Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Month: January, 2014

Little Reminder

Write something down. Rewrite something you’ve been meaning to. Send something new out. Even if you don’t believe. Even if you feel tired. An englyn, a triolet, ten metaphors, ten sentences about feathers, a paragraph about pilot lights or mice or trombones or the last time you were kissed.


Sleeping In Snowbanks

Snow has been falling all day today, a slight confectionary kind of snow that looks like it couldn’t amount to anything but has become inches already. I’ve come to the coffeehouse to escape the cabin fever that was beginning to burn in me. For the past couple of weeks either I’ve been sick or the dog’s been sick or we’ve had arctic cold the likes of which even the dog who likes snow and winter generally will only go so far out into it. Once number 1 and 2 are accomplished, number 3 is to get the hell back to the car as fast as possible.

Fortunately, the house has survived the terrible effects of the ultra-cold air. Friends have reported frozen pipes, cracked windows, electrical outages, furnaces collapsing finally from trying to keep their houses warm. We’re all feeling anxious about the shelter we ordinarily don’t have to worry about. All I’ve wanted to do is sleep, which is my general initial defense against anxiety. I’m one of those people who would fall asleep in the jaws of the lion. If I just sleep through this, it will be better soon…

But weeks of that kind of activity begins to re-tune my body to just stay asleep, to do as little as possible. Because I wrote a lot last year, I told myself that I’d take January off, using it to assemble and organize what’s already been written. I said I’d try to rewrite a couple of longer poems I need to concentrate on. I’ve done a little bit of it, but no where near enough. When I sit down in front of the folder that has the poems I need to work on, poems with helpful notes by friends of mine, notes that should make the whole process fairly easy, all I want to do is put my head down and surrender.

This is where the intention group I’m in helps tremendously. I know I have to see them tomorrow and report in, and that’s at least one of the reasons why I’m writing this post. Without them I wouldn’t have even opened up the computer. I need to go to the gym or, as I claimed I was going to do weeks ago, buy or go pick up an elliptical that I can have at home. I know that doing 30 minutes on an elliptical will make me feel better, will change the chemical balances in me toward optimism. But getting over the first threshold, committing myself to the first gesture, is so hard sometimes.

Which is why I love lists. They help articulate the actual work I need to do, help me organize them by priority, which might be deadline or might be need. My mother always told me to do the worst thing first, but in fact I’m doing the easiest thing first in this case: writing this post. Now that I’ve written my first hundred, I can write 500 words of prose pretty easily. And it’s a blog, the threshold of excellence is low enough that I don’t fear the work. Sometimes that’s the only way I can begin to clean the house when it feels cluttered, disorganized, dirty. I can, I say to myself, at least resolve those books on the dining room table. Soon, I’m filing or throwing out the scattered mail I put down and simply never picked up. Then I realize that the dining room table could use a dusting and I bring out the dusting micro-cloths I bought last month or the lemony Pledge wipes. As long as I’m doing the table, I might as well do the bookshelves, the coffee tables, the hallway table, the tv. Pretty soon the vacuum comes out. Pretty soon I’m folding laundry or cleaning the stove or washing the doggy blankets from the couch. The house begins to feel like a home again. I always wonder at the end of it why I thought it would take all day. It takes about two hours tops.

Just like writing, or composing at least. I start out with an easy gesture: talking about the snow that’s falling. I only have to describe, narrate, relate. Pretty soon that begins to link to other things, building a story, a set of questions, a rhythm or current that moves me along. By the end of an hour, I can say to myself that I did this at least, the blog post I told my intention group I’d write.

The rest I promised to do–write at least 10 pages toward an essay I’m working on about the year I turned 27, which was a pivotal year for me–I might not get done. I’m looking back at my journals from that year and have been frankly stunned by how crazy a year it was. It was the first year out of grad school. My first real relationship broke up, my first chapbook was published, I won my first grant, I was teaching in at least five different places to make money, I had to move, I experienced a crippling psychosomatic condition. I slept around a lot, breaking hearts and having mine broken. I read a lot of mystics. I complained a lot and anguished endlessly over what I wanted and whether I would make something of myself, be someone. The trick for this essay is, I think, waiting for that first gesture to occur to me, the sentence that might provide a kind of ladder down into the water, to use a metaphor from Adrienne Rich’s Diving into the Wreck. The trick is knowing that there’s something down there to explore. She doesn’t say how she decided to anchor where she did. That’s the first gesture I’d think, finding “the book of myths”. There had to be some sort of map that suggested where a wreck might be. Maybe it all starts merely with the feeling that

we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

Which is a bit how I feel inside these last days of January and how I feel for almost all of February: water-eaten, fouled. How not to let oneself drown? Find what will float until you can stop panicking. Even a small thing can work.


“Begin again” is my favorite mantras. It’s related to Beginner’s Mind from zen, that state of mind in which you attend to the world as if it were your first time seeing it. I like the “again” because for me it’s a signal that I’ve started over before (and so can do it again) and it’s humbling without being self-deprecating. It’s a way of saying to myself, usually at a moment of crisis or exhaustion, that here’s an opportunity to reconfigure my thinking.

A colleague I used to work with used to write “onward!” at the end of any email she sent that had bad or difficult news in it. It used to cheer me up. Her lesser version of it was “and so it goes,” which was less inspiring but captured in it a sense that even this difficulty was part of the usual course of things–that we don’t always get exactly what we want and yet that doesn’t mean we can’t get any of what we want. She usually did but that was because she thought in long stretches and was content in many ways to keep asking for a thing if she believed it was important.

“One thing at a time” was my mother’s mantra. She believed in the slow accrual of merit. She distrusted anything that came too quickly; things needed to be worked for, earned. Whenever I called her, feeling overwhelmed by life, she’d always help me prioritize the problems, dismissing some as things that didn’t need to be worried about, advising me which ones deserved attention. “What’s the most important thing you need to do? Do that first.”

If I were sick, she’d always tell me to rest first, but not too long. “Work helps” she’d say. My mother was enormously kind but not blind to the fact that, as a child, I often used feeling sick as a way to avoid doing what I should do. I lived in my head a little bit too much for her.

One of the useful things I gained from my years of therapy in the 90s and more recently the work of Eric Maisel, the creativity coach, is the need to examine the little mantras that one repeats over and over to one’s self. For years mine were cripplingly negative: “Well, of course, that didn’t work.” “Who did you think you were?” “There’s no point in sending that out; it will just be rejected like the others were.” Maisel was especially useful in helping me to reimagine those negative mantras into positive ones, and after a number of years, I’ve managed to replace most of the negative ones with ones that are not merely selfishly positive (“I’m the best person who ever lived!” or “The world can’t exist until I write about it!”) but convey a sense closer to “just do it!” although maybe not so plagued by corporate branding.

I’m also very attached to the saying from the Pirkei Avot,the Jewish Book of Principles: “It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” It’s not exactly a mantra but it’s in the same ballpark; it lowers the threshold of anxiety.

I’m at the beginning of a new term again, with a couple of stacks of papers already waiting for my perusal, a couple of book-length manuscripts of my own, and just recovering from some kind of infection that has turned my voice into a gravelly growl. I can feel the work of the term pulling me forward whether I want to go or not. I’m sitting in the seat, the safety bar has come down, I’m committed to the ride again, which I know will not be exactly the same as it’s ever been.

Theory: some notes

When I was a graduate student I read every craft book I could, but I also read as much theory as I could, taking a classes in it, going to talks by and about a variety of writers of it. I came to love some writers (Barthes, Benjamin, Cixous most especially) more than others. I recently read Barthes’ Mourning Diary, the scraps of paper he wrote after the death of his beloved mother, and I thought it was really helpful in articulating certain experiences of grief. Cixous’ Three Steps on the Ladder to Writing reinvigorated my experience of reading and writing, and I still recommend it to students as a place to enter into the mysteries of theory, a field they sometimes feel requires them to be too intellectual or too unfeeling or too distant from their own writing and so will sever the sometimes fragile umbilicus between the writer and his or her work.

One of the ways I got acquainted with some of the key features of literary theory was by reading in other disciplines. The writer who helped me the most in grad school was Stephen Jay Gould. I read book after book of his essay collections; it was in them that I began to see how certain ideas I’d inherited about race, gender, progress, and change might be in need of re-appraisal and adjustment. He broke down the large “metanarratives” that often interfere with scientists’ thinking and led them into theories that were then used to justify things like eugenics or creationism. Reading him was like finding a secret teacher, into whose office I could disappear for an hour and reemerge significantly and gently rewired.

It wasn’t that I hated theory but that it so often highlighted how timid I was in my thinking and I hated that feeling. As a person who had no ability to debate, who was hardly brave enough to speak out loud about things I could then just barely articulate, I couldn’t face its challenges publicly without feeling the most keen embarrassment about my own intellectual deficits. Especially in the late 80s when theory was everywhere and seemed important to master, classes in it were largely debates, not the discussions I needed. In the quiet of my room, however, I could see where I had swallowed hook, line, and sinker some terrible ideas, ideas that would have been devastating to own up to in the public arena of the classroom.

After I realized I could get much of what I needed to know about theory from an evolutionary biologist, I began to see theory in a number of other places besides just literary theorists, which is what I thought theory concerned itself with. It wasn’t, I could suddenly see, just a fad of bored academics, which is how it’s still often described. I began to see how visual artists, art and dance critics, book reviewers, psychiatrists, and journalists all participate in this way of thinking.

Which is not to say that anything marked “theory” is automatically good or even interesting. One learns to be suspicious of categorizing. I feel the same about anything marked “poetry” nowadays. Or the word “queer”. It points toward a kind of reader who can stand (withstand?) a lot of ambiguity or ambiguous behavior. Theory, poetry, and queer more often than not seem to mark a boundary between practical or utilitarian writing (a newspaper review of a book, a historical essay, a re-consideration of evidence, something that assumes an audience or is interested in conveying information or an experience) and something that doesn’t yet have a name, that’s more like dreaming or playing or going out on a tangent. What’s the point? ask the detractors of all three words. There isn’t always a clear one. Or a simple one.

I love to teach the craft of writing, as we often call exercises in engineering the language toward specific effects–line breaks, stanza breaks, image, metaphor, diction, syntax. It feels like I’m teaching students “something real.” But I often wish I could better teach dreaming, theorizing better; there doesn’t seem to be much of it in my undergraduate students lately. They’re right now so nervous about following orders, meeting objectives, and counting grade points because they think that this will save them in a world that feels more and more outside their control and their parents’ predictions. Dreaming, queering themselves and their thinking, trying out new formulations sometimes for the sheer fun of it, seems terrifying, irritating, even infuriating to them. I want to give them an impossible book like The Writing of the Disaster by Maurice Blanchot and send them away for a while to be quiet, to find a little space to be wrong.

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