Notes on the Summer

by Jeff Oaks

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.