Artists’ Statements

by Jeff Oaks

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.