Methods: the Student Writer

by Jeff Oaks

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.