Being Stuck

by Jeff Oaks

So here’s a list of the things I should be doing (or should have done by now, mid-afternoon): comment on student papers, write a new poem for The Grind, clean the house, finish a book I’ll be discussing with my students on Wednesday, sending out my new poetry manuscript to at least two contests, and doing laundry.

What I did do this morning was get up and walk the dog with two friends, came home, gave the dog a bath because he rolled in some shit and smelled like same, made some breakfast (ham, an apple, three doughnuts and milk), sat down on the couch for what I swear was just a minute and fell asleep for about two hours. Woke up groggy at about 1 pm, played Angry Birds for about another hour, then guiltily got up, drank a big glass of water, wrote out checks for four bills, put stamps on them, then sat down at the computer and started to write this.

So I’ve done things, but I haven’t really done anything of much use as of yet. It actually makes me feel like I haven’t washed when I don’t write. And I know that I’ll feel terrible tomorrow if I don’t get those papers commented on today. But I want to write a new poem first. Poetry and writing is the central focus around which I want my life to revolve, so I feel as if I ought to write the new poem first.

But that means I have to sit and wait. Either until I remember something I wanted to write a poem about or until I give myself a kind of writing exercise to get myself out of myself where I can begin to play and invent something to write about.

When I’m stuck like this, I usually prioritize my deadline:

The poem-draft must be done by midnight
I only have to read about half more of the book, which I can do tonight and tomorrow night
The manuscripts have a deadline of the end of the month

The house and laundry are another matter. House and Laundry need to be broken down–partialized, to use Carol Bly’s useful word–into smaller concerns. Clean the house implies I have to clean everything, when what I really mean is I need to clean the bathroom and clear up clutter around the house. Laundry implies loads of clothes, when in fact it’s really only two loads, which I could be doing while I’m sitting here writing…

Excuse me for a minute…

Okay, now the laundry is begun. And in fact, there was only one load that needed to be done. And once that happened, once I began to do something, I suddenly decided I could make myself a cup of tea and while I was out in the kitchen, decided I should tie up the garbage and take it out to the garbage bin. While out there, I realized it was getting colder out, so, after replacing the garbage bag in the can, I shut all the windows again. One thing after another, in other words.

Now that I have my cup of tea–English Breakfast–I think: so, send out your manuscript now. It might not be done (I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that there are a couple of poems I find in an old journal that might make it even better) but those poems, if they exist and aren’t another example of my mind trying to keep me from failing, are not going to be ready in time for this deadline, so why not just send the manuscript out? And yet, I’m not moving on that one like I did on the laundry.

And it’s okay if I sit on the manuscript another day. Today’s not the deadline. I can take another look at it.

Besides, I’ve now written this blog post, which means that I have written something, done something that is central to my sense of worth. I actually feel a little bit better, which will later make writing a poem easier.

As for commenting on student work, that I just have to do. I need to just take a couple of hours and run through them. I don’t have to fix them, just comment on them and give them a grade that they can then revise for a better grade if they want to.

One of the things I didn’t realize about adulthood was how much of it was about this kind of work, this kind of moving yourself forward, slowly and deliberately, day by day. It does work, although that was a hard thing to believe in my twenties, because it takes some time–decades sometimes!–before you see the fruits of all that daily labor. But, I remind myself from time to time, I live in a house paid for by poetry, by writing, work and patience.