Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

The Word Production to Mean Writing or Making

I’ve seen some proposals lately, written by colleagues in literature and composition, that talk about writing (and making art in general) as “production” and reading as “reception.” Some of this renaming has come from my favorite colleagues, people I have, I think, a lot in common with.  We generally hate hearing civilian casualties referred to as collateral damage. We’ve read Orwell. We would neither say that sex is only for the generation of offspring. Nor would they call me a producer when I write or themselves receivers when they read. They are interested in discussions of a neutral pronoun to use for students whose gender identity isn’t simply ascribable to he or she. They hate calling students “customers”. 

I’m honestly not sure why this is irritating me this morning. God knows there are more important issues to be irritated by these days. Maybe I feel unproductive lately. Maybe I have a knee-jerk reaction against a Latinate, industrial-sounding word for what I do with as much of myself as I can. Maybe it sounds dehumanizing, and this is one small place where I might say something useful to prevent more of that. Having a productive cough in my childhood meant you were spitting up phlegm, mucus, snot. It was good to do that, but productive was just a cover for what might make you sick to say, what was socially unsettling. 

So much of what’s going on, as we all struggle to figure out how to talk about what we do in the humanities, is figuring out what will keep the administrators from destroying us. We have to make ourselves sound like them, systematic, industrial, cold. We’ve had it easy for a long time, I suspect. Reading, writing, and arithmetic were the warm-up acts of any education, its primary colors. Now it’s difficult to even say those words in a course description–they sound perhaps too basic, too elementary (as opposed to being elemental). Students will in engage in “the production of texts” instead. Sometimes “creative projects”.  No one wants to give a grant to a writer unless she produces something or already produced something. No one wants to give help to someone who might take it, who might be a “taker”.

I’m suddenly remembering being told as a kid not to make a big production about everything. I couldn’t help showing and telling when I was unhappy. I was asking my parents to consume too much of my emotional excess, at least as they saw it. 

Is the word “writing” too primitive sounding to the bureaucrats we’re all often really writing to? Or are we all now producing for them? (Check your local intellectual properties clauses.) Do our actual students (our clients, our customers, our audience?) want to take classes in which they produce creatively? Or do they want to write and/or make movies with and about their lives? They get a lot of practice in high school producing writing, we all seem to agree, but without much sense of what it means to actually write, by which we mean do something complicated and thoughtful and sensitive and surprisingly tough. 

What Are the Consequences of Silence?

(an answer to one of Bhanu Kapil’s questions in The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers)

You might be surprised to find out your best friend is married, by Elvis, without you. You might never know about geology or nanotechnology or your own insignificance. There is that. This is writing, which is as close to silence as the human voice can usually stand. If it were painting, the stillness might be worse. You can wait a long time for an answer, and sometimes it’s a slap, a shove, a kick to the ground. When it’s over, it’s over. Listen better, that’s a consequence. Listen all the time while you watch to see what the body does: its chattering leg under the table while it’s making a claim about its own happiness. You don’t have to believe anything you hear. So many people seem unable to hear themselves. Remember when we marched in the streets, thinking silence was death? If all silences were the same, we were right. We were tired of being in parentheses all the time.

In Less Than Ten Minutes

This is the secret to success: do everything you need to do in less than ten minutes. Eat, pay bills, drink, write poems, think, vote, grade a paper, shower. Already the news has all your important news down to six minutes. Even your mother stops talking at five. Ten minutes is maybe three or four pages of prose, or a page of poetry, if you consider the five rereadings. Every boss in the world only needs three minutes, though they all take two hours because they get paid by the hour. Ten minutes of anything real should be more than enough to get you through your day, if you really think about it. Everything else is sleep, driving around, and being on hold.

Baby Steps

One of my friends used this phrase “taking baby steps” to talk about how she needed to walk last week, as the great icesheets on our sidewalks and streets were melting, becoming a little more dangerous in fact, even while the rest of the world seemed to be lightening up on its demands. It’s important at moments of change to take it slow, even though your heart might be leaping around wanting you to dance.  Popular culture tells us this all the time, doesn’t it? Think of all those horror movies in which the brave heroine has killed the slasher, killer, alien predator, enemy, and just at the moment when she seems to have beaten It, It rises up suddenly for one last slash, throttle, bite, or explosion. It’s a cliche at this point in film. Still, it’s easy to forget that lesson in real life.  Because, well, it’s us.

I’m also thinking about those little steps because a Facebook friend who recently graduated with his MFA asked a good question the other day: How does anyone move past the “if I write anything, it will inevitably suck” phase?

The answer from a number of friends was simple: you don’t.  You accept it and move on. Eventually it won’t suck. But you might have to write a lot of crap first.

It’s hard to take little steps. As someone who just joined a gym again and has begun working out again, learning to not eat everything I want, move my body again, I’m having to remember this.

For me, most of the work I have to do is simply getting past the threshold of not doing anything. If I can begin to do something, I know I’ll want to keep doing things. Sometimes it helps to start at the most boring but necessary point, I’ve found, which is why I often write out bills or check my bank balance, often writing out a budget for myself for the month, before I begin to write. Anything I write after that is going to be better than that dull accounting. Sometimes it helps to change the status on my Facebook page. Sometimes it helps to read the news. Or to read a writer I despise aesthetically or personally. Whatever it takes to get a mutter started, something in me to growl or wag its tail. I’ve done it for long enough that I now trust that something will happen once I begin. Usually there’s a metaphor that appears suddenly and almost joyously. And when it appears I follow its hints forward.

When I was in Lynn Emanuel’s workshop in graduate school, she used to have us write toward the thing we didn’t like. To write a “Bad Poem” about it even. To write as many bad poems as we needed. Dull lists of our angers and frustrations. It usually had a salutary effect. Who or what is the adversary? Exhaustion? Fear? Ignorance? Discomfort? Laziness? Grief? Anger? A Fear of Being Awful or Trivial or Disenchanted or Mary Oliver or John Ashbery or Doctor Seuss?  Write each fear its own ode, maybe a line a day for a month, for a year.

Of course, how do I turn that assignment on myself in order to workout, or to help my friend who is afraid of falling on ice? To walk deliberately slow maybe, as opposed to trying to be brave and trying to walk normally? To work out deliberately slowly maybe–five minutes on the lowest setting of the treadmill maybe? So far, I’ve been going easy on the ellipticals at the beginning and finding that my body begins to want to go longer.  This morning I started with a song on my iPhone that is the song my husband and I chose for our marriage song, Peter Gabriel’s The Book of Love. “The Book of Love is long and boring,” it begins…and then turns “but…” and the song begins to summon something out of me that still surprises me sometimes: hope, energy, love.

What if you made a ritual to write only three sentences every morning? Maybe only enough for a postcard. The sentences could be about the cat or the birds outside the window or that irritating guy at the cafe. Or to write only a list of twenty words that rhyme, or had the short a sound inside them, or wrote one word for each of the letters of the alphabet? What are 26 things that make your life worth living, make it joyful, make it your life? That might be more than enough for a day.

Spring Breaks

Part of me wants to vegetate for days, but of course I can’t really. There are still student papers in my bag, and they must be read and returned. I was smart to have all my poets hand in midterm folders and meet with me for conferences this past week, so I know that I’ve done my work for them. It’s their job now to revise or write new poems. 

Still, as I said to Michael this morning, I had that old dream of hibernation: if I just close my eyes and go back to sleep, maybe I will wake up in a sunlit world full of tender shoots and warm breezes. The warmth of the bed was so rich I fell back to sleep for at least a minute before waking myself up with a snore. Still, the singingof sparrows  is growing richer every morning now. 

The winter has been, despite the deadly cold, fairly affirming in some ways: a new essay (or very very long prose poem, depending on your definition of those terms) will be coming out of the Kenyon Review Online soon, three poems accepted in other places. One of my posts from last year will appear in an Norton anthology of short pieces. I received word that I’d be teaching writing in Scotland for June through Pitt’s Study Abroad program. 

This week to come, says the weatherman, is supposed to be in the 40s and 50s. For those of us who’ve been so frost-burnt in heart and mind by the months of trudging, slipping, bundling up and unbundling, the surprises of big leaks in the roof or the bursting of basement pipes (with their subsequent calls to contractors and insurance men), not to mention all the other, smaller discomforts of a hard winter, we are grateful for any ceasefire, any easing of tensions. 

I gave my poor students a number of writing exercises over the winter, some designed to help them to see or speak of the effect of winter on the imagine, some to help them project forward into the spring, into the years ahead of them, but by far the one they loved was the one I gave them for the last ten minutes of class:  Write a love letter to the spirit-animal for having gotten them this far. 

They laughed, most of them, at the thought of it, but then they took to it with all their considerable energy. As I walked around a bit at the end, stealthily trying to get a sense of who has been writing enough by the number of pages still left in their journals, I was touched at how many of them had taken the love letter part to heart and signed, Your Friend, and then their name.  

We so-called adults might do the same now that the sunlight is returning. 

If that’s too new-agey for you, you might consider writing for ten minutes to each of Bhanu Kapil’s questions in her book The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers. Here’s one Of those questions, appropriate maybe for the beginning of March, with my own response:

Where did you come from/how did you arrive?

By stork, by story, by drinking too much punch. There was a rumor about the old milkman delivering more than bottles on his rounds. By dawn, I was ready, which means probably I began kicking or wanting to breathe late the night before, maybe around midnight. I arrived as soup, I grew like bread. I was wrapped in blankets like a loaf. I arrived via butter and cinnamon sugar. I lived off cream of mushrooms. Hold open the gate; I was the late arrival, the last egg to hatch, the last come to make it back, to stand up and bawl, to cross the road. Who knows why? 

Reading in February

It’s been an awful, irritating month. Which is to say I have not held up well against the rigors of the bitter, bitter cold come down from Canada this month. Yesterday, I cancelled both my classes because I was so behind in my grading; I didn’t of course say that in my emails to the students. I said that it was too cold outside for me to ask them to come to class. There were wind chills here of negative ten degrees. The cold therefore was true but wasn’t the real wasp banging at the window of my consciousness. It was a terror that I would never get ahead of the work, that I was trapped in it, buried in an avalanche of work I myself had asked them to produce, work which seemed to be dull, trivial, light. This is writing, I wanted to scream in all caps on many of their prose poems. Where is the poetry??? Where are your souls, your curiosity, your bravery, your fears, your loves, your minds???

Instead, I cancelled classes. One student wrote to say she wished her other students were as considerate about the weather.

It hasn’t helped that I feel, have felt very distant from my own sources of bravery, curiosity, and depth. I haven’t been able to even open a book of poetry for the last few months. Everything I read seems pushy, desperate for attention. I’m not sure that that’s even the right adjective. There seemed to be a lot of good but not quite exciting work being published, a lot of work that seems earnest but also feels almost brutally careerist. Does that make sense? I’m sure I’m projecting all sorts of unresolved anxieties onto other people’s work. But there it is. Even some work that seems playful has a sense of a kind of brutal careerism about it. Do all these poems we’re writing really need to be written? Or are we stuck now in a culture of always having to be “on”, always writing something, always working on projects? I worry that I’m giving too many assignments and prompts these days and not waiting enough in silence for silence to speak. Am I making myself and my students afraid of silence, discomfort, boredom?

My source of word-solace these frigid days has been the English writer Ronald Blythe, whose book Word from Wormingford: A Parish Year I originally thought I might want to use in my Writer’s Journal class. It’s a book of brief essays about his life in a rural English village. The essays are, as you might imagine, full of small moments, lovingly described eccentrics, and the life of a calm and gentle lay clergyman. Because it seems so removed from me, although very close to an ideal self I somewhere still dream of, it has been an escape from the rankled administratively nervous self I live in at the moment. His deliberately clear sentences have been slowly calming my thinking. His references to the poets he loves–John Clare, George Herbert, Thomas Traherne–and his devotion to a life of reading generally have been comforting my nerves.

This morning I read his book Under a Broad Sky, another collection of his essays, and I felt something like the old Spring of myself rise up again. In one essay, which revolves around Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, Blythe suggests that “If we are at all downcast, it is because we have ceased to love melancholy. There are those who drug themselves so that they can live on a high, and there are those who re-read wondrous books such as The Anatomy of Melancholy so that they can live on a low. Live richly, that is.” After criticizing some members of his own Anglican Church for not living up to the challenges of their calling, some of which might be uncomfortable and even hard, he writes

“Melancholic owls call all night across the river. Lying in bed at six in the morning, I listen to their cries. As did the early wakers in this same room, when Robert Burton was adding to his enchanting compendium. There is hard-to-reach dust on the beam above my head, and a trapped hornet beats against the window. I let it out into the owl universe.”

And there it is, the owl universe. Something in my consciousness settles strangely. Something I didn’t even know I had in me has been said.

Work, Of Course.

Everything is work, of course. It’s February and there are deadlines everywhere. Deadlines of deep personal embarrassment. Where people will stare if I don’t comment intelligently. I have files to read. I have to have opinions to form. I have to have suggestions to make. Otherwise, it looks like I’m not a real colleague. Or worse, not a real academic, someone who doesn’t really belong. It doesn’t help that I’m the only one without a PhD in the groups I’m in.

Most of the reason I’m doing it is simply political frankly. I don’t really care at a deep level. No one’s life is on the line with any of these decisions I need to make. The work is mostly an attempt to curry favor in order to get a better raise next year or to pay off an old debt in some way. Or to avoid a worse duty somewhere else.

I grumble and grunt. In general I never say no to jobs, but I finally said no to a request from some students who asked me to come and talk about “social consciousness” in a TEDX like forum they’ve created. One of the students is a current student of mine I like very much. I laughed nevertheless when I read they wanted me to talk about “social consciousness”. Me, who can’t apparently tell the difference between consciousness and social consciousness, and who absolutely abhors anything set up like a TED talk, with its slippery mix of Ronco sales pitch, Benny Hinn faith healing performance, and Oxford debate back-patting. What if, I wanted to write back to them, I just came over and talked about some poems I love? No technology, no entertainment, no design, just conversation.

But then I thought, it’s February. Outside my husband and the dog, I don’t feel I’m in love with anything this month. I’m on such a low flame. My old lifeboat, poetry, lately seems to be about anything but honesty. I can’t read much beyond a page of prose, maybe three pages if it’s good prose. If I don’t move much, some part of myself reasons, I won’t break the very delicate membrane that’s barely keeping me together. Just keep to the schedules you’ve made, that voice says, and everything will be fine.

As it probably will be. It helps to be fifty and have sailed these unsettled waters before. The work will get done. The meetings will be endured and put behind me. In a month, I’ll say to myself, What was I complaining about?

I think it’s Thomas Moore who says in the Care of the Soul that, instead of feeling bad about our inability to be “positive”, we might think of times like this as a visit from the god Saturn, and that we might think about the gift that this time brings: you’re able to see and feel many things without the usual distractions you might otherwise rely on. You might just consider that you need a change of some kind. You might stop making excuses or saying yes to everything because you’re afraid not to. Maybe it’s a time to throw things out. Maybe it’s fine to do the minimum required, to see what’s vital and nurturing and what’s merely official, what doesn’t require you to give your whole self over?

Yesterday, which was a glorious day of thaw, there was one bird singing. I didn’t look up to see where or what kind. I let that one small song stand for Spring. I let it hold up the world.

The Silence After Christmas

I’ve noticed recently that many of my friends are losing their nouns. I thought it was only me. Our sentences get just so far and then collapse, or perhaps I mean lapse, into a misty silence, where a simple word used to stand.

Hold on, I need to close the…..

I’m so tired I can’t even read this …..

Where’s the dog’s …..

Hand me the ……

The only word available is “thing”, but no one one wants to use it for fear of sounding stupid or, worse, on the road to dementia. We’re exhausted. Losses of daylight. An excess of what anthropologists call kin work. The uncertainty of bank balances. A culture so suffused with political maneuvering that it all becomes unreliable. We’re all becoming sharks, unable to slow down, afraid of stalling. I’m too tired, I say, the exhaustion of the city-state on perpetual high alert. The language we’ve spent our lives learning, absorbing, deploying, dancing with, begins to flicker with doubt. There’s a moment when my friends and I stand there, waiting for the sentence to finish. When the word doesn’t appear, we throw up our hands and say Whatever.

My writing, my inner life, feels like it wants to stay in bed, sleep and dream. It’s tired of being so professional. It wants to grow hairy again, clawed maybe, hoarse. It needs to sleep with roots, in wells, listening to the dead, for volcanoes.

One bit of wisdom came to me from a friend who confessed recently that, in order to sleep, she and her girlfriend have begun coloring pictures from children’s coloring books about an hour before going to bed. It reminds me of Lynda Barry’s advice in her books to doodle as a way to relax the mind. Steady, simple action. The quiet burn of crayon wax on paper. The assurance of lines. January might be a month in which we need to return to simplicities again.

I’m glad to have been asked to talk about some of my essential books for his blog The Poet’s Grin. I’ve been thinking about my essential books, writers, art, music, food this month. It feels like a good time to do things like this. What if I just read one book this month, I think?

Two years ago, when my mother’s health was failing, I began writing a series of short prose pieces here in the blog in an effort to get in touch with some of the necessary elements in my life, in the spirit of Neruda’s great Elemental Odes. I needed to know what would sustain me in the absence of a mother. Most of the entries turned out to be nouns. Maybe this year I’ll try to think about necessary verbs.

Sentences 2

“When I leaned over the bed to wipe up the vomit, she put the end of the cane on my head and began rubbing my hair. She was smiling a crazy smile, her tongue hanging from her mouth like an animal’s. The gesture struck me as something an ape might do if you were sitting across from it trying to make it play nicely with blocks, a helpless molestation, a reaching out from behind the bars of a cage.”

Meghan Daum, from Matricide, in The Unspeakable

I couldn’t just write down one of those sentences for today. The first one sets up the facts of the situation–she’s caring for her mother who is unable to move now, who has soiled herself, and who must be cared for in a very intimate way. We expect, from our years of reading illness narratives, that the mother will do something dramatic, confess to something, reveal some truth, declare love maybe, and that that moment will ameliorate if not illuminate the sick of the scene. Instead, we get the cane placed on the caregiver’s head (instead of the hand), and then the rubbing of that cane. It’s a funny and anxious moment. Will the wooden cane strike suddenly? We don’t know, and the next sentence doesn’t relieve the problem but intensifies it by moving to the mother’s smile–which is crazy and then like an animal’s. The cane might indeed strike, with all the crazy strength of an animal.

And Daum is indeed struck, by metaphor, a deepening of the metaphor the second sentence started: it was something an ape might do, and then follows the dread pronoun it, which transforms the suffering mother into a something infantile that needs to be taught how to play nicely, like a child. Then comes the phrase that really struck me as a reader, a helpless molestation, a term which, because I realized I didn’t think could exist anymore, what with all the stories of sexual molestations in the news. The mother is unsexed, rendered helpless. The sentence could have ended there, but that would have put a lot of pressure on that complication word, molestation. Instead, Daum goes back to the animal metaphor with a zoo metaphor–the mother as an animal, as a child, as a trapped and helpless creature at the mercy of others. (I wonder how many younger readers might not recognize the zoo as a place of cages, as most of us over 40 undoubtedly will?)

What started as weird and funny and slightly dangerous ends in both empathy and sadness.

Sentences in the New Year: some practice reading

When kindness to the old is condescending, it is aware of itself as benignity while it exerts its power.
–Donald Hall, from “Out the Window” in Essays After Eighty

One of the practices I want to encourage this year is a practice I used to have of writing out lines or sentences from books I was reading. So as a simple beginning to the year and to encourage myself to read more thoughtfully than I did last year, I thought I’d spend the month of January writing out sentences I liked from the work of other writers. Maybe I’ll comment on the sentences or lines. Maybe I’ll just let them stand.

I picked up Donald Hall’s book yesterday. I’ve always loved Hall’s prose, the plain, solid force of his sentences. And I’ve always had a deep interest in people writing about illness, aging, and the process of dying, times when an individual’s interior spaces are often flooded with questions.

What struck me in this sentence is how it describes a kind of power we see in so many places–the infernal benignity of certain religious folks toward gay and lesbian people; the voice of certain Patrolmen’s Benevolent Union toward the questions being raised by people of color in their precincts; the smiling marketing teams listening to faculty at a recent “environmental scan” I participated in. Each group comes to the microphone with a rehearsed answer. Each group listens in a show of politeness, in an effort to reach out, to be open, but it’s not a dialogue that happens; its a debate they’ve already decided they’re the winners of.

I love the word benignity in this sentence too. It implies the very opposite of its literal meaning in this case, its Latinity conveying the clinical, inhuman element in the kindness, the teeth behind the smile.


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