Do What You Can In Ten Minutes

by Jeff Oaks

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.