Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Month: May, 2013

Methods: An Intention Group

Right now, maybe because I’m in the midst of one, I think an Intention Group is maybe the best thing ever for me. It was introduced to me by my friend Geeta Kothari, who found it, I think, in the course of her research about Writing Centers (she directs Pitt’s Writing Center).

Here’s the basic structure of an Intention Group:

It’s a small group, no larger than four or five people who are absolutely committed to writing, publishing, and generally improving their careers as writers. Keep it small.

You find a nice neutral space where you all can meet once a week for an hour. Keep it short.

Once a week you sit down there and you tell each other what you plan to do this week as a writer ( you can obviously do this as any kind of artist, but since I’m a writer, I’ll talk about it in terms of writing).

You write down your intentions, as do you your friends.

Everyone in the group tells their intentions for the week, and these are likewise written down.

You make a plan to meet next week.

That’s it.

Caveats: There is NO reading of each other’s work. There is NO critique. There is NO exchanging of work, except the kind of occasional one-on-one, personal exchange of work. There is NO making intentions for anything outside the work of being a better writer–therefore no intention to “grade all my students’ papers” because thats about being a teacher not an artist, no intention to clean the house (although you could “make a space for writing” or “buy a table for my office”). You keep it focused on your intentions for your art.

The next week you all get together, and you simply report what you did or didn’t do. There is to be no judgement or shame cast upon the person who doesn’t fulfill their intentions. You simply ask what they want to do next week. If the writer continually can’t do something, then you might ask her if there is something interfering, or if the intention needs to be broken down into very small steps. Instead of, for instance, I’m going to send out my manuscript to X Books, maybe the writer can only buy the envelopes necessary or even just print out a copy of the ms., or even I need to find a reader who will assure me I’m not an idiot thinking this ms. can be sent to X Books. One learns very quickly how to break down a huge expectation into small, do-able steps.

This kind of group is really for writers who feel like they pretty much understand their own work, who don’t need the immediate critical response a Writing Workshop can provide, but it’s also possible that one could be in an Intention Group at the same time as another kind of workshop. I recommend that they be kept separate though. The intention group is most useful for developing professional work habits, as opposed to developing your ability to read your own work or developing your ability to read other people’s habits of response.

There is generally a lot of information exchanged in an intention group–sharing calls for work by certain magazines or editors, tactics for submitting, organizing submissions, new apps to try, new ways of framing or approaching a particular problem.

I’ve been in one now for the last four years, and I can say that all of us have increased our publication rates because of it. It’s at the simplest level an accountability group. If I don’t do something I said I was going to do, I feel it keenly, so I now do the things I plan to do. Whether I feel like it or not. That was a large part of my problem before: I often felt a resistance to sending things out that what seemed emotional to me, almost a kind of despair, a sense of the futility of the whole process. But having people to report to helped change that. Because I started placing more pieces. And the other members of the group did the same. We gave each other courage, which lead to residencies, awards, grants, publications, and readings. And even a few, slightly cleaner desks.

(Some books I think you might look at are Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers and Patricia Schneider’s Writing With Others. Feel free to add others that have been helpful in this regard in the comments. )

Methods: Another Kind of Writing Group

Although they were helpful for a decade, eventually I got tired of writing groups. I began to feel like I was 1) often writing toward the aesthetics of the members, 2) irritated by the nit-pickiness that I felt had come into our meetings, 3) realizing that I wasn’t writing out of surprise anymore but obligation, and 4) most importantly, realizing that I wanted to be quiet for a while, to concentrate myself, to hear myself again. Not all of those happened all the time in the writing groups I was in, but they began to happen enough that #4 felt like an urgency. I was feeling like I needed to take control of my work, that I needed to free myself from obligations to everyone. I suspect that having gotten a full-time job during this period, which required me to have many more obligations to teaching and administration, was also involved in my decision to stop being in a writing group.

And then I sailed around the world on Semester at Sea, which is a profoundly transformative experience. And then I broke off a relationship that had been financially and psychically supporting quite a lot of my life. And I didn’t know what to do with my life.

Luckily at this point, Deb Bogen invited me to join her Writing Group, which met once a week at her house. It was made up of a small group (maybe 8?) of very smart people, most of whom did not “do” writing as a living, as well as a couple of old friends who were roughly at the same point in their lives as I was. We sat in Deb’s living room, in a circle, in arrangement of sofa, various chairs, and spots on the floor. Deb read some work she’d found that week to us, then she’d give us a “warming up exercise” that would be related somehow to the reading and which we’d do for five minutes–something like “Write as many sentences as you can that start with “Because it doesn’t matter that…” and then there’d be a more formal, 25 minute exercise that she’d print out. You were completely free to write poetry, fiction, or nonfiction. This Writing Group was a generative group, not a workshopping group, although at the end of the 25 minute period, we were each required to read both the warm-up exercise and the longer piece. There was no criticism, but it was expected that people would tell you what lines, images, passages they were struck by.

I was emotionally raw at the time, which for me looks enormously similar to being frozen, so I was a little nervous that I’d burst into tears or start shouting or something, but fortunately for me, I was also enormously needy. And Deb was the perfect blend of encouraging and disciplining, so I felt that even if I fell apart, she’d deal with it. If I didn’t trust my own strength at the time, I did trust hers.

That group was also important to me because I felt an energy in the spontaniety of the exercises. You didn’t have to be good; indeed it was likely you’d be quite bad considering the time pressure and the assignment pressure (although we were encouraged to leave the assignment requirements behind if the piece starting moving away from it). With the threshold so low, it was easy, I found, to really push myself to take chances. But the chances had to be smart ones, because next to and across from me were lawyers, computer programmers, and philosophers. Some nights, many nights, in fact, they were the better writers, writing in ways that I, with my “reputation” as a writer to protect, wouldn’t have thought to try. They pushed me out many assumptions. Writing became a kind of place where we could all meet and explore and display and laugh and work out ideas.

I found myself writing in a new way, longer lines, weirder metaphors, bigger jumps of association and voice and form than I’d allow myself before. I wrote pieces that teetered on the edge of my anger at the time, that broke into the sadness and the hiding places of my experience. It felt life-saving, but that may not be the right word exactly. It was a renewal of life. It galvanized parts of myself that had retreated from view or use. It took me back to those first days of poetry, when I believed that the art could unite all the parts of my life. It was a workout.

I’d experienced something like it in weeklong workshops at Squaw Valley or at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center summer classes. But unlike those workshops, which took place away from my regular life, this writing group was firmly embedded in my regular life. And so I could begin to shift my schedule so that writing and living existed alongside each other and eventually even entangled each other. I grew to trust the gifts of spontaneity and even joyfulness in the composition process, things I often revised out of drafts, but which my audience of very smart listeners responded to.

As of last year that group too disbanded. It was a ton of work for Deb, who wanted to reserve her psychic and physical strength for her own work. At least for a while. For years–nearly six for me, I think–that workshop was a great gift. And, I should say, it brought me to a new level of confidence. I began sending out work again, because people would say, of a good piece produced during those nights, send that out.


New haircut day. Now that my hair is dimming on top, I approach my local Supercuts with the anxiety I used to reserve for the dentist. I don’t really want to know the truth the enormous mirror will show me, the various shine-throughs of scalp through hair. But I did notice the scruffiness of my grown-out hair this morning and I thought it was time to clean things up a bit. I had a brief moment in which I thought I’d have the courage at last to simply shave it all off and see what my skull looks like. But when I got inside the cool air-conditioning of the shop, I chickened out. Two years ago, when my mother was going through chemo and her hair fell out, I thought I’d have the courage and sympathy to lose my hair as well, so she wouldn’t be alone. But I couldn’t do that then either, even though that would have given me a noble cover if the results were ugly.

It’s funny to me this faintness of heart about my hair. I really want to be braver. I know there are friends who would be glad to have what I have left. I was reading Alexander Levy’s book The Orphaned Adult yesterday, and as he was talking about the way a particular patient’s life turned, finally, toward adulthood after the death of his parents, I wondered about my own present, how I might be similarly making moves, often unconscious ones or subconscious, half-conscious ones, toward my embrace of the new present I find myself in. That I got a haircut much closer to the scalp that I usually do is as close as I could get to making a change today. But maybe it’s a step somewhere.

Since about forty-five, I’ve been paying attention more and more to men slightly older than me, how they dress, how they speak, how they present themselves in public and in private, what is different. It’s not exactly that I want to disappear into the crowd of them (although I do have very strong issues around blending in, becoming a Zelig), but that I want to see what the choices might be. Can I get away with a hat? Should I start investing in suits? A corduroy jacket? Dress shirts? These aren’t merely decorative choices. Any actor has a story about how finding particular piece of wardrobe changed his or her relationship to the character he or she is supposed to inhabit. I suppose I haven’t found that key thing yet. Maybe I only want there to be a “key” thing, so I can feel as if something about me could be settled for a little while, something that I could just buy, that I wouldn’t have to invent out of my feelings for once. I don’t particularly want to feel things very deeply except for the pieces I’m working on about my mother and, even more frightening, about my dog Bailey, who died a couple of years ago. Those are my two border crossing moments of my middle-age; after them I knew I would be someone else than I had been.

Still, I sit here at the coffeehouse in a pair of cargo shorts, a T-shirt, a ratty checked flannel shirt over that, a pair of Adidas soccer sneakers on. I’m listening to the Fleetwood Mac station on Pandora, which plays the music of my adolescence and twenties–Heart, Tom Petty, The Eagles, and so on. I fear becoming one of those men whose effort not to recognize their lives changed decades ago becomes so obvious it’s painful to see. They seem stuck in a kind of Gap or Old Navy jeans and khaki informality. Maybe I’m ready for something else now. Or to be someone else.

The First Mother’s Day

If we forgot her birthday, it was fine, but if we forgot to call or send a card for Mother’s Day, we’d be killed, she always said. Murdered. Excommunicated. Made to suffer. The threat was half-joke, but both my brother and I felt the truth in it. It was the one day she wanted us to acknowledge her contribution to our lives, the enormous work she’d done as and the pride she felt in being a mother. She didn’t ask for much, she’d say, but this was important. Therefore it is in my blood to call my mother on Mother’s Day and ask her about her day and to talk politics and to remember something from the old days, something we both miss now or we both hate.

This will be the first Mother’s Day in which I don’t have a mother to call and chat with. She’s been dead for a little over a month now. I saw her body and kissed that forehead. We’ve sold her condo, we’ve divided up her IRA and bank accounts, and we’ve both gone back to our lives. Except that instead of a mother being there, what’s left is only an old impulse, the habit to call, and then the little shock of remembering, and then the putting the phone back in my jacket pocket.

There wasn’t the weeping I expected. I had several friends write to check on me, to make sure I was all right. My friend Jenny and I went out to brunch on Saturday on a whim, and the table next to us was clearly a mother and grandmother being taken out for an early Mother’s Day meal by a slightly surly about-my-age son who kept checking his phone while they talked to him. Knowing I’d likely be surrounded by other peoples’ mothers woke up that sadness suddenly: I’d never get to see her eat with her usual relish a meal again; I’d never get to make or hear her laugh again.

All day long today I thought of things to tell her, to recount to her. In the last year, since she couldn’t get around much, I felt like I was calling to tell her little stories about my life, almost as if I were reading to her. Partly I wanted her to know that I was all right, that I was safe and secure, that I was happy and healthy. I knew that was important to her. Partly I wanted her to know that I’d always need her; I often called to ask her a question about how to cook something. I worried about her feeling left out of my life, now that she’d never visit me again or get to spend more time with my dog Andy whom she had met once and loved.

How much do I owe her? Well, yes, there’s the whole life thing, which is not a simple cliche, since I came along as a kind of surprise she could have terminated. When I asked her why she didn’t, since it forced her to stay with my abusive father for another eighteen years, she said, “I felt I had more love to give.” She was otherwise my model for thinking, for how to think, for how to enjoy life. She was the reader I followed into libraries, into books. She occasionally wrote me excuses from school so we could play hooky together–most memorably at the Finger Lakes Race Track, where she’d give me $20 to bet. Since my high school guidance counselor was always there, sometimes with the district superintendent, we never got found out. She was a fun mom. My friends called her MadDog Marilyn for her habit of going the wrong way down one-way streets. All my friends liked her. At least one came over for heart to heart talks with her when I was away at college, when his own parents virtually abandoned him. She paid my tuition to college, which although it was relatively little those days because I had a scholarship from the state, was still something she could have done without on her secretary’s salary. She was always there to come back to from school. She even gave me the down payment for the house I live in, and with the very smart condition (although it made me crazy then) that the house be in my name only. After a long relationship broke up, she drove up and helped me figure out how to live by myself again; she was a master of the art of the happy solitude. She cheered me up when I was tired. She worried over me, sometimes needlessly but always with an eye on my safety. And in the last year when I visited more often, she let me hug her when she got scared. She certainly made the details after her death easy for my brother and me, setting things up so that nothing needed to go through probate, so that all we’d have to do is sign our names and get what she felt was rightfully ours and not the government’s or some lawyer’s. We kept telling her not to worry about it so much, that we’d take care of things, that we were grown ups and she’d trained us well. She’d look us in the eyes and shake her head. “Listen,” she’d say, and then explain to us yet again what we were to do. I have a folder of things about IRAs she printed off the Internet.

I realized the other day I still have a dozen or so messages from her on my voicemail. I’m still trying to figure out what to do with those traces. I haven’t yet played one back. She herself would have wanted me to get on with my life, not get bogged down with sadness. But the sadness is also a measure of my love for her, my pride at having gotten to be her child all these years. She was a terrific mother, which I told her every year.

Methods: the Journeyman years

Okay, so two really good things happened two years after my graduation. The first is that I applied for and received a fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts, and the second was I had a chapbook published by State Street Press. So I had a little hope that I wasn’t entirely wrong to pursue this writing thing. Those two groups of people thought I had something worth supporting. That little attention kept me going for almost ten years, in fact.

I was teaching everywhere I could–composition and introductory creative writing classes part-time at Pitt, a class at the Western Penitentiary once in a while, a class at the Carnegie Museum when I could, and the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project in the summer. I lived as simply as I could. I lived in a $300 apartment in the house of a woman who rent her second and third floors out. I had a bike I pedaled all over town or I walk or I took the bus. I ate a lot of Mac and cheese and soup and bread. After a couple of years, I worked part-time at a coffeehouse in Shadyside and then at a Barnes and Noble downtown where my friend Noah was an assistant manager. Somehow the money all came together, and except for a couple of months when my mother gave me a slightly larger than normal birthday check or that one month an older friend with money paid for my rent, I was pretty self-sufficient.

Method 1: keep on writing somehow. I honestly don’t remember much about the years after graduating. I was in motion most of that time. But I did have one good habit: I kept a journal and I wrote in it often, filling it as quickly as I could. When I’d finish one, I’d reread it and write out the poems or lines I liked into the first pages of the new journal. That way, the new journal’s formidable blankness was nullified somewhat. I found that I often wrote poems in a kind of left-handed way in my journal, as if they were just jottings or notes. When I’d look back through a journal, I was often surprised by poems I didn’t remember writing! I’d have that weird feeling that someone else must have written some of them, but there they were in my handwriting.

Method 2: This is also, I think, when I started giving myself writing challenges. Mostly these were formal but sometimes they were subject challenges. One year I wrote my way through the early edition of Lewis Turco’s The Book of Forms. I’d try a month of prose poems, then a month of sonnets, then a month of love poems, then political poems. I wrote a prosey poem a day for a hundred days in imitation of Williams’ Kora in Hell, then some city poems a la Frank O’Hara, then some nature poems like Robert Francis. I didn’t really have a plan; in fact I tried out all these different forms and voices looking for a subject grab me. I stopped sending poems out since nothing was being taken. I wrote anyway and in some ways it was more fulfilling because the poems didn’t have to impress anybody but me.

I was also dating, hanging out with friends, having my heart-broken and inadvertently breaking a few myself. I lived on my nerves. I flirted for free drinks at the local gay bar. I used those experiences as material. And I kept going to events at Pitt, local readings and big events, so I felt like I was still connected as a writer. I got invited to read periodically by friends and people who knew my work. That community probably saved me from drifting away from writing like so many people do after they get their MFAs.

Method 3: I also was part of a series of writing groups. At first it was with two friends from Pitt, another poet and a fiction writer. We met once or twice a month at a coffeehouse and talk about each others’ work. We were accountable to each other. We were also able to turn our individual despairs into something shared and thereby lessened. We were all in the same boat. It wasn’t just me who was having trouble. The business of writing and getting published WAS hard. That fellowship was vital and we advised and supported and urged on each other, even if we couldn’t do the same for ourselves. Even if none of us were having the success we’d dreamed would be ours for the taking after we got our MFAs.

The members of the writing groups came and went. Sometimes I was in two groups at once. Anything to keep the pressure on. Looking back, it seems like I was delusional to work so hard on something I wasn’t even sending out. But day after day I was sure I was going to be discovered and recognized as a master.

Which is not the long patience Adrienne Rich refers to. Still, who would buy a book whose title was A Long Complicated Narcissism Got Me This Far? And yet, and yet…

Methods: the Student Writer

I’m writing a long essay about my mother this summer, using a self-invented method that breaks it up into small paragraphs. It’s taking up much of my emotional and psychic energy these days, which of course takes time and energy away from this blog.

Some friends have suggested that I write a bit about my methods, especially my habit of inventing assignments for myself. I’ve agreed in fact to be on a panel for AWP 2014 to talk about some of the ways that I’ve managed to keep myself writing for the last thirty years. Obviously, the first seven or eight were spent in school, being given assignments by my teachers, but even those are part of the story.

Because most of my teachers simply said, Write a poem for next week, and then left it for us to figure out what the hell that meant.

My students sometimes bristle when I give them that kind of assignment, but now, looking back on it, I think it was very useful. I will say that I was burning to write poems, and that it helped that I had a troika of poets I knew then–Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, and Ted Hughes–that I could draw from. I was hungry, and if a teacher mentioned a poet I didn’t know, I’d be over in the library that day looking that poet up, to see what he or she sounded like. I didn’t want to do anything but write and discover poets, and there was no huge pressure on me from home to prepare for anything else.

And when I wrote a poem about something in my own life, using, say, the structure of Wallace Stevens’ “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” without being assigned to do it, it made my teachers very happy, which gave me a nice boost of self-confidence. I quickly caught on to the system. Read a lot, try a lot, write, hand in what you don’t hate. Read+Write+Attentive Teacher=good work/happiness.

I also read because I felt like I didn’t know that much about the history of poets, of poetry, of cliches and traditions. And I thought I should know these things because my teachers did. So when I couldn’t figure how to read George Oppen or Charles Olson, I had to read about who or what they didn’t want to be as much as their own ars poeticas. I remember reading and loving all the explanatory paragraphs in the old Norton Anthology of Poetry, which helped me enormously to begin putting the pieces and lineages together.

It was more or less like that through grad school as well. The issues were more complicated, but it was basically the same equation at work.

After grad school, however, I felt keenly that loss of a teacher’s attention and happiness at the end of the equation. I was outside the walls of the ivory tower, the garden. I was now expected (even author-ized) to switch out teacher for editor. But an editor is a harder kind of teacher. The job is more black and white, yes or no. And mostly no. Sorry, said their notes week after week. Despair followed, the despair of trying to please a wall, which I didn’t know how to do. Just write your best work I was advised by a few people, but I didn’t know what my best work was without an attentive teacher.

What saved me? A number of things, almost all of which involved finding and inventing people to be accountable to. But let me leave it here for today, so I have something to write about for tomorrow.

The Beautiful Surprises

It’s a beautiful day, the kind of day we survived all winter for: warm sunlight, gentle breezes, birds chirping out the new territories, cars recreating the regular sound of the ocean as they pass by the cafe window. We’re all still grateful for days like this. Andy, my good dog, is stretched out at my feet, eyes closed. I close my own eyes periodically, tip my head back, and imagine the sunlight filling me up like a vase or pitcher. I don’t have to teach from now until the end of August. I don’t really have write anything at all if I don’t want to. I could just sit around and be quiet. The only thing I have to do today really is to buy some flowers for the pots around my house.

I’m writing essays this summer, one about my mother and one about two summers ago when I was just finding out about now that my former good dog, Bailey, was sick and eventually had to be put to sleep. Of that second essay part of me is interested in how I did it, considering how intensely awful it was to live through that time. Of my mother essay, I’m not sure at all what I’m after. I just know that there is an ocean of things to begin the after-life dialogue with.

I was thinking about that state of mind–writing in the face of not knowing what you’re going to end up with–the other day when I went to visit the group of undergraduates who went on the annual retreat our campus literary journal organizes. They’d asked me and my colleague Ellen Smith to come out on Saturday afternoon and lead them in a couple of writing exercises.

We arrived at their cabin at Seven Springs at noon and found thirteen students still a little groggy from staying up all night talking about writing and the future. We entered their circle of rumpled couch and utilitarian chairs and sat down on the floor in front of the tv, which was off. They were glad to see us. Most of them were barefoot. Ellen asked them first to make a list of words they hated. She read a poem by Alex Lemon that celebrated word-coining, the deep pleasures of words; then she gave an example of a word from her own life that she hated. She talked about why. After that, she asked them to write a poem in which they recovered or rehabilitated that word somehow. Or to invent a word that the world needed but didn’t have yet.

For myself, because I felt like I was in charge of providing a prose exercise, I brought in Chekhov’s “Gooseberries,” read parts (like that fabulous moment when Chekhov suggests there be a someone with a small hammer at he door of every rich man, to constantly remind the rich man what his comfort is built on), and I asked the young writers to

“Make a list of things you’re waiting for, cages you’re hoping will open, permissions you’re waiting to be given. Write a piece addressing somehow whatever it is you’re waiting to happen or leave you alone (to Money? To Security? To Stability? To Love? to Fear? To Unhappiness? To Debt? To a Parent? To God? To Permission itself?) before you will truly be able to say something or
do something you’ve always wanted to do.”

You never know what you’re going to get in a good exercise. We got some fantastic things, things that surprised us all. The future is in the hands of some fantastic young people, I thought. Even if they themselves didn’t know how they were going to bring it about. Even if they didn’t exactly know who they were going to be yet.

In Defense of the Ordinary

I’ve never reblogged an essay, but this one struck me as important and directly in line with what I’d like to do as an essayist.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

mantleA guest post from the essayist Joe Bonomo:

I write in defense of the ordinary life. Two common impulses in writing autobiographically—what happened to me is important; what happened matters because it happened to me—are problematic, since very few of us experience dramatic, statistically rare events during our lives, and yet all of us experience, well, something. When I begin an essay, or find my way into a subject autobiographically, the qualities of my experience or character don’t really matter in and of themselves. I try to recognize what in my unique experience might be, in the recollection of and in the telling, emblematic of something larger, something not exclusive, something recognizable. With each essay, I begin with something that matters to me. Then I begin to consider, How might this matter to you? By which I mean, How might it matter?

“We only store in memory images of value,” says…

View original post 859 more words

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