Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Month: February, 2014

2 am Notes from AWP:

1) Because my body wakes up when the alcohol leaves it in the middle of the night, I don’t usually drink anymore. It was only two lovely gin and tonics though, and the guys in the bar were cute.

2) A text from another old friend. They’re in the bar. Come down. I was already asleep and all my alerts on silent.

3) The iPhone’s little moonlight by which to write these notes for the day. My roommate’s regular breathing the rhythm.

4) I don’t like to say goodbye to anything anymore. I’ll try anything once again.

5) At least my insomnia is now on Pacific Standard Time.

6) How many discussions revolve here around submissions? The woman who, as a Graywolf editor said Nice to meet you, involuntarily (so it seemed) curtsied.

7) Another friend who recommended I get the shirt from Submittable.

8) Breakfast is already planned. Most of Saturday. I’m already thinking about the gym. I walked 25,000 steps yesterday.

9) We walked to the water and its darkness. We looked for the friends whose birthday it was. We sent texts. We talked about our lives. There were no answers. Eventually we took ourselves out.

10) Sometimes I like the little solitude the insomniac gets to think in. But you can’t live there long, revising everything.

11) An old friend, his name changed, is even sweeter than he always was. I rejoice in his first book. A newly tenured friend introduces me as her teacher. Tomorrow a former student reads from her first book. Out of the mass of faces, a man appears, shakes my hand; I had a terrible crush on him when we worked together. Now we’re two administrators with goatees, tired eyes, lanyards with our affiliations clearly printed out, lamenting enrollments, forgetting those beautiful bodies we had.

12) The gym here is always open. You can work out your sleeplessness staring at the sleeping city. I almost burst out singing after the first ten minutes on the elliptical. I couldn’t tell if I were running or dancing.


AWP: Some Notes in Flight

1. Get in and get settled. Breathe. Then register.

2. The Bookfair is the greatest thing: a beehive of ambitious work, humane undertakings, and stern and open faces. It is the central engine.

3. The panels? Meh. Usually. A simple key is this: if the central question of the panel can be answered by yes or no, that’s going to be a boring panel. You know the answers going in.

4. Interesting panels are almost universally the ones you decide not to go to. Your friends will be the source of the information in that case, fragmented from the original, but also thrilling with your friend’s new enthusiasm.

5. Try to have at least five friends you can talk to once a day. They should want to attend different panels from you. Don’t discard your interests to go with them. Remember: your job is also to feed them your enthusiasm.

6. The first hour of the Bookfair is ecstasy, the second hour torture. The initial excitement at seeing all the opportunities can suddenly tip toward being overwhelmed by and deeply depressed by those same opportunities, especially if your work isn’t regularly being published yet.

7. Your hotel room is sacred. Retreat there as often as you need. Use the tv. Look out its windows for a bigger view.

8. Go to readings as needed. Too many and the function of them disappears and they become mere obligation, the death of all love.

9. Give yourself a budget. Stay close to it. Pack in such a way you’d have to really want a book. Be willing to throw away your clothes for a good book.

10. You will never know the whole of literature, but it’s good to have a few places (presses, literary journals, and writers) you can use as check points. Ask those people who they’re reading or for any new discoveries. You can start conversations that way, if you’re stuck.

11. Walk outside a few times a day. Breathe real air and see the sun or hear the rain. Break the seal that can develop around any convention.

12. For me, breakfasts have so far been the best times to talk to friends. Everyone is a little more vulnerable and open. Not everyone else is up for breakfast, so it’s a good test of real friendship. Plus, it’s the most important meal of the day. I prefer hotel breakfasts where it’s all-you-can-eat.

13. Dinners are so largely ceremonial and often crashed by others and expensive that I’m rethinking dinners, even though I like them. Have one dinner in your hotel room maybe.

14. Are the caucuses doing any good? Is AWP changing itself at all? A number of writers with disabilities who’ve been asking for changes in accessibility make me think it’s not listening to them. Should caucuses be given a certain amount of choice in the decisions where AWP is held and some number of panels that might reflect specific interests?

15. AWP is not for everybody. What is? You need however to go to a couple of them before you condemn it altogether. The more I’ve gone, the better it’s gotten. There have been bad ones and very good ones.

16. Be kind to yourself. It’s hard to be without a book to your name. It’s hard to feel left out of conversations by people you look at your name and move on. It has nothing to do with your worth. They have their own issues. Make yourself talk or thank at least one person a day who makes the life of your imagination a more interesting place. They often have no idea that people are benefitting from their hard work.

17. Grade your papers before or after AWP. Write poems during readings. Find a coffeehouse and just write for two hours.

18. Watch how the famous writers behave. You might learn something.

19. Don’t assume someone doesn’t have some influence just because you might not have read work by them. Don’t assume people with clear influence have to be coddled. Don’t assume editors will remember you; remind them with as much courtesy as you can.

20. If you’re only listening to people with the intend to get published, you’re not listening. Be ready, however, to say yes if an opportunity suddenly appears.

21. Hydrate. You’d be surprised at the effect quiet dehydration will do to your mood. Drink water more than anything else.


Somewhere in my childhood I remember reading that it’s the person just emerging from depression (or was it addiction or trauma in general?) who is more likely to take his or her own life. Before that, he didn’t have the strength. But if the trauma has gone on long enough and been crippling enough, the return of some strength can bring with it the fear of and/or anger about sinking again into a state that is a void, uninhabitable, a horror. And one will do anything to return there.

Why is that the first thing to come to me today? I wanted to write about the danger thaw inadvertently poses. My immediate example is not psychological but architectural: Monday night at 2 am I woke to the sound of dripping water, then something more than mere dripping. I knew immediately where it was coming from: I’ve had a problem with a part of my roof where ice dams can form. I thought I’d paid to have it fixed a few years ago, but water is trickier than capitalism and assurance. Still, I spent the next couple of early morning hours arranging a plastic tub to catch the water falling, positioning towels strategically to catch the water that was going directly down the wall, periodically checking whether it was appearing downstairs in some form.

First a drip as the heat of the house melted the bottom of the snow pack on the roof, and then that water, full of gravitational imperatives to flow where it could, feeling around for a soft spot and escape, finds a hole and begins its paratrooping maneuvers down through crawlspaces, following the beams of the house. Then once the lines are secure, something like a laugh begins in the water, the gush we all might feel escaping an anxious situation. That was the thing that scared me the most. Suddenly the amount of water increased and I had no sense how long it would go on, how long I’d have to wait for help. It was the early am and who could help? No one I could call was awake. And that voice in my head saying: Wasn’t the damage done already? Weren’t things going to be fucked up from now on?

I had a brief scrambling to figure out how I could solve it myself, but without a ladder high enough to get me up there to free the ice myself or a clear, safe way to reach the roof otherwise, there was nothing to do but endure it, do what I could. I briefly flirted with selling the house, getting in the car and just leaving the house to fall in on itself, if that’s what it wanted.

I’m not bad with other people’s crises: I run cold in the face of emergency. I’m not necessarily the one who can immediately apply the tourniquet or mouth-to-mouth; those are intimacies. I’m the calling of 911, the calming talker to suicides, the assembler of towels and blankets, the guider of EMTs. In the face of my own crises, my first instinct is to drop dead as a solution, if I can’t talk my way out of it. In Berlin’s choice between the Hedgehog and the Fox, I am definitely the Hedgehog, although I think I’m probably more Opossum or the Hog-nosed Snake, without even the protection of a spiny coat. Pity me, Oh Death, and pass by! I may have learned this early as a defense against bears, now that I think about it, which were the principal predators in my childhood nightmares. That and running downhill as fast as you can.

Fortunately this leaking thing has happened before, so I knew it wouldn’t really kill the house. Fortunately I have now access to money to fix whatever breaks thanks to an inheritance from my mother. Fortunately I know what to do with this kind of fear: I can narrate it, use it to tell a story, to think about the problem of living, move the fear and terror off my shoulders and out of my gut onto the page–or now the screen. Fortunately I have a blog to keep filling up, so there’s a certain excitement to everything that happens. I love being a writer for the reason that, although writing doesn’t fix everything, writing makes it possible to use everything, accept everything as material, makes everything potentially a starting point for deeper thinking, for making sense of the inarticulate in my life.

Eventually the water slowed and I could see that although it wasn’t good, it wasn’t going to be a tragedy. I sent out a couple of tentative emails to people who have the tools and skills I don’t. By the time I was dressed and had to appear at work, the water had mostly stopped. By the time I left work I had the beginnings of a plan for rescue and long-term reconstruction. Last night was drip-less, thanks to the warming temperatures. I have a roofer to talk to today.

Now if I can only remember all this while I begin dating again. That part of my life has been, if not frozen, playing dead for about eight years now. Did I ever date? Do I even remember how? Parts of my life have become so intensely folded and private, my schedule has become so comfortable and productive. I fear those losses as if they won’t survive any change, as if I won’t. Isn’t that the fear of the hand long clenched into the protective power of the fist as it starts to open? That, in the initial pain and awkwardness one has to relearn in order to, say, pick a flower, one will, like Frankenstein’s monster, drown the baby as well as the daisies, and then have to retreat again into the icy regions?

The Edges

I joke with people that I call February Suicide Month. It is the cruelest month, if you’re in Pittsburgh. This February has been the worst I remember in a long time. Unremittingly cold. Icy. You trudge into and through it. You wrap yourself up in a million layers. You have to do enormous amounts of laundry therefore. You have to shovel and, worse, scrape to go anywhere. If you teach, you also have to watch the bright faces of your students grow dull. They live in places with even less insulation or dependable heating than you do. They have fewer clothes to layer themselves. They have to wait for busses which are packed and full of other stressed people complaining or growing dull with anger. I found myself cursing The Cold as if it were, like God, a tangible, affect-able thing.

I don’t want to write a goddamned thing. I want to stay in bed and read what others have written, preferably fantasy, preferably magical, preferably long. I want to, like the characters in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, walk into a mirror and travel somewhere else. I think at this point, if the White Witch drove up in her sleigh, I would get in just to have something to do. Or maybe I’m already living in her castle where one never gets warm or comfortable.

One of the pleasures, on the other hand, of being this cranky is that it might free me to say certain things. I remember a long time ago reading Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul, which suggested that depression offered one many opportunities–including the ability to grasp certain truths that otherwise can’t be glimpsed. (He wasn’t talking about deep clinical depression but the kind of normal depression one sinks into occasionally and sometimes finds it hard to escape simply by “being positive” or “smiling more” or “praying”.) It corresponds to a meditation class I sat in on in Burma in which the teacher encouraged us to move our awareness into those parts of our bodies that were beginning to strain or feel sore or become restless. I remember getting up from that hour of sitting feeling much, much better than before I sat down.

The truth then might be that is I like being cranky sometimes. I spend a lot of my time being nice to people, which usually I don’t mind but sometimes is a strain. I both fear and love the icy ferocities February stokes. I fear for those close to me who might get caught in any blast. I don’t want to lose my reputation for being a nice guy. But I also love the feeling of ruthlessness, a word I heard Sharon Olds talk about as an essential part of any writer’s psyche. It doesn’t mean being mean to others, but being tough on yourself, being able to “murder your darlings” in order to arrive at something better than darling, maybe something daring.

I feel like the caged panther in Rilke’s famous poem:

The Panther

His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.

Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
lifts, quietly–. An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.

If this is you too, here’s your writing assignment: Imagine unlocking the cage. What are the bars wearying your vision? Write them down. Or: it might be a good time to begin those revisions you’ve been putting off.

What’s Missing?

I’m wondering why, with more free time this term, I seem to have less interest in writing or submitting. Is it possible that I write more when I have less time? It’s not a problem of structure; I have at least two hours everyday in which to work. I want to call it pressure or lack of a clear focus. The past couple of years I’ve had my mother’s battle with cancer to focus me, to give me something to use language on, to give my thinking/feeling selves a common ground, a way out of feeling helpless. After Ma died at the end of last March, I had those poems and prose pieces to work on, to rewrite, to send out. They kept me company in her absence by their presence.

The thing is: I still have those pieces to work on. There are at least five poems from that manuscript that still need to be revised. They’re the longer poems and I know I’ll have to cut a couple of them fairly harshly. And there’s a whole long essay that I have to shape. I’ve tried to cast it into a couple of shapes now but nothing has given the sentences the kind of energy that feels right.

Now with the anniversary coming around, I don’t even want to reread them. Right now, their presence is starting to emphasize her absence. I’m also feeling caught between needing to finish those poems and proses, and wanting to have a clear sense of another project so I have a clear sense of the future. I feel like a moon trapped between the gravity fields of two planets.

If I were my own student, I’d say, Well, go to a movie or sleep for a couple of days or go buy yourself a new pair of shoes. Disrupt the anxiety with pleasure. Be kind to yourself.

February in Pittsburgh is almost always like this, I remind myself. There is a reason I half-jokingly call it Suicide Month. The costs of trudging through cold and ice and snow, of bundling up and unbundling, of feeling always so slowed down and blanketed come due in February. March will bring an occasional warm day and strange winds from the south that shift everything in me toward green and hope and yes. Right now, though, the spirit begins to fear it’s going to starve. It doesn’t seem to help all that much to know that spring will come soon. It’s easy to get irritated and be irritating.

I love the old Iroquois names for the moons: The full moon of February was the Snow Moon. “At this time the northeastern regions can give up their most heaviest of snow falls. This full moon is also called the hunger or hungry moon because the grips of winter can make it another lean month for the belly of both man and beast,” says a website I check. I am definitely feeling that.

In the spirit of not moaning like a starving animal, I’m wondering if I might better make a list of Writer’s moon/month names:

I might call February The Making Lists Month.
Followed by the Revising Month of March.
Followed by the Submit Work Month of April.
May: Finish Something Month
June: Begin Again Month
July: Go Elsewhere Month
August: Beautiful Language Month
September: Difficult Truths Month
October: Clear Clutter Month
November: Light the Fire Month
December: Rejection Month
January: Small Paragraphs Month

I ought to add a thirteenth moon, so the routine doesn’t ever get too frozen. How about a Fuck It All Moon? 28 days of the year in which one might actually not write toward anything, might not write at all, might fall asleep beside the ocean’s constancy. You choose when.

Artists’ Statements

Now that I’ve had to write a personal statement for a dating site, I will never again complain about writing an artist statement for a grant application. At least I know what I want from a granting agency: money. I want money to buy me some time at a residency or to pay for a trip to do some research or simply to hold off the anxiety of making money for a few months so I can concentrate on writing new things, rewriting old things, and/or organizing a whole lot of things into a collection. I want money so I can stop or diminish at least temporarily the effects of anxiety on my writing.

There are vast warehouses of language with which to describe (I use that term very loosely, since description is often the last thing it does!) what it is I’m after when I sit down to read what I’ve written. For the past few years I’ve been writing poems about my mother’s battle with cancer and mortality. Now, I hope to discover ways to think about reorientation and even optimism in the aftermath of loss. I’ve been investigating optimism in the short essays I’ve been writing, as well as trying to invent some interesting forms to create pressure in prose the way the sonnet or sestina can in poetry. I can cite other writers as examples; I can steal language from them and repurpose them for myself.

Some of this is probably applicable to personal statements, I suppose. But I feel infinitely more vulnerable and extraordinarily more ridiculous as I made out my statement about myself recently on I tried to be funny. Then serious. Then descriptive. None of them felt exactly right. What I’ve found myself missing for about a month now is another person’s presence in my bed in the morning. An arm around my waist. A pair of warm feet to brush up against. Someone to tell me to stay a minute longer before I get up to walk the dog in the snow, by the nearly frozen river. The desire may be an effect of the frigid temperatures, I suppose, but something tells me something else is going on, a deeper desire. It’s not exactly loneliness; it’s more like hunger for something more. Maybe I’ve finally just gotten tired of myself. Maybe I’m tired of the ways I know myself.

Of course I want the process to happen suddenly, like it used to when I was younger and would go get drunk, pick up someone, have some kind of sex, wake up the next morning and go from there. I never got so drunk that I brought home someone dangerous or stupid or unattractive to me. Sometimes a man stayed around, sometimes they didn’t, sometimes they became friends. I also didn’t have anything to lose–I had no money or possessions to steal, no influence to curry. Either we liked each other or we didn’t.

What do I do at but click on pictures first anyway? They ask me to rate potential mates everyday first by their photos. It seems very Mean Girls. After that, I read the clicked-ones’ statements, which so far have all seemed earnest, smart, lovable. I read for cues that will separate the ones I could live with (loves dogs, loves quiet, gardens) from the ones I probably couldn’t (hi-energy, conservative, Republican, neat freak). I judge against people who misspell or don’t care about getting weather or whether right. But is that fair? I’m not even sure what I need. I can barely describe myself or my own needs, and my whole life has been spent practicing articulation!, so why not cut other people a break?

Because, says the voice in my head who sounds a lot like my mother, you now have something to lose. Compared to that, being rejected by the NEA again is nothing. It seems much easier to just get drunk.

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