Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Month: April, 2014


Right now someone is reading a friend’s manuscript for nothing, making suggestions, writing questions, giving up her own writing time. Right now an artist is sketching a bird he’s never noticed before. He sketches it not because it will make him money, but because he wants to remember it and know it as deeply as he can before it disappears again. As he sketches, the bird merges with the artist’s dream of the night before. Right now, a man with a hangover is singing in the shower, when he suddenly realizes a slight alteration in a line of the song would allow him to write about something he always wanted to. He gets out of the shower and writes it down. Some of it is lost in the moment between. Right now, at the edge of a river, a woman is stacking small river stones into vertical towers on large river stones. Maybe no one else will ever see them before they fall. Or maybe they’ll be seen only by someone wandering, thinking about what to do with his or her life. Right now a couple of kids are constructing secret trails through a wild place behind their houses, at the edge of town. They leave signs that only their friends will recognize. Adults will think nothing has happened here. Right now, in a book, in a basement, a child will find a sentence that will let him or her know that the world has an explanation for the reason the child has been locked in: cruelty. Right now a teacher is asking a student nothing about the assignment the student has failed to address but if the student is all right, because there may not be anyone else to ask that question otherwise. The student for a second doesn’t know. How to begin…? Right now, you may be turning to look around, wondering the same thing.


Rain: On Not Mattering

It’s raining today, the small rain that is easy to bear and hard to hate, especially right now when the trees are swelling with blossoms and leaves. Through the coffeehouse window I can see branches of pink magnolia, branches behind that lush with white flowers. Behind that I can see down the street all the black branches are covered with green and vaguely red fogs of growth. You can see the work of water to soften the things that were girded against the winter. It’s easy to make the connection between the rain and the change that we all need here after an interminable winter, and to appreciate it.

I’m thinking this on a day when I’m painfully aware of changes at the university, where pressure is moving money and interest away from the Arts and toward the Sciences. We’ve been told that we’re losing several of the full-time positions we depend on, that we should to use part-time faculty as little as possible, that our enrollment caps (the term for the number of students who must be enrolled in a class before it will be allowed to run) are going up for both the undergraduate and graduate classes. Friends of mine might lose classes and thus money they’ve come to depend on, a sense of work that matters to them, and although we’re trying to make sure no one loses medical benefits, it feels like a big change to the fabric of work.

All this is based on economics, we’re told. As if economics were all that mattered. As if economics made up the whole of the university’s mission statement. We’re told and told things. We need to learn to do more with less. We need to learn new technologies. What we want to say doesn’t matter. We need to learn to present our work as numbers and buzzwords (even buzz-verbs) that unlike bees do not actually pollinate anything. They slowly glaze the whole place in a fine dust of impersonal data that seems as heartless as this past winter was.

We don’t complain too much, except in our newly renovated meeting rooms, where we think it’s “just us”. There are things to lose if we resist–months of “vacations” no other profession gets, travel and research budgets for the tenure track, jobs and houses and temporal architectures for those of us without tenure but with enough assurance of continued employment. We’re told that we’re all replaceable. Most of us love our jobs and the work we get to do, teaching, researching, writing, mentoring, organizing events. We don’t want to be cast out.

I received an invitation to be part of a panel for AWP next year. It was about the uses and value of undergraduate literary journals, to the students and the campus at large. I had to turn it down because, although I do think these literary journals can be great, I would’ve had to consider it from the point of view of our administration which let several earlier versions of the current journal die off without a thought. (The student government was supposed to fund it but the paperwork was so inane and the possibility of getting money even when forms were completed was tentative at best. The English Department was supposed to fund it, but of course then our budget was slashed. Finally our Honors College, which has its own funding line, came to the rescue, which has been a real lifesaver. But the HC lost its powerful dean and it’s not been clear to me from chatter I hear that the new dean is being taken as seriously.) In short, I didn’t think I could take the heartache of even talking about the subject. It wouldn’t matter enough for me to make the arguments. There would be no administrators there who could even hear or enact change.

At some point, we’re all going to have to face up to heartache and despair and fear and anger. And we’re going to have to be smart and use what we’re experts at–stories, tales, words, arranging and rearranging narratives. And we can use the new digital world we are now constantly being urged to embrace. We can start blogs, tell stories, learn to make movies, talk to the world outside, where real bees are dying. We’ll have to face up too to the fears and/or ambitions we have as writers. Many of the faculty still think dismissively of the internet and digital world in general. Print is still success. It won’t matter in tenure cases that you keep a blog, of course, so only those of us who don’t depend on tenure might be able to do it.

It’s also possible that some of the pressures coming down on us might give us a chance to reorient ourselves, our studies, our voices. How we change should be our choice though. We might have to evolve simply to protect the things we love, but we have to make sure we don’t simply become as intransigent as the administrators whose feet no longer touch the ground and so feel now free to make decisions as if nothing mattered but what and how they think.

4 for Easter

When I was a little boy, my mother used to construct elaborate Easter baskets and hide them in the house, with a trail of jelly beans that she wove throughout the house to help me find it. I don’t know what she did with our cats and dogs who would have eaten the trails before I woke up, but they never seemed to. It was one of her favorite things to do, she told me. Even years later, when I was living far away, she mailed me chocolate treats for Easter. All that pure love catches me in the throat now. What better candy to be given than to know that you were so loved?

Of the Easter Bunny itself, I was afraid. A rabbit the size of a man was wrong. I’d had rodents by then as pets and knew their sharp teeth and claws. I wanted no part of a giant one. I didn’t understand the silliness of it, which is how adults, I think, think kids will see the Easter Bunny: a big, stupid but kind-hearted creature. But kids, who often suffer the same sentimentalisms, know differently. A giant rabbit would be weaponized at that size. Anything giant is to be feared, is at the very least a cause for great alarm. I was so glad the Easter Bunny never actually showed up in my house. I figured out early too He was really my mother, the first lie I recognized.

I have eaten rabbit. I ate a particularly good wild rabbit once, and was surprised by how tasty I thought it was, how it tasted like something that had enjoyed life and passed it on.

One of the earliest pictures is of me in a playpen with a lamb, which might have been an Easter lamb. It may not have been but in those days we weren’t given to much sentimentality about the ways an edible creature might be used. We ate and we ate and we ate, as I’ve written elsewhere. You had to be strong because the Depression might return. It was after all only thirty some years before that picture of me was taken. You had to make your children love to eat so they had a chance. It was old magic. My grandfather could fix anything you handed him; he disappeared into his little workshop filled with drawers and tools and vices and a small stove over in one corner, and violá, your watch was caught up in time again. My grandmother could make fantastic chocolate cakes out of pocket lint and old coffee grounds. The basement was full of jellies and preserves for the long winters. My father somehow made money out of sand and gravel, which made no sense to me at all. Maybe in that strange world I understood so little of, the lamb I briefly shared quarters with was in fact given a suit of clothing and twenty dollars and put on a bus. Who knows where he got off and how he started a new life? Who knows when we’ll meet again and tell each other our stories of how we survived?


Writing is being afraid. It’s a sentence I woke up with one morning not long ago. I’d dreamt that I was in an old house with an elaborate staircase. There were a few other people with me, one of them a famous gay poet. The house was more or less without color, only black, grays, and white. Long drapes were pulled against the outside.

Then there was a knock, which scared me so much I ran down into the basement to hide. Even more nervous, I found a tiny cupboard under that enormous staircase, got inside, and waited. I thought I’d be able to find out, from looking at the soles of the shoes of the visitor, if he was dangerous. I huddled down there among the dusty boxes and cobwebs, listening hard.

Then in the wall of the basement, I saw a crack in the foundation, past which something moved. I ripped it open and crawled through. It turns out there was a park around the house, full of green plants and happy couples and kids playing. Everything I’d assumed about the world around the house was wrong. I began to walk around and enjoy the large park when I woke up.

So much life stays at the level of panic and escape, in finding places to hide. How much of writing begins with being bored with being afraid or confused or unsure or angry or sad? How much of writing is learning how to see and pick at the place where there’s a seam, where you can see or push through, to find something you couldn’t have imagined before you began? How do artists find the strength or curiosity to pick at those seams, to not be happy living in the house with its enormous staircase and its closed curtains? Maybe it’s a matter of reading so much writing that you learn to recognize the familiar patterns and meanings, and so you grow impatient for something new.

I suspect, if the spate of dreams I’ve been having is any indication, that there’s something in my unconscious trying to send a message. Each dream has involved going down into the ground after buried bones or helping young men who are as pale and lifeless as hit-and-run victims get help. There’s always someone to battle or placate or outwit.

I’ve been looking at some new poems for signs of seams: trouble with tenses, weird pronoun shifts, repeating words or phrases or sentences that refuse to feel finished. I had an idea this winter that I was going to be working on a book of poems I kept calling The North, but lately that book has seemed far away. Something else is knocking on the door of the enormous house I’d imagined that book to be. Maybe a southern influence in answer? Maybe a secret garden I might enter, this time by turning the knob and opening the door.

April: some notes

It’s snowing again. Only two days ago I was sitting in a sunlight so warm and strong I ended up with slight sunburns on my arms and face. I was wearing shorts. The dog was panting in the shade. Now it’s snowing.

I’m trying to tell myself that this snow is just the last remnants of winter being torn up and thrown at us like confetti. We’ve won. Spring has reconquered the world. But there’s only so far that kind of metaphor will go.

April’s cruelties are well-known. Its instability of temperament. Its mix of swamp and first flowers. It doesn’t do any good to even hate it, like we learned to do with winter this winter.

The little birdsongs of it. Its taxes. Its registration and inspections. The winds that suddenly turn my little patio into a clatter of garbage lids and stray plastic bottles from the street. The ugly matter of the flowerpots, some cracked and broken, from which I’m sure even the unkillable mint will this time not return. I mean, look at it.

But for me, April is also the end of the term. I’m done teaching all the hard part. It’s the month of revisions and workshops, of last meetings, of summer reading lists and travel plans. This week is an amazing week: I have no assignments to grade this past weekend and none this weekend.

I write love poems. I am almost giddy with freedom. I can’t get enough of the gym. I hum pop songs. The sky grows strange with omens and signs. The old armor falls off in an avalanche of silver thimbles the canes of the river raspberries snatch away to study and reforge.

The Paperwork

My to-do list is growing these days. Spring maybe. Maybe I’m distracted by birdsong and breathable air. The administrative work I’m letting gather dust seems to have a powerful repulsive field around it. I’m keeping a general list of things owed, things that need to be sent, said, seen and assessed, but all I want to do is go to the gym and run outside with the dog.

For eight years I’ve lived alone, burnt by my last relationship’s failures. It had been a good time: my job had improved, my bank account stabilized, I learned to cook for myself, I wrote a ton and even began sending things out. Things I’m proud to have written were actually published. One dog I loved died but a new even better one found his way to me. I lived in a virtual writer’s paradise: getting to teach what I love, having enormous amounts of time to write or dream or grow bored in, reading what and how I wanted.

But then this winter, I woke up and felt a terrible ache to be touched, a want of human, male, intimate companionship. After the past year of preparing for and then living in the aftermath of my mother’s death, of a new architecture of life and living, the erotic was rushing up again. I joined the faculty gym and began working out. I joined a couple of dating sites and was surprised frankly at the level of interest, thinking I might meet at least one person who’d somehow manage to like me despite my constant sense of doubt, who’d forgive that. I’ve met a bunch of really good, nice guys who, in turns out, are similarly afflicted and know that self-doubt, as long as it’s not crippling, is a sign of maturity, of having lived. Who find the ways that doubt has made me thoughtful very sexy.

The realization that I might be thought of as sexy at nearly fifty has completely disrupted my nice, neat scheduled life. I’m not unhappy about it. It’s just a surprise from what I was taught to think about being “old”. I expected to have to learn to love paperwork, to be the helpful guiding mentor for younger people. To sign the forms necessary for their parties to happen. To be a signature and a smiling avuncular presence.

But today, April Fool’s Day, I feel instead like I’m drinking the champagne of life again. O Spring, let the paperwork pile up a little. Who will even notice if it doesn’t get done? No one but the faceless who depend on paperwork to live.

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