people who are here at Podcamp–not at all the young’uns I expected, but us middle’uns who have an astonishing number of reasons to use blogs: some have products to sell, others issues to advocate for, or life changes to report on and find community for, or occasional and casual publication of one’s thoughts. I frankly thought there would be a lot more people here; it’s been about two dozen altogether. Have we all been assuming that everyone is blogging?

I’m finding myself thinking that rather than talks (or maybe I mean in addition to talks) about the practical tools, there ought to be a second day devoted to making or posting or writing, the Doing part of all this. Maybe a few seasoned bloggers might be on hand with an assignment or a menu of assignments depending on your particular blog’s focus.

One woman who is thinking of starting a blog approached my colleague Nancy and me, and in the course of our talking, she wished there was a way that someone could talk to her and a few of her friends about the “rules” of writing, which she felt so far from that she feared writing, certainly not for public consumption, anything. She wondered if anyone had ever gotten together a group of people who all wanted to learn grammar better and coached them through the intricacies of grammar. She used as an example her own forgetting what a semicolon was used for anymore. I forget sometimes that writing itself has been turned into a minefield of embarrassment for so many people. I told her to email me and I’d see what I could do to get her in touch with a grammar coach for her group.

Is this the new freelance job, I quietly wondered? There’s always money for professional development seminars in big companies, isn’t there? Here’s a place where writers might actually thrive

Outside, a rain fell and froze on the cement streets. It was a kind of gloomy day to be downtown, although I can see the real changes afoot here: new buildings, small flocks of young to middle-aged adults in fluorescent Spandex jogging through intersections, the absence of the homeless I remember from the years when I worked down here, the signs for new cafes, new stores, a cleanliness to the streets.

One of the assignments suggested to us when starting a blog was to actually write out Why you wanted to start a blog. I thought it wouldn’t be a bad thing to reassess my reasons. Part of the reason I started this blog is to have a public platform to try out my voice as a writer of prose. I didn’t think anything here would be publishable but might act like a public journal, a form I’ve seen in a number of print and online publications, a loose “thinking space” I might call it. I am so thankful for the feedback and attention friends and other readers have given me since I began. Last night, after I’d written my last post about procrastination, I got word that the Kenyon Review Online was accepting a long prose of mine for its site, part of which started here. Another one of my blog posts was recently accepted for an anthology of short nonfiction by my old (and now late) friend Judith Kitchen. The month of posts I made which turned out to be the last month of her life I’ve rewritten as a novella-length essay in parts. This weird space that is neither completely literary or merely casual has been an interesting place to work, it turns out, for me.

Here are two other assignments you might like, courtesy of Cynthia McCloskey and Podcamp:

1. Blog post haiku: Write a single sentence blog post. It’s good for getting yourself started or re-started. It’s good for sharpening your concision, the density of your sentences. A more advanced challenge, which I might pursue soon, is to write one sentence every day for a month.

2. No delete Thursdays: Whatever you write, you write and let alone, let stand, don’t over-correct. You practice letting go of perfection, that other silencer of so many people’s voices.

What I’m Supposed to be Doing vs. What I’m Doing

1. Rereading the two short essays I’m thinking of ditching from the book-length manuscript I’ve been putting together and revising this year
Thinking about rereading the two short essays I’m thinking of ditching from the book-length manuscript I’ve been putting together and revising this year.

2. Rewriting those two short essays according to two procedures I want to try–rewriting one so that its first sentence begins with A, its second sentence begins with B, and so on for 26 sentences; and rewriting the other so as each paragraph makes use of the 15 punctuation marks presented at the visual communication guy’s cool website here
trying not to think about the ways I want to rewrite before I actually know what’s in the original essay.

3. Writing anything at all at night when I get home, even one paragraph
passing out early, waking up at 3 am only to play The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim because it’s immersive and beautiful and gives me a chance to kill evil beings with magic and even when I die I don’t really die but am reborn with new knowledge of how to do or not do something.

4. Reading anything fun at night when I get home, even one paragraph
passing out early, as a result of having spoken to so many people, worried about whether I’m doing enough for the Writing Program, walking the dog in the sudden, bitter cold the last few days.

5. Being excited about attending Podcamp downtown this weekend, where I hope to get a bigger sense of the possibilities blogging offers me as a writer and as a teacher of writers
feeling some dread about another commitment, or perhaps it’s some fear that because this commitment is self-interested and free, I will discount its importance and just blow it off, or perhaps I’m worried that I’ll embarrass myself or that I’ll end up going alone instead of with friends who said they’d like to go too; overthinking the whole thing, in other words.

6. Writing about the delights of the cold and loss of light that comes every year, writing about my first Thanksgiving and Christmas with my husband
quietly fearing the cold, the possibility of the furnace dying this year, the costs of repair, of replacement, of pipes freezing, of new tires for the car, and on and on and on. Worrying and worrying and worrying…

7. Writing down the new book idea that came to me this morning in the shower
worrying about the worth of the new book idea that came to me this morning in the shower.

8. Going to the gym
regretting not going to the gym, after constructing reasons why not to go to the gym (only for today, says the most reasonable one), even though it would likely make me happier, even though I pay for the gym.

9. Saying to myself, well, at least I wrote this blog that reminds me about what I need to do when I get some time to myself
thinking, oh, my God, I wrote a blog instead of doing any of things I said I was supposed to be doing! What an asshole!

10. Laughing at myself, trusting that curiosity, practice, and self-discipline will get me working again soon
snarling at myself, as the wind is cracking its whips, as the culture is telling me to make money, as the ghost of my mother worrying, worrying, worrying about my safety goes clanking and sighing through the rooms of my house.

Where to Begin? Judith Kitchen

When I heard Judith Kitchen died, I couldn’t take it in. Like everyone who knew her, I knew she’d been battling cancer, but still I couldn’t, I think, take in the knowledge that she wouldn’t live forever. She always had plans, was working on something, editing an anthology, talking on a panel, reading, reviewing. When I taught her book Half in Shade last year, a collection of essays about family photographs which include, as all families include, a number of unexplained strangers, her essays about her own mortality provide an essential depth to her “device of writing ‘around’ a photograph.” I recommend that book to anyone interested in reading her, anyone looking for a model of attentiveness or to anyone teaching others how to be perceptive readers of images. Maybe in that way that writers and artists have, in which we quietly convince ourselves that by writing about our lives we’ll somehow free ourselves of the facts of life (because hasn’t working in words sometimes led to real changes in those facts?), I became convinced that she would write away her death by writing about it in that book.

But today, I want merely to remember her when I first met her, in the small space of a green, 4H building in Canandaigua. She and a male fiction writer were making the rounds of the counties around Western New York, giving readings, holding workshops for kids interested in writing, funded by an arts council probably. I thought I wanted to be a fiction writer at that point, but fortunately for me, the fiction writer read his story in an awful monotone and with little joy. When Judy (I never got used to calling her Judith) read, wearing what I remember now as a purple mumu, clearly in love with the language, I was immediately won over to poetry. The poem I remember was a poem about gliders, about the Southern Tier where she grew up. I quietly slipped into the poetry group when it was time to split into workshops. I was struck by how language could work in poems.

When she held another workshop in a library one town away, I drove there to see her again. To write some more. To be excited. I’m sure I brimmed with young enthusiasm. She was kind enough to give me her address, and when I next drove to Rochester, I called her and we had lunch. She invited me up to her apartment, where we talked about poetry, about my writing, about writers I should read. I remember she had a copy of Ted Hughes’ Moortown, and I ran out and bought it immediately. I saw her a couple more times, whenever she ran a writing workshop nearby, and then when I went to SUNY Binghamton for writing, and then at a Summer Writer’s Workshop at SUNY Brockport, where she and Stan invited me to go out with them and the big writers, one of which I followed to graduate school.

She was the one who invited me into the fellowship of writing, and even if I have had other “official” teachers, ones I loved at least as much, ones who have helped me in maybe more practical and professional ways, Judy was the first one to grab me by the arm and bring me into the dance. After grad school, she took my first chapbook for her State Street Press series. At AWP, there was always a hug and her sizing me up. She knew the frightened, thin, ambitious kid almost nobody else even saw. She saw me, she encouraged, she cheered and warned.

All grieving is about the griever of course. I can’t stand that she’s not going to be around this year at AWP. I can’t stand that we’re not going to get to laugh about that little world we both came from, loved and escaped, and that poetry, that writing things down, got us out.

I’m told that she just said she was tired, took a nap, and never woke up. I’m not a person who gives a shit, frankly, about another place where she may or may not have gone. From the outpouring of love and appreciation on her Facebook page, she’s living on in the minds and hearts of many, many of us. And of course, as she would say, the work goes on, growing sweeter and more important every day.


November Revisions: some notes

I am so sick of words this November, which is to say I’m sick of change, that old, horrible necessity of life. I’d probably be fine, but there’s been a pile up of anxieties, personal, professional, and political, and the combined weight is pressing on me.

The professional is almost always the same: I haven’t yet gotten a book published although I’ve written all my life, published widely in literary journals, sent to contests and publishers, and been told over and over again that it’s just a matter of time. Most of the time I am more than happy about my lot in life–teaching creative writing at a university, getting to meet with and help thousands of students over the years, publishing chapbooks of my work, and so on–but every so often I find myself wishing all that work had gotten recognized in larger ways. And that carries with it a sense that I haven’t done enough somehow, that the fault is mine. I’m not smart enough, I haven’t been daring enough, or, maybe the worst one at all, I have been spending too much time taking care of others. This is the kind of low-level buzz I’ve gotten used to.

Luckily, having taught for as long as I have, there’s an easy fix to that problem. If a student came to me with the same complaints, I’d ask him or her this: “So, are you going to stop writing then?” I know I’m not, and the answer reminds me that the writing is the real work.

The political is an anxiety about the future of the country with Republicans now wielding more power. More austerity, which they’ve been preaching and which other governments have practiced to debilitating effects on their economies. More corporate freedom to despoil the common environment in the name of job creation. More defunding of the arts. More dismissal of workers rights, women’s rights, the right of gay people to marry. There will be no help given to students who are so deeply in debt that they can’t imagine anything but a life of perpetual work, without any hope of a social safety net when inevitably their bodies wear out. And, maybe even worse, a generation of young people who will become so cutthroat with one another, who will see each other as competitors to be beaten or assets to be used, and whose imaginations become so impoverished that anything except making money can matter to them. I see the signs of this already in many of my students. I’ve begun to think that it’s not so much “craft” we need to teach anymore as deep feeling, as complicated feeling. I fear that with, at best, the current virtual government shutdown continuing, the Congress full of irrational, even sociopathic hustlers who will believe they have a mandate now to thwart the President’s move, whether or not it hurts their own citizens, my work and the work of the Humanities in general will be harder. If Democrats had won, I would have another problem I suppose but I wouldn’t worry so much about the collapse of social safety nets I’m hoping will be there when I retire, since, as an academic without tenure, I can be let go of at the end of my current contract.

My personal anxiety has to do with worrying about how to fit my new personal life into the fairly rigid schedule I had as a single person. I’m used to having a lot of time to myself, and this term work has been more demanding than I expected, certainly more demanding than the spring and summer in which Michael and I met and began to live together. Michael’s been working hard as well, making money for next year when the costs of going back to school will be yet another thing to worry about. So I worry about splitting the time we get and the time I can write. I want writing and love to reinforce each other, which is easy to imagine because, hey, who doesn’t want that? I know we’ll figure it out, but right now, because I worry about things, I worry.

The truth is, I like to worry. “This shaking keeps me steady,” as Roethke wrote. I don’t trust people who don’t worry. When people tell me, Don’t worry, I worry even more. But every so often, they seem to pile up uncomfortably, like laundry. It helps me to write them down, to sort them into piles, to prioritize into necessary and unnecessary, to write down deadlines. November has come in wet and cold, and with the news this morning that the Polar Vortex will sweep down next week, the same week the contractor is coming to fix a leak in the gutters, the same week I’m going to be preparing for our new Chancellor’s visit to the department. So much change and work.

Michael shrugged on Tuesday night and said, “We’ll adjust,” and he’s right. We will. He loves roller coasters, after all. Still, I know he worries about all sorts of things, not least of which is going back to school. But I’m sure about him there. He’s sure about me getting my work done, having my free time. I may have to rewrite my feelings about marriage popping up at the end of so many novels as a cheap plot device to resolve all crises. It’s nice to be able to lean on someone else’s confidence in you now and then.

And of course I worry about trusting too much in that….

Maintenance: some notes

So, I’ve locked myself out of the house. Luckily I now have this person called a husband to call, who has a set of keys to the house and who will come home at five from work. Also lucky, I didn’t forget my wallet, so I could walk over to a coffeehouse nearby to wait out the time. Why not write a new blog post? I’ve been meaning to write something anyway but just never seemed to find the time to sit down. It’s been a busy fall.

At the moment, the new responsibilities I’ve taken this term as Acting Director have swallowed up the kind of free and open time I’m used to having. At first, being a Director seemed easy, almost a joke. I normally teach three classes a term, but as Director I teach only one. ONLY ONE! I thought. What will I do with all the free time? For most of September, in fact, there was little to do but attend a few meetings, speak authoritatively in a few public spaces.

Then the requests began to rise–for letters of recommendation, for teaching observation letters from colleagues, for meetings to talk about curriculum issues, about class proposals, about recruitment efforts, about preparing for a visit by the new Chancellor. Then there’s the scheduling and scheduling and scheduling one needs to do, of the tenure stream faculty, the nontenured stream faculty, the graduate students, each group with particular needs, rules, deadlines, expectations, traditions. It has helped enormously to have been trained as a poet; scheduling feels much like putting a sestina together. But at this point, it feels like I’m trying to write at least ten sestinas simultaneously.

So, I’m thinking today about the work of maintenance. A large part of the Director’s job is to keep the many threads of a program moving along, which means of course knowing about the many threads, which is itself exhausting in a large program like ours, which has undergraduate activities, graduate activities, committee activities, and faculty who are working on a wide variety of projects. You have to learn to trust and delegate, encourage some people to take risks, encourage others to restrain themselves, help yet others to articulate things they’d like to pursue. It’s a lot of listening to others’ ideas, hopes and fears. When I go home at night, I have to sit a while and let the voices of other people stop swirling around in my head. Video games have been surprisingly useful.

At first it didn’t seem too much to take home, but lately I’ve noticed how much of my own life has been put aside. I haven’t been to the gym for about two months. I need to take the car for an oil change. My hair’s gotten long. The house has become cluttered again. The laundry remains in the laundry bag, unfolded, picked through every morning instead of actually put away.

Of course, that might just be how the middle of the term always is, and I’m just not remembering it. The middle of the term is usually when it feels like everything is falling apart, when I begin to suspect that I haven’t taught anybody anything. Maybe it’s easier to blame this new responsibility I have for this feeling that my feet aren’t exactly touching the ground anymore. I don’t know. New things always suck up a lot of energy, I suppose, because we don’t know if we’ll succeed or what success even looks like. Maybe what would be helpful to do instead of feel anxious would be to think about what would count as success? What’s been accomplished so far? What needs to happen still?

I am glad to say that the prose book I’ve been working on is coming together. I am managing to give it time and space, which means revising these days rather than writing anything new. What helps is to work early in the morning on writing, give up the afternoon to teaching and administrative work, and then give the evening to the dog, the husband, and if there’s energy left, the house which is needing some repair work done.

This is, I need to remind myself, a full life. This is also, I should add, my first time having so much work entrusted to me.

I type that and wait for some feeling of happiness to flutter up, the dull ache in my back from typing this on a low coffee table ease up a little. Nope. I’m still tired. I do manage to sit up a little straighter so my vertebrae don’t have to hold up everything.

And when all else fails and I lock myself out of my own house, I can call my husband who will show up, tired from waiting on other people too, and unlock the front door, where the dog who has been expecting me back after all this time away, will begin whining with a mix of relief and happiness. I am not alone or responsible for everything, they remind me.


So I got married last Friday, October 10.  We had a simple ceremony at a local district magistrate who is an old friend, and then a group of friends and family later that evening at our house. I say simple, but we had a handful of family from both sides present to snap pictures and beam good energy at us as we both struggled not to cry during the recitation of the vows. Several friends thought we’d write our own vows, because, well, I was a writer, and so of course…But I shook my head and said that the traditional ones were going to be enough. I in fact didn’t want to be too individual at that moment. I wanted to be like most other Americans who take the traditional route. For richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do we part. I wanted my marriage to be a moment to feel a part of the larger life of humanity; I wanted to say the words that most people say. And it was enough to bring tears to my eyes.

And now I wear the ring. Everybody at the dog park today asked me if I felt different. And I do and I don’t. What I do have for sure is an understanding about marriage that I didn’t have before I met my husband, Michael. What I found in him was someone with whom I could be really stripped down vulnerable. I don’t think I ever felt that before. It might be that I’ve finally gotten to a point in my life where I could be vulnerable, and there was Michael at the right moment with his warmth and kindness and handsome-ness. I don’t know though. It doesn’t seem to help to figure out the reasons why we work.  It seemed to happen quickly.  We both feel lucky. It feels right.

Geese fly over us, toward the river a few blocks away.  We’re two days past the wedding. The house has been returned, more or less, to normal.  I had to clear the back patio for the party, a thing I’d been putting off for years, and now we’re sitting out here with Andy and the two pumpkins I carved. He’s reading and I’m writing this. Andy lounges on an old blanket underneath the patio table.  He’s adjusted pretty well to the new arrangement, although he still howls at Michael when he comes in late from work.  But right now, on this patio which I’d been neglecting for a while now, we’re suddenly a family.

So I begin again, a new experiment in living. Today we walked over to the local breakfast diner, then to the new card store where we bought enough envelopes for thank you cards, then to the new movie theater to find out how much tickets are. What do married people do? Have adventures together. Have fun. Have hope for the future, which in my more skeptical years sounded like a terrible cliche.

Some things haven’t really changed; Michael has been effectively living with me for months now.  We’ve been sharing bathrooms, kitchens, tv remotes, laundry, soap, and razors. We go grocery shopping together.

I feel like I’ve now officially bought a ticket to a long trip. As has he, of course. We’re promising each other we’re not going to bail on the other, that we trust each other to companion us, to be our plus ones. To become fixed points around which we can begin to plan things. I am here for you.

A huge flock of geese flies over. We both look up.  Fall is coming. The trees are turning red and orange. There’s a kind of loneliness in it, a kind of inward turning that we both love.

First he has to get back to school. I have to finish my book of prose. This summer we’re taking our honeymoon to Scotland.

Longreads’ Best of WordPress, Vol. 5

I’ve gotten away from the blog of late, so let me suggest some other places to visit until I get a free couple of hours to write something of my own down.

10 of our favorite stories from across all of WordPress.

Teaching: at the beginning.


I like to have conferences early on in the term. Maybe fifteen minutes long. I tell students there are three reasons: 1) so I get to learn their names and faces; 2) so they know where my office door is; and 3) so I can give them a chance to talk about their own writing, history, and anxieties. Depending on the class, I usually give them some exercises to work on at home or in private, separate from the work of the class. I’ve been known to loan out books. Some never come back. Most do.


One thing I’ve been pushing hard lately is making students practice describing things. It’s astonishing how few of them are able to hold their minds still enough to notice color, texture, shape, size, smell, and other qualities in anything other than general categories. Maybe we are all that way until asked to make differentiations. Learning to draw helped me I think to see more carefully and so act more carefully, based on individual cases rather than general categories. Wasn’t it Ruskin’s plan to teach everyone to draw as a way to generally improve their intelligence? I remember a policeman on some talk show showing an audience how badly they all “saw” a suspect they’d arranged to run across the stage. I bring in “things”: an old turtle shell, a dried sunflower head, shells from the beach, an apple. We read poems by Mark Doty, by Mary Oliver and others. Then we read poems by Wallace Stevens and Neruda that try to defamiliarize common things.

Write out all the rules your teachers told you or even just implied about what makes writing good. Try to get at least ten. Spend every week from now until the end of the term trying to write something that breaks them. One after one.

August Anxieties

August is the end of summer for me. It’s the month of preparing syllabi for teaching. It’s the month of book orders and rereading or reading texts, as opposed to books or stories or simply for pleasure and escape. It’s the month of stress eating if I’m not careful. It’s a month of planning and copying and uploading and stapling and arranging and revising. The first week of the month is denial: “Stop thinking about work; it’s not time yet.” The second week is panic: “why didn’t I get this fucking shit done in May when I could have???” There has been a lot of stress eating, pints of expensive artisanal gelato this year. The third week is orientation to the new reality: cleaning the office, stapling the new syllabi, stacking the books I’ll use neatly on my desk, arranging the composition notebooks I give my students on the first day, assessing my stores of English Breakfast tea, washing out my big mugs, my aspirin, my men’s health vitamins, my uniball micro pens, my post-its, my paper clips and binder clips. At the end of the month is teaching at last. It’s almost a relief at that point to only have to stand up there and make other people do the weird and beautiful work of writing.

Here a poem by Niall Campbell, a Scottish poet, The Letter Always Arrives At Its Destination.

Writing assignment for those who want one: write about something, maybe a message that never arrived. Use the words bottle, sand, weed, America, Hebrides, and gift somehow in your piece.


I sit, at the end of one of the longest month of the year, at my favorite coffeehouse. It’s the end of the month and so I’ve already made out the mortgage, water, and two credit card bills. The peel-and-stick postage stamps are of American songbirds. I’m plugged into my iPhone so I can listen to the Pretenders radio station that my Pandora app arranges for me.
I’ve already eaten a toasted bagel and bussed the plate it came on, wiped the table clear of crumbs. I’ve read about the incredible savagery being inflicted on Gazan civilians, and despaired for a humanity that seems unable to restrain itself in any way, and which seems helpless and in the grips of extremists, even and now especially small armed groups of them.

I do this almost every day, some semblance of this anyway: Walk the dog, take him to camp, come to the coffeehouse for two or three hours, go to the gym afterward, then into the office for a couple more, then pick up and walk the dog again, eat dinner, watch tv and talk about the day with Michael. I’m soothed by the routine of it. The confines of time and space together form a kind of pressure that relaxes my otherwise anxious mind enough that it can stop scanning the area for potential enemies and look over the interesting information–images, snippets of conversation, and the like. Usually I start with something simple, describing a thing I saw yesterday or this morning, or a news story or a dream image, or rehearsing a conversation I need to have with someone or had yesterday or need to have with myself about the course of my life. There’s always something there. If nothing else, I take William Stafford’s great prescription for overcoming Writer’s block and “lower my standards.” I describe another customer in the coffeehouse or what’s going on on the street beyond the big glass windows, or my hands.

My habit is to write from what I know and then to see where that takes me. I know I’m getting somewhere when metaphors begin to appear in my thinking. “The metaphors are a sign that the water is deep enough to carry your boat out to sea,” I said yesterday to my friend Elizabeth yesterday when she asked for advice about overcoming writer’s block. Metaphors break up (break through) my thinking, shattering it in new ways, casting it off into new directions. When I get to the metaphorical part of my thinking, it’s like (spoiler: more metaphors here) I’ve entered an airport, a train terminal, a place where my mind can try out new thoughts, make new connections, see in a new way. Feeling that sense of possibility open up around me is the best part of writing I think. Publishing, if it happens, is great but ultimately not the big thing I was sure it would be when I was a kid. I’m still the kid who prefers to pray alone in the woods and not to preach in public. Writing and reading are deeply private acts to me, although I am getting more comfortable publicizing work when it appears.

Tomorrow my habit shifts a bit. I’m writing a postcard poem a day to a total stranger. About ten lines every morning. Then I’ll walk the dog and so on like normal. I’ll also be writing a new personal essay I’ve been putting off. For that, I need a little more privacy than blogging allows. I’m going back to the sketch-book of my journal, whose function I’m finally understanding is very different than a blog space. The first part of that essay, by the way, I published here as Transitions. It will be the last section of a book-length manuscript I hope to have done next year. This morning I thought how happy I was to be done with this month’s blog-a-day regime. It has been fun but it was also becoming a bit of a chore. Thank you to everyone who suggested a word to write about. I’m sorry I didn’t get to them all. Maybe some of you might pick up the unused words and run with them yourselves.


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