Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Month: July, 2013


On and off this summer I’ve been reading Daily Rituals, a compilation of the ways writers and artists have scheduled their lives. While most of the examples reassure me that my own daily schedule isn’t as strange as it could be, at some point I began to want a companion book which chronicles how successful artists and writers manage to keep their houses clean. That is the greater secret, I think. Who takes out their garbage? Who remembers which day is the right day to put the garbage out on the curb? Vacuuming, dusting, decluttering, cleaning out the basement occasionally, taking and picking up the dry cleaning–these are the places where my work ethic falters.

And in fact that kind of work generates in me almost a sense of anger. Umbrage might be a better word, umbra being the old latin for shadow, because there’s a kind of shadowy field around each housekeeping duty. In the simplest sense, I always imagine that cleaning will take MUCH longer than it actually does, so I procrastinate. The deeper resistance feels more abstract. Cleaning feels so useless, since each activity will have to be done over and over again. It feels endless, impossible. Dusting doesn’t lead anywhere but to more dusting. The problem with vacuuming is that the best part of it is at the very end, when for the most temporary of moments all the rooms are clear of hair and dirt. Then, everything begins to get dirty again. Better to wait, something in me say, until the house is dramatically dirty, so it feels as if I’ve really conquered something by cleaning it all up.

Writing and teaching on the other hand lead to something. The process recurs but it leads somewhere. Writing to publication (at least in theory). Teaching leads to conversations with students, to student writing, to greater knowledge, even to raises. This isn’t to say that one writes or teaches only for those reasons, but those reasons often keep me going when I don’t feel like doing them. If I don’t feel like vacuuming, there’s nothing that can get me to do it. Who cares? I live alone. For a while I thought I needed to invite someone over in order to get off my duff, as my mother used to say. Then, knowing that someone else will be seeing the dirt, I can tackle it. I would have a goal, a deadline. But then I just stopped inviting anyone over.

Ta Da! said some part of my unconscious. I’ve just made you some more time to write and read. But honestly that’s a lie. I don’t do more of either.

For my mother, the secret to cleaning was doing a little everyday. It was daily maintenance, in other words. But that was late, after she’d retired, when she had no other job. It kept her hands and mind busy. Her condo became a kind of installation piece she revised constantly. My brother too has inherited her sense of daily maintenance. His hands are always busy fixing something, wiping down the dining room table, straightening rugs. I admire it, but he has always, it seemed to me, thought of his home as the place where he’s most happy, so he works hard to keep it beautiful. I don’t think I have that sense of my house; I sleep and eat and bathe there; I store my clothes and books there. But I’m not sure I feel like I live there. I live, somehow, weirdly, elsewhere, in words, in sentences, in performances, in public. Or at least that’s my ideal. Maybe the anger I feel toward housework is that I’m afraid it will distract me from being “artistic”. Maybe I’m just lazy and looking for distractions.

Anyway, I’m curious how other people might organize their time in ways that enable them to do that kind of daily work. Or do you have someone come in a deal with it? Or do you just not care? Feel free to tell me how you do it, if you manage the trick.


Notes on Summer 2

Charles Simic, in an essay in the recent New York Review of Books blog, got me thinking about the summer days of my youth, whose boredom at some point became so profound I started to write a novel to have something to do. It was the early 1980s, I think. I’ve lost the novel, which was unfinished and concerned the journey of some elves away from a ruined kingdom, toward somewhere else. I never knew where they were going. But along the way they had a few adventures which probably were remarkably like characters in the Tolkien books. I just went and wrote a little bit at a time, amassing some sixty pages, which at the beginning of the next fall I showed to my English teacher, Miss Frost, who seemed impressed. Other adults around me were equally so. I didn’t know how to read their encouragement, since I never really understood much about adults. But I do know that I stopped writing it after adults began getting excited about it. Other kids wanted to read it, and I handed it to a couple of friends I trusted. And I hardly even noticed when it disappeared somewhere among them.

I haven’t really written fiction since then. The next spring Miss Frost invited me and a couple of other literary-minded students to hear a poet and a fiction writer in Canandaigua. I thought I was going to hear the fiction writer, but he was a very dull reader who seemed not to have any delight in him or in his work. The poet, Judith Kitchen, was, on the other hand, a fountain of energy, maybe the first adult I’d ever seen who was happy to be one. I was instantly taken by her. When the time came to split into groups, I followed her. After that, poetry was my interest, my focus, my one true love.

Once, at a party, I remember my colleague Dave Bartholomae saying how much he wished his own children could experience the kind of boredom those of us who grew up in rural places, who grew up without the need to go to this kind of camp or that kind of camp, experienced. How important it was, he thought, that he’d become so bored. It was a deep state his children who had every advantage now might never encounter. A whole generation was coming toward us who might never have been bored; how would we teach them or even understand them? That was nearly a whole generation ago now. What are the sources, I wonder, of today’s kids? I don’t mean that as a veiled complaint about technology or video games. It may well be that they’re experiencing their great stretches of boredom in technological ways. Where do they dream? Where do they get to make mistakes no one else sees? Where do they spend the summer?

There were plenty of wild places, abandoned places around where I lived where we could go and lay claim to, populate with our imaginations, practice our speeches and desires and revenges. I moved into a section of Pittsburgh where there had been destruction and abandonment and some magnificent reclamation by the weeds. Between the last rowhouses and the Allegheny River was a four or five block-wide stretch of land that had already been turned into a fantastic place by the neighborhood kids, most of whom had no lawns or countryside to play out their desires in. They had created a kind of labyrinth of bike paths, with ramps and dips made out of dirt. Around the whole area were tall weeds and saplings that hid them from the adult world. Deer occasionally showed up there. The first day I saw it, three black vultures were circling something I never found. I did however feel shadow of them pass over me and shivered. One came so close to me I heard its dark crinoline feathers catching the air. Where else was a city kid going to experience anything like this beauty and surprise and even maybe fear?

When one summer that land was “developed” by a corporation into a long, dull, boxy warehouse, many of us complained, but, said the city, hands were tied. Jobs were promised of course, which is the cliche the powerful uses to silence the poor in a country where the only thing that matters is the economy, where the only data that matters is economic. Jobs will lead to a better happiness. Your kids will thank you. Maybe someone in that warehouse, maybe a night guard, is getting so bored at his desk he’s starting a novel.

Today I tried to be bored in the old way. I walked the dog to Frick Park and we played, then we came home and ate breakfast in front of the television, which was all infomercials and highly-caffeinated cartoon voices. I played a new game on my iPad called Temple Run, in which a man is being chased by apes through a series of increasingly complicated passages. There is no home or safe place he’s going to get to. The object is simply to accrue achievement after achievement, collecting coins that will allow you to activate “powers,” some of which give you invulnerability to the various traps along the way, some of which increase your speed or make you magnetic. It is fun for a while to play it. I can feel my brain having to adjust to it, feel my hands and instincts getting better and better at working the controls. After a while, I fell into one of those lovely summer naps on the couch. But when I woke up around 12:30, I thought, “Why don’t I try to do nothing of consequence today?” Immediately, I felt irritated. I ought to get at least something done, I thought. I felt it like a bee under my shirt. I needed to get to work. I wanted to. Pull a syllabus together, read one of the books I was going to teach in the fall, send out poems, revise poems in the new manuscript, finish the long essay I’ve been working on. Write a blog like this, if nothing else.

In the absence of forests, I get lost in sentences, images, the language I guess. Or that’s an acceptable substitute as more and more wild space gets developed into places where nothing surprising can happen, exactly the opposite of summer used to promise.

Notes on the Summer

This has been a pretty busy summer, it turns out. Many people think that people who teach for a living get three months off every summer to do nothing, but the truth is I’m always working on a number of things that make me able to teach again in the fall. This fall I screened about 1200 manuscripts for a press, a job that takes a lot of time as you might imagine. At the same time, I worked on the Writing Program’s class schedules for the fall and the spring, created a new class proposal, met with a number of current students and recently graduates about job opportunities, teaching ideas, and writing issues. In a couple of weeks, I’ll take a class in digital composition, finalize my syllabi, assignments, reading lists, and begin to set up the digital infrastructure for the three classes it looks like I’ll be teaching in the fall, which are three different classes, two of which I’ve never taught before. I do stipulate that all of this isn’t AS HARD as it is in the fall and spring, and I do get to do much of it from the comfort of a coffeehouse, but that doesn’t mean it’s not work.

On top of those things are personal things: visits to my brother’s new house, cleaning and rearranging my own house to make room for the items I’ve inherited from my mother, cleaning out the basement (at last!), arranging to have some work done on my house, and spending some quality time with a few friends I don’t get to see during the year.

And then of course comes my own writing, the very thing that I need to do in order to keep my teaching vital, my feet held to the fire, my ideas from stagnating into ideology. I send out work constantly. I revise what comes back. I write at the very least a new paragraph a day but more often a draft of a poem a day. I reread and revise if I don’t write something new. I read and read and read. And of course I answer the innumerable emails that even the summer doesn’t seem to slow down.

Once upon a time, my only wish was to win the lottery and retire to an island where I’d do nothing forever but be rich. I’d love to sit for a week by the ocean, but I now feel like I need to and want to work. It makes me happy. I never liked work as I saw it as a kid–the hard, low wage work my mother did as a secretary or a bookkeeper for a construction firm or the punishing work my father and cousins did at my father’s sand and gravel company. I wanted to read, write, make things, draw, look at and respond to the world. I didn’t believe that those things might make up a life, that someone like me could one day make a living doing that stuff. That writing poems and commenting on student papers might provide me with enough money to buy a house. I just kept trying to do more of the things I loved–writing, reading, art–than the things I didn’t love, until I found the thing–teaching–in which the passion and the renumeration became entangled.

But there’s a lie up above: I did believe that a writing life was possible. I had to have believed it at some level because I was so sure I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t even consider the kind of life my mother and grandmother urged me to pursue: get a degree in “computers” and write on the side. Somehow I knew that they were wrong. I knew they were thinking of safety, a path almost everyone in the family seemed to have taken. The adults I knew were kind of happy “on the side.” I wanted happiness to be the center of my life and for whatever work it took to sustain that happiness to be secondary. If I had taken my mother’s advice, I probably would be a pretty good computer technician, probably in management by now, making a good salary.

The harder thing for me, and for many of the people I know who come to the university to study writing, is to learn how to be an artist, how to make art that is real, deep, complicated, and that is in most ways in defiance of the rules of a normal adulthood. To learn how to treat those urges seriously instead of as some childish thing is hard if you don’t have a model in your family. To keep writing poems, to hold still in a way against the feelings that buffet you as you see friends getting married or having children or becoming vice presidents or doctors or professionals whose work is clearly adult. It probably helped that I never had children or was married or felt I had skills that fit the business or professional world. (A few years ago when I won a teaching award at Pitt, I tried to come up with a speech that would articulate the professionalism that the administration clearly thought I’d attained, but I only got as far as this–My teaching philosophy: 1. Know your subject. 2. Don’t be an asshole.–before I stopped. Fortunately, I wasn’t asked to say anything at the award ceremony.)

It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be an adult if you’re an artist, but that what being an adult means might be less constricted than you might have been brought up to believe. Maybe curiosity rather than anxiety might be the center of your life. Maybe you’ll live in such a way that work will be indistinguishable from living. No one can promise that you won’t be busy or even that it will work. But no one gets that promise.

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