Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

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


A reblog from last year–AWP advice for first timers

I’ve been seeing all sorts of reference to the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) conference on Facebook, and I decided to go back and look at the advice I gave last year. Most of it still seems solid to me. So I’m reblogging it, with a minimum of editing.

AWP: some advice

1. Get in and get settled. Breathe. Then register. 

2. The Bookfair is the greatest thing: a beehive of ambitious work, humane undertakings, and stern and open faces. It is the central engine. 

3. The panels? Meh. So many of them have been merely self-promotional or stunningly bland. A simple key is this: if the central question of the panel can be answered by yes or no, that’s going to be a boring panel. You know the answers going in. 

4. Interesting panels are almost universally the ones you decide not to go to. Your friends will be the source of the information in that case, fragmented from the original, but also thrilling with your friend’s new enthusiasm. 

5. Try to have at least five friends you can talk to once a day. They should want to attend different panels from you. Don’t discard your interests to go with them. Remember: your job is also to feed them your enthusiasm. 

6. The first hour of the Bookfair is ecstasy, the second hour torture. The initial excitement at seeing all the opportunities can suddenly tip toward being overwhelmed by and deeply depressed by those same opportunities, especially if your work isn’t regularly being published yet. 

7. Your hotel room is sacred. Retreat there as often as you need. Use the tv. Look out its windows for a bigger view. 

8. Go to readings as needed. Too many and the function of them disappears and they become mere obligation, the death of all love. 

9. Give yourself a budget. Stay close to it. Pack in such a way you’d have to really want a book to buy it. Be willing to throw away your clothes for a good book. 

10. You will never know the whole of literature, but it’s good to have a few places (presses, literary journals, and writers) you can use as check points. Ask those people who they’re reading or for any new discoveries. You can start conversations that way, if you’re stuck. 

11. Walk outside a few times a day. Breathe real air and see the sun or hear the rain. Break the seal that can develop around any convention. 

12. For me, breakfasts have so far been the best times to talk to friends. Everyone is a little more vulnerable and open. Not everyone else is up for breakfast, so it’s a good test of real friendship. Plus, it’s the most important meal of the day. I prefer hotel breakfasts where it’s all-you-can-eat. 

13. Dinners are so largely ceremonial and often crashed by others and expensive that I’m rethinking dinners, even though I like them. Have one dinner in your hotel room maybe. 

14. Are the caucuses doing any good? Is AWP changing itself at all? A number of writers with disabilities who’ve been asking for changes in accessibility make me think it’s not listening to them. Should caucuses be given a certain amount of choice in the decisions where AWP is held and some number of panels that might reflect specific interests? 

15. AWP is not for everybody. What is? You need however to go to a couple of them before you condemn it altogether. The more I’ve gone, the better it’s gotten. There have been bad ones and very good ones. 

16. Be kind to yourself. It’s hard to be without a book to your name. It’s hard to feel left out of conversations by people who look at your name and move on. It has nothing to do with your worth. They have their own issues. Make yourself talk or thank at least one person a day who makes the life of your imagination a more interesting place. They often have no idea that people are benefitting from their hard work. 

17. Grade your papers before or after AWP. Write poems during readings. Find a coffeehouse In the host city and just write for two hours. 

18. Watch how the famous writers behave. You might learn something. 

19. Don’t assume someone doesn’t have some influence just because you might not have read work by them. Don’t assume people with clear influence have to be coddled. Don’t assume editors will remember you; remind them with as much courtesy as you can. 

20. If you’re only listening to people with the intent to get published, you’re not listening. Be ready, however, to say yes if an opportunity suddenly appears. 

21. Hydrate. You’d be surprised at the effect quiet dehydration will do to your mood. Drink water more than anything else.


If there is something in your face that God

will not countenance, you will be turned away, that God

can have an easier time of it apparently, his mortal

subjects so delicate they cannot bear what God,

it’s claimed anyway, thinks is abominable to serve

pie or flowers or wedding cake to. If you say that God

doesn’t exist, for example, you too could be turned away,

cast like a stone into a pond which burns with what God

might’ve recalled flames when blooming in the desert,

to homeless, nervous sheep-herders, that God 

no one but Moses saw, and that only a little part,

a fire in a weed, since even he was turned away by what God

was, an unbearable thing, a blindness that was too much 

awful force and self promotion. If you address another, that God

with the universe in his throat, or that Goddess among

the roots, or the Stars sailors depend on, no matter what God

it might be other than that nervous lonely Father demanding

no one eats lobsters, no mixing of fabrics, that God 

that also requires newlywed men not go to war, you

will be turned away. Your hands might be too quick; what God

wants limp prayers? Your voice is too high. Go, stranger. 

The inn is full. You’re odd. We can’t bear that, O God. 

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.

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