Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Writing Prompts: a repost

This is a repost of set of prompts I made for my students last spring.

You can use them or not. You can strike out on your own one day and another day use the prompts. It’s totally up to you.  The point is to get you to write daily and generate more work. Try not to judge it too quickly. Write day after day and then at the end of the month you can look over and try to see what’s there.

Okay, so the easiest way for me to begin is to simple write

A

B

C

D

E

F

and so on down a piece of paper and use those letters as prompts. What’s a title that starts with an A?  Here are seven:

Aubade, (pronounced O bawd) which is the name of a traditional love poem written at the break of day, usually regretting that the day has come and the lovers must part. See Philip Larkin’s poem Aubade for a much more cynical version of the genre, in which a lonely man meets the break of day.

Against…, this is a kind of poem in which you can take a side against something. Against Forgetting. Against Love Poems. Against the Idea that Wealth Brings Happiness.  The trick to poems like this is not to fall into a rant but to make a kind of argument that makes your point but also fulfills the characteristics of good poetry–beautiful language, complicated thinking and feeling, and surprising patterns of sound or image.

An Apology. A kind of poem that makes an apology for something you did. William Carlos Williams’ famous one This is Just to Say is an example of an apology that is really a non-apology to his wife for eating the plums in their refrigerator.

Anaphora. Anaphora is a name for the repetition of a phrase or clause over and over again, usually at the beginning of the lines. So a poet might write:   Because you are so lovely, I bought you an alligator for your lawn./ Because you are so lovely, I bought a swan and set it free./ Because you are so lovely and beginning to think I’m crazy, I bought you a butter croissant and left it on your front porch. / Because you are so lovely, I didn’t call you all day. /     and so on and on.  You can just start, as I did here, with something stupid and force yourself to write at least twenty lines and see if something weird and interesting doesn’t show up. It might not be autobiographical or even make sense.

Ode to an Apple (or an Avocado or to an Aardvark or to any thing that begins with A). The gret example is Pablo Neruda’s Elemental Odes, which you can find in several places.  My favorite is the Selected Odes that Margaret Sayers Peden translated. There are great ones to a Lemon and a Tomato.  The idea is to transform something so common no one even sees it anymore into something astoundingly beautiful.

Advice.  Write a poem of advice to someone who needs it, which could include yourself or a public figure who has screwed something up. Try to remember that everyone secretly hates people who give advice, so anything you say may have to be angled interestingly to distract a reader from the fact that you’re reminding them of their own inadequacy.

After _____ (fill in the name of a writer who has given you some inspiration or who you’ve stolen a line from to start the poem). Steal a line from Sylvia Plath that suggested a memory of your own. Here’s a line from Celan I liked: ” Whichever word you speak/ you thank–/corruption.” How would write the line of a poem that follows that?

So there’s a group of prompts!  Just start and try to get to at least 14 lines. You might not manage it, but give yourself some goal.

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Writing Prompts

Because I’ve neglected my blog here, I thought I’d copy some of the things I’m doing with my Senior Seminar class this Spring.

What everyone asked for was a way to write more, so we are doing in a month-long grind, writing at least a draft of a poem every day for the month.

Here are my instructions:

I’m going to set up a set of prompts to give you a way of beginning the grind. You can use them or not. You can strike out on your own one day and another day use the prompts. It’s totally up to you.  The point is to get you to write daily and generate more work. Try not to judge it too quickly. Write day after day and then at the end of the month you can look over and try to see what’s there.

Okay, so the easiest way for me to do a monthly grind is to simple write

A

B

C

D

E

F

and so on down a piece of paper and use those letters as prompts. What’s a title that starts with an A?  Here are seven:

Aubade, which is the name of a traditional love poem written at the break of day, usually regretting that the day has come and the lovers must part. See Philip Larkin’s poem Aubade for a much more cynical version of the genre, in which a lonely man meets the break of day.

Against…, this is a kind of poem in which you can take a side against something. Against Forgetting. Against Love Poems. Against the Idea that Wealth Brings Happiness.  The trick to poems like this is not to fall into a rant but to make a kind of argument that makes your point but also fulfills the characteristics of good poetry–beautiful language, complicated thinking and feeling, and surprising patterns of sound or image.

An Apology. A kind of poem that makes an apology for something you did. William Carlos Williams’ famous one This is Just to Say is an example of an apology that is really a non-apology to his wife for eating the plums in their refrigerator.

Anaphora. Anaphora is a name for the repetition of a phrase or clause over and over again, usually at the beginning of the lines. So a poet might write:   Because you are so lovely, I bought you an alligator for your lawn./ Because you are so lovely, I bought a swan and set it free./ Because you are so lovely and beginning to think I’m crazy, I bought you a butter croissant and left it on your front porch. / Because you are so lovely, I didn’t call you all day. /     and so on and on.  You can just start, as I did here, with something stupid and force yourself to write at least twenty lines and see if something weird and interesting doesn’t show up. It might not be autobiographical or even make sense.

Ode to an Apple (or an Avocado or to an Aardvark or to any thing that begins with A). The gret example is Pablo Neruda’s Elemental Odes, which you can find in several places.  My favorite is the Selected Odes that Margaret Sayers Peden translated. There are great ones to a Lemon and a Tomato.  The idea is to transform something so common no one even sees it anymore into something astoundingly beautiful.

Advice.  Write a poem of advice to someone who needs it, which could include yourself or a public figure who has screwed something up. Try to remember that everyone secretly hates people who give advice, so anything you say may have to be angled interestingly to distract a reader from the fact that you’re reminding them of their own inadequacy.

After _____ (fill in the name of a writer who has given you some inspiration or who you’ve stolen a line from to start the poem). Steal a line from Sylvia Plath that suggested a memory of your own. Here’s a line from Celan I liked: ” Whichever word you speak/ you thank–/corruption.” How would write the line of a poem that follows that?

So there’s a group of prompts for next week!  Just start and try to get to at least 14 lines. You might not manage it, but give yourself some goal. You get one and only one haiku this month!  But think about what you might want to try–prose poems, sonnets, a villanelle, etc. The point is to begin. Good luck!

For Tony

I just heard that an old friend of mine died. We knew he was dying, had a bad cancer, was at his last days, last house, last bed, last words. His last sunlight came and withdrew from his last window. He sank into whatever we all are at last. He would’ve said my using the word last over and over was too clever a gimmick, that in revision I ought to face up to my grief better, be less clever, let the real poetry emerge from that. Last night I was even looking at his books again, thinking I should read him again, especially the prose he wrote about the poetry he loved, but I put it away as a macabre sentimentality that I was engaging in instead of really engaging in poetry itself, reading as opposed to feeling the loss of a friend I knew I didn’t really know very well but we were colleagues and happy to see each other when our paths crossed in later. He was quick and lean, a kind of whippet or maybe one of those retrievers who have to be fitted with tracking collars because they always seem ready to leave you, their senses attached to a far subtler world than yours will ever catch. Or ready to catch fire, maybe I mean, thin-furred and wired to lightning. Always ready to produce a jackknife to open whatever junk mail the world has sent. He made packets of poems for his students I used to sneak copies of. Around him the air smoked almost, even his hair seemed like steam. He could talk to you at the same time he could listen to some thrum in the universe, maybe I mean. Or maybe I mean he treated you as if you were a possible answer to a question. Anyway, I was glad to hug him the way I’m grateful to hear a cello being played by a person who loves life but also knows it’s not easy for anyone. Not one of us was going to get anything right finally, but why not try to embrace even the lonely percussionist, thin triangle and mallet in hand, waiting for his cue to make things shimmer? All these things happening to us constantly, rising and falling away, turning us around so we only get to see or hear or smell or taste the barest smudge of camaraderie, which itself is more than enough to praise, keep ourselves attending to like a fire we want to keep alive forever against the darkness the body eventually enters. Like a friend, we hope, who is happy to see us. Who wants to know everything that’s happened since we last

Easy story generator exercise

1. Buy a lot of index cards–5 x the number of students in your class.

2. On pack 1, write the name of a profession—plumber, surgeon, advertising executive, and so on—on a card( one profession per card). Some titles can be vague. Others should be specific (Spanish teacher, greeter at Walmart, etc).

3. On group 2 cards, write one location. Again, get a good mix of locations (a Dunkin doughnuts table or counter, a bowling alley, the lobby of the Pittsburgh Hilton).

4. On group 3’s cards write a time of day or day of the week. One per card. Stormy night. November afternoon. Again, a good mix.

5. On group 4’s card, write a dilemma. (Has just found out he has cancer; Is about to leave her job; has just found out his ex has made a fortune…be inventive with the range of serious human dilemmas but maybe not too specific about too many details).

6. On group 5’s cards write a random element. A box of eclairs. A dead fox. The number 27. The smell of gasoline and oranges. Give them weird and specific elements.

7. Randomly give every student one of each card. They have 20 minutes to half an hour to write the story of how this character with this problem got to this place. You must include the random element somehow in the story.

Hypertension: the personal and the political again

Here’s how I’m answering the “How are you doing?” question these days:

Well, Trump is still president.

*

I’ve been officially diagnosed with hypertension. I’m at the early stage apparently but the blood pressure has been climbing steadily since summer 2015. New guidelines have made my level–over 130/90–the beginning of treatment. I’m “elevated”. Treatment to my doctor of course means drugs. He is, I found out from one of the residents, one of country’s experts on hypertension, one of the mysterious characters who helps write the rules of treatment. So there is good reason to believe him.

Still, I’m having trouble believing I can’t lower my blood pressure without drugs. Drugs might be the only way, I understand, but I want to at least try to avoid them. It took me a month to get over the fact that I probably had to change something in my diet or activity level, but then I started going back to the gym, limiting salt and sugar, limiting processed carbohydrates, embracing water, green vegetables, reducing red meat. I’ve lost about five pounds, which is a beginning. My goal is to lose 10 more, to weigh 185 again.

Once the weather is better, the dog and I can walk more and more regularly. Much of this winter has been short bursts of activity and then getting back to the couch as quickly as possible.

I am almost certainly going to have to cut down portions and maybe even get rid of bread and butter, pasta and all dairy to see if that will help get me down toward my goal weight. I’m not however a fundamentalist or a martyr, so I will have to try a number of things, I expect.

I keep thinking: if only Trump  weren’t President; if only the Republican agenda to ruin America for anyone not making $250K a year  would disappear; if only the rich felt they had enough money; if only the American people could throw off the shackles of their poor educations, impoverished imaginations, their fear and panic and habit of projecting their own worst traits onto others and vote out the Republicans; if only I’d win a prize or have a book accepted or could find time for a residency or just win the lottery….

In the meantime, though, I think I actually need to deal with the present as it is and as it has been apparently since 2015, before Trump. The temperature of the country has been rising for a while now, just as my bad eating habits have continued. Do I want to be one of those men who won’t take advice or ask for help because they’re sure it’s a problem with a simple way out?

I have finally bought myself a blood pressure cuff and begun the work of self-monitoring. I have already found out that my blood pressure spikes between 5 to 10 points between home and the doctor’s office. Today when I went in to have blood drawn fora blood glucose test and a prostate screening test (a precaution at my age), my pressure was at 140/95, as high as I think it’s ever been. The nurse who took my blood suggested a 24 hour monitor, so they can rule out White Coat Syndrome, in which just going to the doctor’s office can raise some people’s bp significantly.

But come on. Isn’t it time to change? Slowly the pull away from the fast, the easy, the processed whites of salt, sugar, milk, breads, and pasta. Slowly replacing of coffee with water and morning tea. As the crimes of the president pile up, as the attacks of the Republicans on the working class and middle class become clear to us, as the foolishness of voting them into positions of power becomes clearer and clearer, America itself may finally come to grips with its bad choices and aim for less self-destructive alternatives–ones that embrace sustainability, community, and large-scale environmental health rather than short-term greed, quick policy patches, self-protective defensiveness. I want to believe the nation can do it. I want to be here long enough to see if it can, to do my part.

Mulligans: notes on forgiving men

Mulligan n. surname, from Gaelic Maolagan, Old Irish Maelecan, a double diminutive of mael “bald,” hence “the little bald (or shaven) one,” probably often a reference to a monk or disciple.

As “stew made with whatever’s available,” 1904, hobo slang, probably from a proper name.

The golf sense of “extra stroke after a poor shot” (1949) is sometimes said to be from the name of a Canadian golfer in the 1920s whose friends gave him an extra shot in gratitude for driving them over rough roads to their weekly foursome at St. Lambert Country Club near Montreal.

(Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper)

Actually, the extra shot wasn’t given in gratitude so much as just given according to this story, after Mr. Mulligan gives himself a do-over and expects the other men to just shut up about it.

*

Men, I knew early, expect to be forgiven for just about everything. They don’t always need to be thanked, but they do need to be forgiven always and immediately. They make mistakes constantly because they are human, I learned, and so they’re just like you and I, but unlike you and I they pay for everything by working hard and exhausting themselves to keep food on your plate and comic books in your hands. If they lose their tempers now and then, they should be forgiven as soon as they’re done yelling. Hugged if possible. Praised for their sacrifices and their tireless work keeping it all together, for having given up on their own dreams to sail around the world or backpack through Europe or have a quiet horse farm just outside of town. It seemed to help if you finally admitted that you in fact were at fault to have even mentioned what they’d done wrong and so upset them. Men were incredibly fragile that way, I understood, and couldn’t take much emotional pressure. Even if it seemed like the truth. Sometimes their hands were shaky after the long drive home from work; sometimes they were irritable after a long day, an awful month, a disappointing year. A disappointing dinner could be the last straw. Or a request to do something at home too. Or wrong tone of voice. Men worked hard for all of us, I was taught, and we should curb ourselves in order to show our appreciation of their efforts. They were trying, for God’s sake, to keep everybody happy, I remember, and that should matter, that should count. Jesus Christ, all they wanted was to come home and relax and not be nagged about things, I heard. Couldn’t we just shut up sometimes? It’s just a mistake. Fuck.

Here’s an example of a recent mulligan.

Men made mistakes, I knew. But they were owed too some consideration. Come on. My own father embezzled money from his business, even after he sold it finally to a bigger company and stayed on as manager. My mother, who did the accounts for years, made it plain to anyone at the home office who could read exactly what my father was doing. No one said a thing, she told me. No one even cared, she said, which is about when she decided she’d had enough of a Mulligan world. He’d lost thousands and thousands on off-track betting. He’d had affairs, she believed. They fought loudly and it could get violent, physical. I learned early to walk downstairs and yell at them to stop when my father mentioned the gun in the closet. Then as he wept in abject self-pity, begging me to tell him that I loved him, I would do that. I would perform the son’s sacred right to give his father a mulligan. Let’s try that again. I put on the face of infinite patience for a long time. Then one day I realized I could do that at the same time I could wish him dead. I often see the same look on politicians’ children’s faces.

Questions for the men’s club:

How many mulligans do you give until you tell your golfing partner it’s not a game anymore? How many mulligans until it stops being a joke? How many mulligans per round until there is nothing finally to say at the club later? And the relationship becomes, like the soup of the same name, something made of scraps and whatever’s left? At what point do you stop calling?

Conversely, how many mulligans until Mulliganism becomes a way of life, a way around potential pain or embarrassment or, as in the case of a wealthy father, the disaster of dis-inheritance? Maybe, if my father had made more money, we might have Mulliganed him a lot more, stuck it out, stayed true to an investment portfolio which he represented. How many relationships are made of just such long-term strategies, treating the cruel father, the racist grandfather, the violent son as bumblers who need a second-chance? That seems the more pervasive American strategy to me. Growing up, I would say there wasn’t a single adult male in my small-town that I trusted not to lose his temper. Many of them were good men, I knew. But that was also a world without psychology really. Social work meant bringing a cake over to a neighbor if they’d had a tragedy and saying absolutely nothing about a sudden black eye. My mother once tried a therapist who actually told her to go back and try again, so she gave up on that route. There was no other way for people like us to get through life, I saw very quickly, than starting over again and again, hoping this time would be different, an endless Groundhog Day of Mulligans.

Which is where at least 40% of Americans are with this president and the Republicans in Congress, without anything else to do but keep saying let’s give him yet another chance. Maybe this time he won’t cheat on us. Maybe this time he won’t lie to our faces.

My High Horse

Every morning I get up on my high horse to have a look again at the world. No one else knows how to drive. Everyone else is out for him/her/and now themself. Nobody else cares whom he/she/they hurt. Everyone is so busy panicking they can’t breathe or be logical. It’s bewildering. No one sees the big picture, the true cost, the colossal waste. No one seems able to restrain human desire enough to save the planet, control population, lower our consumption of fuel, food, merchandise, common resources. The rich are monsters who have much, much more than they shall ever need; they seem to have no notion at all of how to share. The poor are ravaged by need, riddled with prejudices and a lack of imagination. Neither of them seem willing to be still and make good choices, work, study, change their lives. Not like the rest of us. Well, a few of us maybe. How lucky I am to have this high horse, I think, which gives me such an ability to move between the unconscious and savage and dangerous and doomed. He is a wonderful horse, tall and expert at moving almost undetected in crowds, at parties, at the grocery store. He hardly takes up any room he’s in. I’ve gotten him trained so well, at this point he teaches nearly a third of my classes so I often find myself having fallen asleep while he talks about the history of modernism or the trouble with syllabics as a form or the writer’s need to describe a character more before arriving at a judgement. He can go on and on with almost no tug on the reins until I wake up, and as long as I smile at the end of my nap, the students often don’t know which one of us was there. I’m not always sure myself if I’m honest, which I try to be. All day long, people in need stop by the office to ask us questions of protocol and procedure when they can’t find an answer on Google. Sometimes they bring their own high horses in and we talk about the future. At night, having guided me all day through the dangers of the world, most of which are moral lapses and ethical failings of politicians and not really terrorists or same-sexual marriages, my hard-working and intrepid horse clip-clops me back home where, for dinner, I make it something large, quick, and practical, full of green leafy vegetables (for now I need to restrain my own consumption of processed white things like sugar, flour, milk, salt, and Apple products). We settle together on the couch, under a blanket if the house is a little chilly because we’re trying to save money, and watch tv or play video games, no better than anyone else, we snort to ourselves, as we blow up our enemies and conquer kingdoms, or laugh at the foolish situations other people seem to be able to stay out of.

Ghost Story: notes for a midterm

(I fell behind in my blog a day intention and so am punting today, reprising an old post about ghosts, which will use both G and H, and so I can get to I later today and be caught up. It is of course cheating to do this, but I had a chance to work on a poetry manuscript these last couple of days and decided that everything not a poetry manuscript was going on the back burner.)

Here is the in-class writing assignment I give my autobiography students around midterm when they’re starting to burn out.

__

Make a list of stories you have never told anyone about. Five minutes.

Choose one of the stories

Here’s are the rules to telling the story using multiple abrasions to the language:

1. You may not use the same syntactical structure twice in a row. A review of your choices: fragment, simple, compound, complex, compound-complex.
2. You must create interruptions to the narrative. You can have up to two consecutive sentences follow the narrative but then the third sentence must be non-narrative and can be quite weird, strange, musical, sensual as long as it doesn’t propel the narrative forward. You can have as many non-narrative sentences as you like AS LONG AS the non-narrative sentences don’t themselves become expected. The idea is to keep the language at a constant boil, as it were, a constant state of tension. Make the reader work.
3. You may not use the letter M.
4. The word “ghost” must appear somewhere in the piece. See below.
5. Choose a vowel sound that you can use to haunt the story OR create a phrase you can repeat occasionally ( but NOT in regular intervals!)
6. Extra credit: use ten words whose meaning you don’t know throughout the story.

A word about the word ghost, taken from Wikipedia:

The English word ghost continues Old English gást, from a hypothetical Common Germanic *gaistaz. It is common to West Germanic, but lacking in North and East Germanic (the equivalent word in Gothic is ahma, Old Norse has andi m., önd f.). The pre-Germanic form was *ghoisdo-s, apparently from a root denoting “fury, anger” reflected in Old Norse geisa “to rage.” The Germanic word is recorded as masculine only, but likely continues a neuter s-stem. The original meaning of the Germanic word would thus have been an animating principle of the mind, in particular capable of excitation and fury (compare óðr). In Germanic paganism, “Germanic Mercury,” and the later Odin, was at the same time the conductor of the dead and the “lord of fury” leading the Wild Hunt.

Besides denoting the human spirit or soul, both of the living and the deceased, the Old English word is used as a synonym of Latin spiritus also in the meaning of “breath, blast” from the earliest (9th century) attestations. It could also denote any good or evil spirit, i.e. angels and demons; the Anglo-Saxon gospel refers to the demonic possession of Matthew 12:43 as se unclæna gast. Also from the Old English period, the word could denote the spirit of God, viz. the “Holy Ghost.”

The now prevailing sense of “the soul of a deceased person, spoken of as appearing in a visible form” only emerges in Middle English (14th century). The modern noun does, however, retain a wider field of application, extending on one hand to soul, spirit,” vital principle, mind or psyche, the seat of feeling, thought and moral judgement; on the other hand used figuratively of any shadowy outline, fuzzy or unsubstantial image, in optics, photography and cinematography especially a flare, secondary image or spurious signal.

The synonym spook is a Dutch loanword, akin to Low German spôk (of uncertain etymology); it entered the English language via the United States in the 19th century. Alternative words in modern usage include spectre (from Latin spectrum), the Scottish wraith (of obscure origin), phantom (via French ultimately from Greek phantasma, compare fantasy) and apparition. The term shade in classical mythology translates Greek σκιά, or Latin umbra, in reference to the notion of spirits in the Greek underworld. “Haint” is a synonym for ghost used in regional English of the southern United States, and the “haint tale” is a common feature of southern oral and literary tradition. The term poltergeist is a German word, literally a “noisy ghost,” for a spirit said to manifest itself by invisibly moving and influencing objects.

Wraith is a Scottish dialectal word for “ghost, spectre, apparition.” It came to be used in Scottish Romanticist literature, and acquired the more general or figurative sense of “portent, omen.” In 18th- to 19th-century Scottish literature, it was also applied to aquatic spirits. The word has no commonly accepted etymology; OED notes “of obscure origin” only. An association with the verb writhe was the etymology favored by J. R. R. Tolkien. Tolkien’s use of the word in the naming of the creatures known as the Ringwraiths has influenced later usage in fantasy literature. Bogie is an Ulster Scots term for a ghost, and appears in Scottish poet John Mayne’s Hallowe’en in 1780.

A revenant is a deceased person returning from the dead to haunt the living, either as a disembodied ghost or alternatively as an animated (“undead”) corpse. Also related is the concept of a fetch, the visible ghost or spirit of a person yet alive.

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