The Big Father Essay

by Jeff Oaks

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
—JEFF OAKS

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?

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