“Boredom is Rage Spread Thin.” Paul Tillich

by Jeff Oaks

I haven’t blogged for a while because I’ve been so busy. Literary traffic, i.e. books I should be reading, is backed up for miles. Of my own work–I’m finishing (god, I hope!) a book of poems, beginning a group of poems that are already talking to one another like they’re going to become roommates somewhere soon, and in the middle of trying to write a book of essays. Then there have been the three classes I’m teaching (which this month has meant having second conferences with the students), the various administrative work I “take care of”, and so on and so forth. When I’ve come home at the end of the days, I’ve just wanted to collapse from all the talking to, thinking about, and negotiating with other people’s desires. Of course the dog also wants a claim on me too, but walking with him along our usual trail by the Allegheny River is blessedly quiet. None of this is a complaint, really. I love my job. I get to use almost all the parts of myself I admire in it, including a few parts of myself that are sneaky, anxious, and afraid to make mistakes. But at the end of the day, work has made use of almost all of me. I usually am sleep by 9.

This morning, though, I was free from almost all my responsibilities to other people. It’s the beginning of Thanksgiving break. I have a few revisions to look over, but not many. After I took the dog for a long romp in his favorite off-leash-exercise-area in Frick Park, I went home and made myself a breakfast that began with frying up some bacon I had left in the fridge and ended up with my improvising a kind of stir fry of potatoes, carrots, a bit of roast pork I needed to finish off, and some kale. I made some tea, sugared and limed it, and carried the whole magnificent repast into the living room and ate it, throwing the occasional too-crispy piece of bacon to my patient but salivatingly hopeful dog. Then we slept on the couch, me in that S shape dog owners learn to take so their dogs can fold themselves into the lower space, rest their chins on a thigh or an ankle. Well fed and tired, we were out for an hour. It was marvelous. I’d forgotten life could be like this.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my students’ lives though, especially their psychological health lately. Yesterday, at a meeting with some MFAs who will be teaching introductory creative writing classes soon, I found myself reminding them that most of our students are taking five or six classes a term and might not have time for actual writing, that it was okay to devote time in class to in-class writing. Students might not get any other time to write, or be able to by themselves create such a space. They are tired by financial anxieties which lead them sometimes to take on jobs in addition to their studies, leaving them even less time to write. I know too of a few who are more-or-less the backup parent for younger siblings, who are living in complicated situations with complicated parents, who are the actual breadwinners for a growing family. They look worn out when I see them in conferences. This past week three burst into tears while they were telling me why their rough drafts were late. That they STILL want to be writers is itself a miracle.

I knew I wanted to be a writer because I couldn’t think of anything else to do that would contain all the possibilities of what I might do. I needed something to fill up that boredom I felt that, when I read the Tillich quotation in the title of this post, was indeed a kind of enormous rage, as long as I might also suggest that it was also an enormous ambition to escape the conditions of my small town life, which I could tell were not going to be enough to satisfy me for long after graduation. I also thought writing would save me from a life of being busy. I’d simply write a best-seller and retire to some island in comfort, I thought. That dream seems to me now to imply that I was mad about the work of living, which at the time felt merely like work and had nothing of pleasure in it.

I’ve been thinking all day about an opinion piece, published in the New York Times last year. Tim Kreider is the writer. This struck me especially:

“Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.”

That my students, that so many many students and friends and fellow citizens, all seem so exhausted seems like a important thing to think about. For the students who are trying so hard to move beyond their present circumstances there may be no easy way to fix their busyness. I’ve suggested to a few that they might try taking only four classes a term, but usually they remind me that they’re trying to graduate early so they don’t have to take out more loans. What they will graduate knowing, I don’t know. Knowing for me has usually required spending a lot of time with certain ideas, allowing them to filter through the tissues of my life. If they can’t then make that space, I tell myself when I teach now, I can make space in my writing classroom for them to feel what a gift a protected space in which to think and dream and explore can be. I don’t think most students in introductory writing classes need peer review so much as peer escape. As socially connected as we all are, and here I’m taking some ideas from Carol Bly in her great book Beyond the Writer’s Workshop, the really radical thing might be to be quiet, to allow the writer to feel what it feels like to write, to be serious about writing and not, as sometimes happens in workshop and in life, feel like a kind of ritual sacrifice for a greater good. There is a lot of boredom out there looking for a spark to transform it.

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