Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Month: September, 2013

Do What You Can In Ten Minutes

I’ve been starting and re-starting this blog post for the past hour. I have deleted approximately one hundred and fifteen sentences before this second one. It’s taken me half an hour to write these three sentences.

Because writing isn’t hard. Any idiot can write. It’s the choosing what to write that’s hard. It’s the thing Eduardo Galeano calls “sentipensante,” a term he learned from some smart fishermen from Colombia. Feeling-thinking. Thinking that is also simultaneously feeling. It’s trying to find the language that simultaneously runs on those two tracks.

Let me see if I can do it with my own present predicament: as I’m experiencing it right now, in the middle of a crowded coffeehouse, writing feels like closing my eyes and blindly plunging my hands down through a hole in ice into freezing water. I can generally feel the shape of the next sentence, but I don’t actually know what it’s going to look like until I write it out. What I think might be a beautiful rainbow trout of a sentence might in fact turn out to be the shell of a rusted lamp, empty of electricity and shadeless. It might well be a hunk of rotten meat. It might also turn out to be the chain to a long-lost ship, gone down in a storm of despair and frustration decades ago, all hands given up for dead. And yet as I pull on the chain from my end, I begin to feel as if they might not have died; they’ve simply been waiting for rescue.

What usually makes writing possible for me is to sink as deeply as I can into my body. That’s how I got that paragraph above. I tried to think of what it felt like as I waited for something to come to me. The ice, the hole, the freezing water are all in my body. I just tried to describe it.

But I don’t know that it’s simply easy. There are years of reading the best writing I could read, some of it read by accident, some of it by assignment, some of it by recommendation, some of it out of shame for not having read it, in envy of others for whom something seemed to light them from within. There are years of writing down other people’s sentences, ones that gave me a thrill, that made me laugh, that convinced me over and over that writing, even if separated by thousands of years, might shiver my present skin.

I’m thinking about all of this because now that the ship metaphor appeared, I realized I wanted to write about a dear friend of mine who called the other day. A long delayed grief had finally floated up from the depths with all the force of a submarine suddenly surfacing under a simple fishing boat. She was blown out of the water, stunned, afraid for her sanity. Luckily she called me, and luckily I picked up, and we began to just talk about what was happening. She talked in circles, repetitions, echoes. I listened; she wasn’t going crazy but language had turned very slippery around her. She couldn’t find her bearing.

I am myself waiting for the same thing to happen, so I’m not exactly a selfless friend in all of this. I’m going to need her soon to help me keep my bearings when the real grief about my mother’s death finally comes. The six month anniversary is near. Even writing this, I feel like I’m chumming the water. Anything my friend learns might help me keep from drowning or being eaten alive. I’m going to need a bigger boat than just me.

When my students get stuck, I almost always prescribe simple description. Take ten minutes, I’ll say, and just write what you see out your kitchen window or bedroom window. For ten minutes write about the bus you’re on, or the coffeehouse you’re sitting in. Write what you see if you can’t yet write what you feel, if it’s too frightening right now. Don’t try to be meaningful. If there’s a meaning, if there’s something that you’re ready to deal with, it will show up. And if it doesn’t, you’ve given yourself practice describing so that when the moment you need language to keep you afloat, you can at least tell a friend where to look for you, what supplies to send.


Staying Awake

It’s been the kind of day already in which I’ve had to look down twice to make sure I was wearing pants. Or at least shorts. Anything but the sweat-shorts I sleep in.

It’s the second week of classes, and because I front-load my classes with readings and lectures (so we can spend the rest of the term concentrating on writing), I’m a little more anxious to keep things organized. But then the dog got weirdly sick over the weekend, progressing to a stressful day on Monday, Labor Day, when the vet wasn’t open. I had to watch him carefully Monday night–waking up and walking every few hours–so he didn’t have any accidents inside. We showed up on Tuesday morning at the vet’s to make sure he was not going to die (and nope, he’s fine, just an eating misadventure probably), but that took us two and a half hours to get through, so I had to call the office and cancel my classes for the day.

And suddenly everything felt off track, as if I were rounding a cliff side corner on two wheels.

But of course the car didn’t flip or burst into flames or dive head first down a chasm. The students for one thing are amazingly resilient. Although there was a miscommunication between me and the office and the required class cancellation sign might have gotten posted in a place where some students missed it, the students weren’t at all upset. A couple simply got confused and wandered upstairs to find out what happened.

Meanwhile of course Syria. And Fukushima. And the Russian government empowering its own version of nationalist brownshirts to assault and kill gays, the record profits of corporations at a time when worker wages are losing ground. And then my furnace is clearly losing strength and needs to be replaced. And I need to get manuscripts out. And I need to write something new. Hunger strikes. Protests against. Walks for. Greater needs than mine here. Real catastrophe there.

Last night, after my long day, I wanted to go home and collapse. The dog was at Camp Bow Wow overnight, so I could sleep without interruption. And yet, I woke up after only an hour of sleep. And I was up, completely awake. Except that I couldn’t imagine what to do with being awake. I tried to read a Mahmoud Darwish book I’ve been meaning to start. I read the preface. I might as well been reading a strip of sandpaper: I couldn’t engage. I watched something on Netflix; I couldn’t tell you now what it was. I went downstairs to watch TV. Again, I couldn’t tell you what was on. I was the undead.

On one hand, this is probably normal transitioning stuff. The summer with its enormous permissions is gone. My body needs to adjust to the new constraints of time and responsibility. This kind of thing happens every term. I’ve even stopped taking vacations of less than three weeks because it takes at least a week for my body to stop responding to its schedules and relax. (So it ends up I only take a vacation every five years or so when I have enough money to go on vacation for that long.)

But I also think there’s something in the culture that’s ready to blow. Part of last night’s sleeplessness–maybe a better word would be “forced waking”–felt so much like the midnights in which my father would come home drunk, and I’d get up and sit in the dark at the top of the front stairs and wait for the inevitable battle that would start between him and my mother. I felt it was my duty to intervene. Because it was, after awhile. They never stopped on their own. I have deep resentment around that–that they couldn’t stop themselves. That they wouldn’t. Didn’t. Not even just to spare me from having to come down and yell, Stop It! I shouldn’t have had to do it at all.

I feel that way about most governments these days. Things feel ungoverned. Nothing is getting done. The needs of the people are ignored while political parties or sects or lobbying groups go on playing petty political brinksmanship.

In such a situation, I do what I think a number of people do: I create a very heavily governed self. I burrow down. I shrink the things I’m responsible for and to to a bare minimum. I don’t go out unless there’s a compelling reason. I stay home and pet the dog until the war is over. I hope the side that most thinks and feels like I do wins. I try to give where a real emergency appears. I click on petitions that reach into the millions but which are dead on arrival, the real decisions made long before the formal announcements. I don’t go to big protests because the simple shouted slogans of demands seem as lifeless as the conditions they’re in protest against. Of course there should be justice, I end up thinking. Of course there should be fairer wages, especially in light of huge corporate profits. Of course tyrants should step down, stop killing, and so on.

I know the answers to this sadness: do what you can. Give where you can. Love, volunteer, donate, listen, write, and so on the best you can. Help the fantastic students I get to teach to become more conscious of their choices, abilities, strengths. Listen to the occasional lost or confused friend or stranger at the office or the coffeehouse. If those at the top of the food chain have grown so isolated, work from the bottom up.

Last night the answers weren’t enough. There was literally nothing to do but stay awake. And in the morning try to write about it.

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