Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

The Details

Before I go to Scotland to teach this June, there are a thousand, or what feel like a thousand, details waking me up, despite the power of the new bed to keep me asleep. I don’t honestly know how writers with families and pets and citizen-duties manage to get on planes all the time. I suppose many of them have partners, wives, husbands, agents, and secretaries running interference. Or they make a lot more money than I do, which allows them to not worry about every little thing. Going away is a delight, please don’t get me wrong, and I am really excited by the prospect of a whole month in Edinburgh teaching writing, but it is a lot of planning as well. It’s amazing how full my head is with voices. Since M will be home, one of them assures me, the details about the house are taken care of. But since he’ll be working and going to summer classes, another voice whispers, he won’t have time to take care of Andy really. Which is why, says the first, we’ve figured out who will take care of the dog and for how long. Naturally, says another voice, this one nearly secretarial with adverbial phrases, all this requires he gets his annual physical a bit early. Then, of course, the car needs to be inspected. (When I come back, says another long-term planning voice, we’re going to have to get the furnace and water heater replaced, but don’t worry about that now.)

Another part of me (the teacher-performer) is already worried about the details of the classroom I’ll teach in, because it’s of course the little things that will matter in a classroom: Am I using a board and chalk (my favorite), or a white board and markers (I’ll deal with it, but those markers dry out and die quickly), or a smart-board or some kind that I’ll need some practice time with)? Is it a room with movable chairs, fixed desks, windows? Is it air-conditioned? (Will I sweat (because that means one kind of shirt over another kind)?). I know that there’s a 20 minute walk from where I’ll be living to the classroom, which is actually great. (I’m not at all worried about the place where I’m living, by the way, because I know I can adjust myself to anything, I being only a kind of glue that holds all the other voices together.)

The thing is, nothing bad will happen. There is a great, speechless part of me who knows this. And as soon as I write that, I hear a nervous assistant in me correct: “Nothing bad will probably happen.” Grrr, says the impatient dog in me. I usually blame the fracturing of my self on having had parents raised during the Great Depression, who on both sides survived it successfully but carried with them a fear that apocalyptic collapse was always imminent; for them, always being on guard was a necessary feature of life. I still expect every year to be fired from my job, a job I’m pretty good at and which I get plenty of praise for doing. And yet still, some part of me expects the next class I teach to be the one where I forget what to do, forget how to speak, forget how to be calm when students ask the questions they must, how to handle a complicated answer.

When you’re at a red light and full of anxiety for it to turn, writes Thich Nhat Hahn, what if you thought of that light as an opportunity to catch your breath? To be in the here and the now. Even to enjoy a moment of peace instead of panic. I know if I simply breathe and remind myself that I’ve taught and/or been an administrator for the last 28 years, have won teaching awards, mentored several young teachers, that everything will move out of that paralytic fear, which is really what it is: a fear of paralysis.

As I reread all this, all that anxiety seems ridiculous. Written down, I can see what’s a real problem and what isn’t. I take a breath and make a phone call and now have an appointment to have the car inspected. I know that the people who are going to take care of Andy love him almost as much as I do and will not let him come to harm. I will call the vet today and get an appointment for Andy’s shots and tests. In fact, I’m going to dare myself to do it now. Excuse me…

And now that’s done. See, I say to myself/myselves, that was easy. Of course one of them snarls, Why didn’t I do that last week? (Sigh. Self-laceration is just as happy beating you up for things you haven’t yet done as it is for the things you could’ve done in the past.)

So now what, I ask my skin, my nerves, the electrical storms in my gut and brain. Money’s moved over into M and my joint account so he can deal with any expenses that come up while I’m gone. He’s smart and can handle any difficulty, so it’s not him. I can leave him some blank checks for emergencies. Or my credit card information. What else is there to be afraid of?

Well, anxiety says, you haven’t received the travel confirmation you sent an email about this morning. What if you’re not really booked on the flight you’re supposed to be on? A crowd behind him cheers him on, What if? What if?

Sigh. I know that if worst comes to worst, I could walk out of my house with my wallet, my passport, and maybe two phones, I could make it all work. I have that much amazing privilege, that much credit, enough money in the bank, that much memory and ingenuity in my head. I could go into a bookstore in Edinburgh and find enough work in a couple of books to run a month of classes; there’s more than enough great work on the internet, which Edinburgh is connected to. I know that also to be true.

So, again, where’s the panic? Where’s the danger? I’ve slipped into a terrible habit of comfort, I think. I’ve been able to set up for myself a very stable life, with a house, a husband, a good dog, great friends, a terrific job. Have I convinced myself that if I left my comfortable life, it would all unravel in a second? No, I say to that nervous self, that’s just a fear you have. Let’s just sit here and breathe a minute. Let’s remember what it feels like to take off in an airplane again. The energy and lift of adventure.

The Bed

We bought the bed without knowing whether it would fix the problem with my snoring or with M’s difficulty sleeping. Or our sore backs which seemed not to be going away. We only knew something had to be done. Working against us was this: neither of us wanted to spend any money, and both of us are afraid of change. We went shopping finally only because we had a friend who was driving long distance and needed a place to sleep. We loved her so much, you might say, we couldn’t bear leaving her on the couch all night as we used to do in the 90s. Or we didn’t want to be ashamed in front of her. One or the other or both. We needed a second bedroom, M said, and I knew he was right. At the showroom at Sears, I lay down on bed after bed, hoping one of them would stop my thinking about how much money life costs when you love people, when you want to do the right things and live like an adult. Most were too hard or too much like pudding. Then one struck me dumb. Oh, I said quietly to M, who knows me well enough by now to know that was my way of shouting. I never want a salesperson to talk to me while I’m shopping–I need silence, not noise, although I think they’ve been trained to assault you with noise to prevent thinking very deeply–, but the woman who appeared kept her distance nicely. “Let me know if I can help,” she sang and arranged the memory foam products. She was so unlike the other salesperson, a man who glowered at us, two men trying out bed after bed. We laughed with her, we nodded through her recitations of the warranty, the amount we could save if we put it on our Sears Card, the logistics of free delivery.

When the bed was delivered, set up, and dressed, when we slid into it, adjusted it to flood our bones with the maximum amount of pleasure a bed can provide, it was like a miracle. We kissed each other. Why hadn’t we done this before, we said to each other as we both were suddenly swallowed up by sleep. We didn’t even need sex now; we had the bed. Since then I’ve had the sort of wild, crazy dreams I used to have as a teenager again, imaginative worlds I’d almost forgotten I used to have. M sleeps peacefully all the way through the night. It’s the best bed we’ve ever known, in other words. It’s a time machine. It’s a thundershirt on four legs.

Now, the problem is getting out of it in the morning. The sheets are warm and the pillows we bought hold our dreamy heads in comfort. If I didn’t know the dog was waiting downstairs to go out, I’d never get up. I am filled with rest and ease and happiness. Fuck the dawn I used to wake up before and watch slowly illuminate the street. I have the bed now. Sometimes within the embrace of the bed, we embrace ourselves like twins in the womb. I don’t want to ever leave, we say to each other. What else do we expect from the products we buy? That they take us away from our lives. That they be better than us.

At the Coffeehouse

One of two strangers sitting near me, a man I thought was in fact talking too loudly, obnoxiously loud even, so loud I was tuning out whatever subject he was holding forth on (and, here, I admit middle-aged men who can’t quiet themselves down without being told make me crazy), said suddenly, “My therapist said the other day that “excitement and anxiety are the same emotion, except you breathe during one and don’t in the other,” and then just when I thought we were all going to get a moment to check on what inside us might be frozen, paralyzed, in need of air, he plowed ahead, almost shouting, seemingly unaware. 

Reading is sometimes Stealing: A Writing Challenge Post

Michael is reading The Scientific Background to Modern Philosophy for a class today at the coffeehouse. Every so often he looks up and has to say out loud some paragraph to make sense of it. When he read this one to me, I’ve both laughed. I asked him to send it to me so I could post it as a challenge. It comes from Aristotle:

As he was reading these sentences to me, I found my poetry mind getting interested. Not so much in the meaning but in the structure, the mathematical music of this kind of thinking. Something maybe in the rhythm of a sentence like “A will, then, move through B in time C, and through D, which is thinner, in time E (if the length of B is equal to D)” sounded like a kind of poetic move, or a possible poetic move. 

So, I thought I’d post this page as kind of prompt. What kind of poem or prose might be written (or rewritten) in this rhythm? A piece with several interlocking characters whose relationships demand some articulation? A piece with many braids of thought? Or you might randomly attach nouns to the letters–let A stand for Lions, B stand for Begonias, C stand for My next door neighbor who is dying of cancer, and so on. Anything you’ve been wanting to write about. 

So you might end up with a sentence/line like this:

“Lions will, then, move through the Begonias in the time my next door neighbor has left, and through the lives of the sparrows’ fledglings, some of whom we’ve been finding dead already between our houses.”

Something in the coldness, by which I mean maybe the restriction, of structures like this allows me to tackle feelings of sadness, grief, anger, and even joy sometimes, when I write. Part of my attraction is that the structure seems like it would resist any slipping I might make into cliche or sentimentality. Part of it is that it creates a condition in which creativity, joy, grief, seem impossible, and the rebel or the fool or the controlling monster in me wants to queer that kind of thinking. Make it mine. 

Anyway, I leave it up to you to experiment on your own, with your own materials, and according to your own natures and interests. Feel free to post results. 

U: from an alphabet for the first year of marriage

Underneath everything is everything else. Underneath this desire is that desire, underneath which is still another desire. All the way down to the first desire, I suppose, where we began. Was that first life-itch to feed? To split? To run? To fight? What is it the first bodies couldn’t do without? Was it pure, a clarity? Sometimes I try to go down into it. Was the first marriage a splitting of a cell into its twin, twinning and twinning for eons until something small broke and had to change? Soon what was perfect rhyme everywhere became slant, off, half, eye, strange. I watch my husband look at me sometimes and I wonder who he’s looking at, what desire has turned him toward me. Sometimes a desire to bask in his desire stretches me out, sometimes I feel an urge to clean my beard, check my nose, suck my stomach in. Underneath the promises of the wedding vows are the obligations to selflessness, whose trials can be tough to undergo. Underneath the ceremony lie the anniversaries with their various avatars–paper, glass, sunlight, struggle, wealth, patience. The dog understands that there are now two people who will feed him, whom he can rely on for comfort and exercise, but he also knows he’s the lowest beast in the house. He used to be merely lower. Or maybe that’s just what I think is underneath the reason he still howls like a wolf when M comes home late from work. 

May:  some notes

The work of the Spring Term is over. I can more or less sleep in, although now, without the handy excuse of classes and administrative work, I have no reason not to be going back to the gym, eating well, getting enough sleep. I have an immense freedom in terms of time right now, just at the moment when I have to start restraining/retraining myself to be healthy.  The goal is be balanced, of course, but I’ve resigned to that balance being drawn out over the long term, over the course of my life. “You do your best” is how my mother phrased it. 

The air is warm, the sunlight is bright, the sky blue and full of hope. Young philosophers are lecturing to each other about Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and the meanings of life and philosophy in my favorite coffeehouse. Their voices wrestle with each other for mastery; it’s a friendly competition. When I pick the dog up from camp, we’ll go on a long walk in the woods or along the river where I expect flocks of joggers, dressed in Spandex the color of jungle parakeets, will pass by, chirping encouragingly to one another. A comforting silence will reassert itself after. Until the next herd tramples by, silent, ear-budded, and stern-faced this time.

It’s now that I think the number of new neighbors will become clear. I’ve seen a bunch of the new people already, with their new dogs, at the dogrun and the off-leash area. They’ll bring in new stories, new money, new ideas, habits they learned from living elsewhere. They’re the people who laugh about the way Pittsburghers use chairs to keep street spaces. They can’t get over how beautiful Pittsburgh is. 

I’ve been here for so long now, since 1987, when I came as a nervous graduate student, that I have developed some native habits, including a sense of ownership over some things I don’t really own. I get mad when MY parking spot on the street gets taken away by a newcomers’ car. I wonder who these people think they are crowding the sidewalks at night, yelling at night coming home from the bars. 

Then the lush blossoming of Spring takes my breath away, wakes me up. 

W is for Wok: a tale from the first year of marriage

That first Christmas we were given a wok. Which required us to go on a hunt for wok oil. Which led us to fish sauce, three kinds of vinegar, ten kinds of soy sauce, and then walnut oil, sunflower oil, truffle oil, extinct rhinoceros oil, the tears of albino alligators, tiger claw oil, dwarf porpoise oil, left handed virgin oil, kink-tailed shark oil, and invisible swallow oil. We stood for an hour in the grocery store just counting the kind of beings we hadn’t realized could become oil, could be ground down, be rendered or imagined into ooze we could use to make our chicken taste like anything living or dead or possible. With broccoli of course. Or snow peas. We loved those. Or carrots sliced into lozenges, buttons, cuff links. Or peppers, some of which now come in bags and so resemble small orange and red voodoo dolls we dressed two in scraps of our clothes and wrapped them together tightly and buried them in a beautiful dark blue container in the back yard where they’ve begun to sprout hallelujah yes fruit out of which an oil can be made that when applied by lovers to lovers makes all other light and heat unnecessary. 

Congratulations! Now what?

I was on campus today to meet the group of undergraduates Mark Kemp and I are taking to Edinburgh in June, through the Pitt in Scotland program.  It was exciting to see the ten students who up until now have only been names on a list. They all seemed full of excitement and the kind of optimism that makes teaching a deep pleasure.  If I begin posting articles about Scotland, Scottish poets, writers, and artists, don’t be surprised.  I hope, as part of my class, to create a blog for us, a place where we can post our experiences, insights, questions, and explorations. There will likely be photographs and videos. I hope to link it to this one. There’s so much to do still, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the to do list. One thing at a time, I remind myself.

After that initial meeting, I walked over to the English Department and ran into a couple of MFA students who were handing in their manuscripts, their last big official act. One of them asked me for advice. What now?

I shot back with a simple thing: “Keep Writing.” Because that’s the only thing I think that matters really. But of course that’s hard to do sometimes. You make time to write. And you need to know yourself, I guess I could have said. Some people don’t need to write everyday. Not everybody does. but if you’re someone who can easily get waylaid or distracted, who might get distracted for a long time, you might need to do it everyday.  At some point, I remember I added, “Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it,” by which I meant gather friends, make a writer’s group, join an online group, do whatever you have to do to keep the pen moving or the fingers tapping away at the computer keys.

It’s simple; you just keep writing. I have been fortunate to be able to do that. There are many ways to arrange your life so you can keep some space in which you can keep putting down words. There are tricks and prompts and exercises, whole books of them. Don’t be too proud to think you have to do everything on your own. Some friends of mine have stopped or given up or found out that writing was a tool that got them to one place and then they could leave it behind because it turned out it wasn’t as necessary to their lives as something else was. Some friends have come back to writing after a time away. Some have switched to photography or graphic work. Some have gone into business and raised families.

The trick to education isn’t that, after you’ve graduated, you’ll be discovered and raised up by someone else. Education gives you choice, if you’ve had a good education, because you know how to think. You still have to choose in a positive sense to raise the energy needed, find the necessary resourcefulness and will power within yourself, and make out of couch cushions and old blankets if necessary a space where you can think and dream and have arguments and make judgements and gather information and laugh out loud with joy when a sentence comes together.

I underestimated this ability when I graduated; many, many people can’t do some of the basic things writing teaches you, and a good education can teach you: how to listen without needing to immediately respond (it’s astonishing how few people can take in information without defending themselves immediately); how to read, both dispassionately and passionately; how to feel in ways that are complicated, that are not just the black or white, right or wrong system that many people have been frightened into thinking is the only way to think; how to sit and be patient with yourself while you work through a question or experience, translating it into words, into other words, seeing what parts of a narrative belong and which don’t and are part of another one, which ones feel true.

We all lie to ourselves, of course. But try not to.

When I think about why I kept writing, why I keep writing, I honestly don’t know the answer. I’m often tempted to chalk it up to luck–if X hadn’t happened to me at the right moment, if Y hadn’t helped me, if Z had said something. I don’t have a proper book. I’ve had friends say for decades that “this year will be the year your book will be taken…” and the year went by. I kept writing. There’s no isbn out there with my name on it. Around forty that absence of a book led me to a depression. Some days during that depression I just sat on the couch and watched tv. I waited for a voice to tell me to live or die.  I waited and waited and finally something in me said, there’s no voice coming. And I got up and started living again. You may go through that too. I wish you good luck with that. I recommend throwing the I Ching because it is on the side of stillness and patience.

Now what? Congratulate yourself! Take yourself out to dinner. Let friends throw you a party or throw yourself one. Buy a new shirt at the Goodwill and call it your writing shirt. Get a job somewhere. If you’ve got a project, great. If you don’t have a project after your thesis, don’t panic. Keep a journal for the first six months after you graduate. The time right after graduating is sometimes a little rocky.  Many kinds of support are removed, and you may fail and fail and fail to write for a while. Have fun with failure, will you? It has a great gift in it: you can be anyone you want as long as it’s present.  You can experiment and tickle yourself again with bad poetry and stories in which the narrator wakes up at the end and essays that are literally about picking your navel.

Keep writing, keep writing, keep writing.

AWP: notes from Minneapolis

I’m waking up on Saturday morning thinking about what this AWP has meant.  The quick things are these:

1. Of course seeing old friends I never see otherwise. 

2. Of course seeing and hugging former students who have gone on to grad schools, who are editing journals, publishing books, starting jobs and families. It still surprises me every year to see them, mostly because I treat the world as a place where I’m going to vanish from any second, I think. 

3. So many books. And every one of them wants to be read. Who among them gets chosen and brought back home with me? Right now, there are seven I bought, six poetry, one prose. When will I read actually them? What about that backlog at home I still have to do something with? 

4. I need to seriously reduce the number of books I have at home. 

5. In the space between 4 and 5, I’ve gotten up, showered, dressed, gone out to breakfast with friends Noah, Liz, and Ann (an annual sanity function), gone back to the book fair, checked on the Pitt table, talked to a few old friends, left the convention center having decided not to go to the one panel today I thought I might go to, gone to Caribou coffee and ordered a tea, was given a coffee, then given my tea, sat down and started typing again. The whole convention is like that, always in motion.  You have to remind yourself to find quiet and to stop stop stop every so often.

6. It’s the last day, so what do I remember?  I didn’t go to any of the big readings (I hardly ever do anymore). Instead I did my regular routine, which is to run around checking in with old friends, former students, some of the presses that regularly publish work I like. I ask people what they’re working on; I talk about our program. This time, I had a brilliant moment with Marshall Warfield, who is a Pitt alum now working at Drexel and who has developed a writing class that involves research and digital publishing. I made him promise to send me his syllabus so we might see if we can adapt it to our program in some way; we are getting considerable pressure to think about digital publishing and have been tossing around ideas about how to set up classes that will be both writing intensive and sensitive to the new publishing opportunities available. 

7. I’m more tired at this AWP than I have been for a while.  We had a number of events at Pitt this year, just before AWP. I’d already taken to calling this one a “vacation AWP”, by which I meant I was mostly going to do one-on-one networking. I might better have stayed home if I wanted to rest, though.  This convention is always work, even if mostly of the pleasant kind. 

8. The writers and editors are younger-looking every year.  I’m grateful that they are still taking work of mine.  I’ve always hoped that like Merlin, I might grow younger every year, at least in spirit. Sometimes I think that the reason I wrote when I was 16 was to keep myself from growing too old too quickly, the poem as non-violent horcrux. To keep myself from dying into a life I might not control. At this point, though, I’ve written out a lot of the anger and confusion of the past. I actually feel more free now as a writer than I ever did. I see the young-looking editors and writers with their impressive beards or dangerous shoes or hardened faces, their bodies full of ambition, and I remember the early AWPs, where I felt so strongly that I needed to prove myself worthy of the tribe. I needed to show I was serious. It can come with terrible costs–especially if your work doesn’t get you the results you expected. I wish them well; some of us bloom early and then never are heard of again; some of us bloom late; some bloom but in small places only a handful of people ever see. 

9. Oh my god, there are a thousand thousand places to submit work. Don’t ever think there aren’t places to send out work. The one regret I have of my writing life is that I didn’t send out more work when I was younger. Also, that I waited until I had what I thought were serious credentials (publications, awards, positions) to feel good about myself. My god, I beat myself up for every rejection! I stopped sending things out for years because of my despair. Dear reader, if you are in that position now, I urge you to begin again.

10. Occasionally I feel overwhelmed by the new literary world, which has such beings in it, to mashup Shakespeare. I’ll never be able to read everyone. What does that even mean, though? Nothing. There’s no everyone and there never will be. Everyone is a fiction of sorts, a labyrinth that’s hard to escape once you enter it.   What is it you want out of a poem, out of a story, out of writing things down? You find a fellowship of people you can count on, who might be models for a way to be in the world, and you follow them trying to absorb as much as you can. When those models fail you, you move on, sometimes taking your former models’ models, sometimes striking out in a new direction. 

Books bought on Friday at AWP



Postcards (from all over the MAP)

Heidi Rosenberg

Writer, Poet, Teacher.

Some Portraits and Notes on What I Heard

Flash essays on music, people, things I can't forget, and things I won't remember

Marissa Landrigan

The greatest site in all the land!

Seven Kitchens Press

Pie for everyone.

faith adiele

just your typical nigerian * nordic * american girl. who writes * speaks * teaches * travels. (yeah, i was obama first.)

Sibling Rivalry Press

D i s t u r b /E n r a p t u r e

Pitt in Edinburgh, a blog

In which we explore and report on the mysteries of Scotland

The Quotidian Diary

The beauty and quirk of the everyday, common and mundane


Writer. Professor. All Around Nerd.

The Poet's Grin

Poet Philip F. Clark invites you to a place for poetry, and the voices who make it.

Ryan M. McKelvey

visibly invisible


Success is a journey, not a destination


(amateur poet's amateur personal essays)

Uncle Bardie's Stories & Such

Entertainments thrice a week: Sundays, Wednesdays & Fridays.

remaking moby-dick

an international multimodal storytelling performance


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