Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Month: August, 2013

Email to a Young Writer at the Beginning of the Term

Dear R,

Well, there are two answers to your question. Maybe three answers. Let me see if I can get them in some kind of order.

1) The easiest answer is this: go talk to your professor for the Shakespeare class and ask him or her exactly what you’ve asked me. I can usually help a student focus on a subject for an essay if I talk to the student directly, one-on-one, in my office. You should have read the entirety of Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. Mark any places where you have trouble or you notice a pattern. those might be places to start thinking. It might help you to get some sense of what the professor is looking for as well. How scholarly is scholarly for this professor? Sometimes knowing something very simple, like how long the paper should be, will help. Don’t be afraid of your professors; we really do want to help.

2) The slightly more complicated is this: you’re pushing yourself too hard. This is only the first week, and already you’re having a crisis. Try not to panic so early! College is a big shift for almost everyone, even very well prepared and enthusiastic students like yourself. Maybe it’s especially hard for students who come in with very high expectations like yourself. You need to give yourself some settling in time. If I’d been your advisor, I probably would’ve suggested not taking so many writing based classes in your first semester because it is very hard even for experienced writers to “crank out” quality pieces of writing at any speed. I might not have thrown you into an Honors class so immediately, at least not until you’ve gotten used to the pace of this place. But you might also be fine. (By the way, don’t think that you’re the only one having problems in the class; in my experience everyone thinks that, but it is almost never true.)

And you’re right that essay writing is not a guided process here at Pitt. You can get help at the Writing Center, which is a great resource to use–and I can suggest some tutors over there if you want–but first see if your Shakespeare professor can’t help you a little bit. Does he or she have office hours yet? Go and see him or her! We actually do like people to come and talk to us about problems or issues from class. Some students feel like they’re intruding if they come to office hours, but believe me, you aren’t! Those hours are for you, so use that time. As an added bonus you’ll get to know a real professor which ,if you hope to be one one day, will give you a sense of what it’s like to be one.

3) The last thing I’ll say is about your fear that the more the more you study English, the more juvenile your own writing will seem. That is absolutely true, and it can be, at least for a while, a disheartening feeling. Many many students were the best students in their schools and got used to being the best, the smartest, the most noticed, and then they come to college and they realize that there are far more people at the same level and they’re not quite as special as they’re used to being. That’s part of every freshman’s experience. If you can, try to embrace that feeling because it gives you a chance to slow down a bit, to re-examine your priorities, change your direction if necessary. You don’t have to be the same person you were in high school. You can try out, and probably should try out, some new directions. There’s such a wide range of possibilities for you to consider. Think of college as one of the points where you have access not just to information but to change itself. Maybe in fact you don’t want to be an English major. Maybe Astrophysics is more interesting, maybe Neurobiology or Psychology or Music? There is a buffet of choices here. At least your first year ought to be about tasting a little bit of everything–because the other thing is this: if you really want to be a writer, you should be interested in all of those other things and not just narrowly literary studies. They will all help your writing in different ways. Sometimes by shifting your perspective, sometimes by giving you a new language to describe an experience in, sometimes by providing a fantastic distraction. I completely agree with you, for example, about Shakespeare: love the sonnets and often get lost in the plays’ language. That doesn’t make you a bad writer though. You just keep trying to find what seems to speak to you. Maybe it will be the poet Issa or William Blake or Elizabeth Bishop or Toni Morrison. I found great pleasure in the essays of Stephen Jay Gould and the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. (You may also find that you love certain plays of Shakespeare’s and not others; you don’t have to love everything equally. I love Lear and The Tempest but I don’t care about the comedies at all.)

What you’ll find during this search will be the people who make you want to write, despite the fact that you may never be as great a writer as your models. You’ll want to write anyway because it’s a great pleasure to respond to all the complex, terrible, beautiful, overwhelming heritage we have been given to use. After a while, you’ll notice that your writing will get more complicated, more weird, more interesting. You won’t, I should warn you, probably lose a certain kind of self-doubt. You’ve crossed over a kind of threshold already, which is I think why you probably wrote to me: you’ve found out how much there is to know. You know now that you don’t know everything and that it’s not possible to know everything. That realization is humbling and even frightening at first. You may want to hide out from it, and it’s fine to do that for a day or two–watch stupid movies, go out and walk the dog, go to Phipps and look at the flower garden. But it is also the source of a tremendous joy and excitement to be the recipient of all the knowledge the world has and is producing and to begin your own work toward creating even more knowledge and truth and beauty and all that stuff.

Take a breath. Make sure you get enough sleep and food and water and laughter. You’ve got four more years at least. You’re just beginning. Welcome to the club.

The Days Before Classes Begin

I worry I’m not smart enough. I worry that I don’t have the old energy. I worry that my compassion has vanished. I worry that the students will find out I frequently mess up the difference between lay and lie, who and whom, right and left, and will complain to someone above me in the hierarchy. I worry that there will be glaring mistakes in my syllabi. I worry that I’ll blank on some very easy word, like _________ that one, right in front of class and have to pantomime my way toward what will be, at best, an inexact synonym. I worry that this will be the year I’ll lose it on the first student who misses class and then the next class asks me what he missed. I worry about writing in cursive on the board, two technologies the students will soon outgrow by all predictions. I worry that I won’t ever get my office organized. I worry that the grade inflationists will catch me or the counters of working hours will find out I don’t work hard enough. I worry that I’ll work too hard. I worry that I am already a dinosaur in my thinking on some important issue.

Every single year, I worry. I’m guilty of every sin of teaching even before I even enter the classroom. It’s the old catastrophic thinking I learned growing up among Depression-era grandparents and parents, who had seen everything fall apart and were prepared to have to do everything for themselves. My grandmother could make cakes out of drawer dust and coffee grounds. My grandfather controlled an arsenal of tools, a virtual card catalog of screws, nails, nuts, bolts, and doodads, out of which he could fashion or repair or repurpose almost anything. They had prepared for every eventuality, it seemed. They had grown up without electricity and could live that way again if they had to. On top of that, my generation of kids grew up watching a great cavalcade of disaster movies–The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, and so on. On Saturday afternoons were the great monster movies, where disaster wasn’t usually a global issue, but occasionally there was Godzilla or Rodan leveling cities or Killer Bees or Snakes or Spiders ferociously taking back what civilization had thought we’d stolen away. The old natural terrors have turned into new fears of technological terrorism from state and non-state actors.

All of the things that I worry about in the first paragraph have of course happened. Not all at once, of course, but I’ve survived them all. Civilization still stands in all its versions, despite all the images of cities being demolished by aliens, Supermen, and fundamentalists. Sometimes I think the catastrophism I inherited has seemed to be a blessing: nothing can ever be as bad as I expect it to be. In my more compassionate moments I sometimes think this is why certain religions start with the notion of ruin first. After that it can’t be worse, right? The worst thing is only that which one expected to happen.

At this point too, after twenty-six years of teaching, of living on my own, of being an adult, the worry is part of the cycle by which something in me readies itself to go back to work again. The doubt before the storm. The dressing up before the party begins. At some point I need to stop calling it worry and call it what I think it actually is: excitement.

The Big Father Essay

An essay I’m very proud of, The Big Father Essay, is up at At Length, a fantastic online journal.

Here’s the prologue:

The Big Father Essay

A Note on the Essay

In the fall of 2009, while we were discussing Joe Brainard’s I Remember, one of my writing students said that she thought Brainard’s book, which she loved, was a kind of one-off project. He’d been “lucky” to discover the form of that book, which repeats the phrase “I remember….” at the start of every entry. Surely no one else could get away with that kind of artifice in memoir anymore, she said. Many in the class agreed.

So I set that up as a task for that class—to find a structure or repeating phrase that they might use to write about their own autobiographical material. We had talked about the variety of structures—sonnets, sestinas, and so on—that poets could use to generate work. What were structures that prose writers might use? That was the first question. Is any repeating form simply a gimmick, or did the particular phrase affect what could be remembered? That was the question I didn’t pose directly to them, but hoped they’d find out for themselves.

For the first assignment I gave that class, adapted from an exercise by Carol Bly in her book Beyond the Writers’ Workshop, I asked them to write a 5000-word autobiography in three days. In addition, because I’d recently been irritated by a lack of sentence-level attention among undergraduates, I made a rule that they couldn’t use the same sentence structure twice in a row. I had to remind them of the five basic sentence types—fragment, simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex—that they had to work with.

It was, many of them said, the hardest thing they’d ever had to do, to think in terms of sentence structure while they were trying to narrate the story of their lives. To work in that kind of double-sighted way—one eye on structure and one eye on story—made them, they said, write in ways they didn’t like. It was strange, unnerving. One student likened it to Cubism. Another to jumping Double Dutch. Most of them admitted that they liked the challenge. Everyone agreed that they ended up remembering things they hadn’t thought about in years.

At some point I thought this work with sentences might also lead my students to be more conscious of the rhythms and pressures of the various sentence types. I created a list of all the possible permutations of those five basic sentence types. I gave each type a number (1=fragment, 2=simple, 3=compound, 4=complex, and 5=compound-complex) and then generated all the possible combinations of those numbers: 12345, 12354, 12435, 12453, 12534, 12543, and so on until finally I arrived at 54321.

What if, I said to myself, I imagined each one of those clusters of five sentences as a single paragraph? What if I wrote an essay that fulfilled that form? What would I write about? For a while, the form itself silenced everything I came up with. Then I thought about my father, a figure who continues to be an inexhaustible mystery to me. I’d wanted for a long time to write about him, to write something “big” about him, but the depth of his complexities had always stifled any attempt I made to write about him. So maybe it might be useful to test this irresistible engine with that immovable subject, to see what would happen. I knew I could fill up the 120 paragraphs, even if I didn’t know ahead of time with what. At least I might generate some new thinking on the man. And since every piece of writing is a failure in some way, what did I have to fear about failing at this? Even if I just filled out the form, wouldn’t that be at least some kind of success?

Will and Testament

I’m in the process of making a will. Since I’ve come into a little bit of an inheritance, nothing huge but something, I’ve been trying to think about what I want to do with my “estate.” That I have an estate is hilarious to me, because I’ve never thought of myself as someone who has lived his life or made his goal the accrual of wealth. There are of course people who have, who write books about it, who promise you Jesus wants you to, who see it as the only way to create change in the system. I’ve only wanted to be free to write what I wanted and to have some meaningful work to do in the world, which teaching writing fulfills beautifully.

I’ve taken steps of course along the way that would provide for a retirement for myself, primarily by contributing to a retirement plan through my university, but also by buying a house and car I could afford, paying off credit cards in timely ways; I’ve done most of that because I didn’t want debt and its anxieties to compromise the emotional and psychic space I need for writing. I have been fantastically lucky in a number of ways: had my undergraduate education paid for by Regents scholarships and parents, had my graduate education paid for by a teaching assistantship. I’ve lived in a small city where the rents were low, where I could use buses and a bike to get around town, at least until I found a job that allowed me greater expenses.

There’s no advice there really. If I were doing it now, I’m not sure I’d be able to do the same things. It’s harder to get a TAship at the university where I got mine; there are actually fewer of them than there were in the late 1980s. The city, which was undergoing a bust when I graduated and therefore landlords were glad to have tenants, has since recovered its feet and rents are climbing. The city is a bit more bike-friendly now, and a university ID functions as a bus pass, but elsewhere costs are horrific, including simple ones like parking. History helped me keep expenses low until I could find a full-time footing.

I have no kids or, with the improbable exception of my dog Andy, dependents who will likely outlive me. My older brother is in good shape. So, what to do with these “assets” that will outlive me? Every year the retirement account grows. My house has recently been re-valued upwards. And now there’s money from my mother. Let’s say, for the purposes of numbers, I am worth $250,000 now.

Even though that number is fictitious, it’s not far off. And not bad for a kid who simply followed his instinct to make the writing of poems the center of his life.

My first thought is to think about what good I want to do, if I can, with it. Most of my friends are in good financial states, and although I’d like to leave them something, I’m not too worried about them. Lately I’ve been thinking about leaving an endowment to the Writing Program, something that would do a particular good, like leaving $100,000 to be used specifically to fund travel of NonTenure Faculty. The university recently cut the $400 it used to give each of us to offset the expenses for the annual trip to the AWP conference; to correct that particular administrative slap against some of its hardest working employees would give me some happiness.

Then I think of at least a couple of former students who’ve become friends whose debt is crushing. A gift to them could ease their burdens at least a bit, maybe even take some of the more predatory banks off their backs.

Who gets the dog, though? And what’s a proper dowry (dogry?) for his future care?

Is this all just crazy? I don’t know. I’m writing this in the bloom of middle-age, in which I can imagine there will be no catastrophic illness or accident to derail my journey into a calm and happy retirement. Anything could happen.

Am I just being morbid? Not for my mother. One thing I learned from her is that there is no way to overthink your financial state. You don’t want to leave anything you worked hard for to the courts or to chance. Too many parties have an interest in draining your accounts, she’d say. My mother studied her checkbook and monthly financial statements with a laser-like intensity, looking for mistakes and hidden costs with the same attention a Melville scholar might bring to bear on Moby Dick. Now I begin to know why.

After a while a life can amount to something, even if you’ve not paying attention. For my mother, she was building a gift for my brother and me. She deeply resented anything that drained that gift, and although we tried to get her to travel more or buy something nice for herself, she usually resisted. We thought she was being silly not to use her money more. I wonder if I don’t understand her reluctance to spend her money now. She created a life for herself that was easy to maintain, that afforded her pleasure enough. Meanwhile she was building a gift that might free up our futures. It was in many ways the work of her life, her Magnum Opus. It’s a powerful feeling to think about the ways one might, as a parting gesture, break open a prison or two, fear loved ones from fear, become something like light at the end of a tunnel.

Dear Diary

It’s been approximately too long since I posted something. When I first began this blog, I wasn’t sure what would be an appropriate numbers of blogs per month. I thought there’d be more than two per month. I thought most likely it would be once a week. At least. But a blog like everything else in my life has moved from a honeymoon period–a hey-look-at-this kind of period–to something more measured this summer.

Part of that is because I’m in a transitional state myself. It’s been five months since my mother died, the biggest event in my life so far, an event that was more or less two years coming and so had become part of the fabric of my life. When could I get some time to visit her? I called her about every other day, and then after she assured me she wasn’t going anywhere immediately and needn’t worry so much, once or twice a week. I got used to it at a certain level, normalized a certain level of anxiety that I used to write a manuscript of poems, a group of essays, used as an excuse to not do certain jobs that I ordinarily would’ve taken on even though they would have taken energy away from my own writing, used it in a number of ways I might not even have realized, including as a way to rid myself of certain people who were not really contributing to my life.

Now what? in other words. I’m trying to reorganize my time this month, largely because of the pressure of the fall term, in which I will be teaching three classes, two of them for the first time. I’m excited and terrified at the same time. What will the next book look like? What will capture my attention and imagination in the same way that my mother’s struggle with cancer did? Telling myself to relax, that something else always comes along because if life is nothing else its that which is always coming up with something else.

I feel like I’m making headway. A couple of weeks ago, I hired a friend to help me clean up my basement, which has stayed the same for the last ten years. It’s full of my ex’s boxes, which I’m returning to him after six years. I’m curious to see if that will free up some energy I didn’t know I was secretly holding onto. Or if I’ll finally be able to grieve the last bit of that relationship. I don’t even know how much space that will clear out of the basement. One of these days I’m going to have to replace my furnace, and I’d like the basement to be as clear as possible then.

Yesterday I went out and bought $200 worth of cleaning materials and things like new bath mats, a new hamper, new doormats for the front hall and the back door. I began with the bathroom, cleaning everything but also decluttering it, putting away the ironing board I was using as a shelf for just about everything–clothes, Windex, change, books, nail clippers, receipts, dryer sheets, and so on. Put things in their proper places, I said as I worked. The new bath mats brought in a rush of color. The soap scum came off pretty easily. Pretty soon I felt happy enough to take a shower in there again.

Then I moved one of my mother’s trunks up into my bedroom, a move that was about two months in the making, and suddenly I could put away all the bed linens, pillows, duvet covers, and quilts that had been several piles on the floor. I could put the books on top of that trunk and violá half the floor was visible again.

Today’s job is to buy some new furniture and tomorrow’s is to get rid of some furniture I don’t use really. One of the gifts of a little money is that I can replace things now. The old stuff is being given to a nonprofit furniture reseller. Some stuff is being simply thrown out. Some stuff is being returned to a former owner. Let it go. See what happens.

“Let it go. See what happens” ought to be the motto of this blog. The threshold for acceding to change, to make a change, is quite high for me. I don’t trust change. I always assume the new will require more work than the old. I think I work best when my personal life is stable enough to support a regular schedule. But too much stability becomes stiff, brittle, boring. Just like grief is supposed to. We’re supposed to keep going. No one we really loved would want us to wallow or engage in the what if’s, even if they’re inevitable for a while. We’re supposed to develop into a new thing–someone who remembers but isn’t drowned by the memories.

I think one of the things I like about a blog is that it’s in two worlds; it’s got to be public and so readably coherent, but it’s also supposed to be at least somewhat informal, intimate, imperfect. A foot in both worlds. Or a voice in two bodies? So what is there to be afraid of? You start with one sentence, one piece of furniture you already know is in the wrong place.

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