November Revisions: some notes

by Jeff Oaks

I am so sick of words this November, which is to say I’m sick of change, that old, horrible necessity of life. I’d probably be fine, but there’s been a pile up of anxieties, personal, professional, and political, and the combined weight is pressing on me.

The professional is almost always the same: I haven’t yet gotten a book published although I’ve written all my life, published widely in literary journals, sent to contests and publishers, and been told over and over again that it’s just a matter of time. Most of the time I am more than happy about my lot in life–teaching creative writing at a university, getting to meet with and help thousands of students over the years, publishing chapbooks of my work, and so on–but every so often I find myself wishing all that work had gotten recognized in larger ways. And that carries with it a sense that I haven’t done enough somehow, that the fault is mine. I’m not smart enough, I haven’t been daring enough, or, maybe the worst one at all, I have been spending too much time taking care of others. This is the kind of low-level buzz I’ve gotten used to.

Luckily, having taught for as long as I have, there’s an easy fix to that problem. If a student came to me with the same complaints, I’d ask him or her this: “So, are you going to stop writing then?” I know I’m not, and the answer reminds me that the writing is the real work.

The political is an anxiety about the future of the country with Republicans now wielding more power. More austerity, which they’ve been preaching and which other governments have practiced to debilitating effects on their economies. More corporate freedom to despoil the common environment in the name of job creation. More defunding of the arts. More dismissal of workers rights, women’s rights, the right of gay people to marry. There will be no help given to students who are so deeply in debt that they can’t imagine anything but a life of perpetual work, without any hope of a social safety net when inevitably their bodies wear out. And, maybe even worse, a generation of young people who will become so cutthroat with one another, who will see each other as competitors to be beaten or assets to be used, and whose imaginations become so impoverished that anything except making money can matter to them. I see the signs of this already in many of my students. I’ve begun to think that it’s not so much “craft” we need to teach anymore as deep feeling, as complicated feeling. I fear that with, at best, the current virtual government shutdown continuing, the Congress full of irrational, even sociopathic hustlers who will believe they have a mandate now to thwart the President’s move, whether or not it hurts their own citizens, my work and the work of the Humanities in general will be harder. If Democrats had won, I would have another problem I suppose but I wouldn’t worry so much about the collapse of social safety nets I’m hoping will be there when I retire, since, as an academic without tenure, I can be let go of at the end of my current contract.

My personal anxiety has to do with worrying about how to fit my new personal life into the fairly rigid schedule I had as a single person. I’m used to having a lot of time to myself, and this term work has been more demanding than I expected, certainly more demanding than the spring and summer in which Michael and I met and began to live together. Michael’s been working hard as well, making money for next year when the costs of going back to school will be yet another thing to worry about. So I worry about splitting the time we get and the time I can write. I want writing and love to reinforce each other, which is easy to imagine because, hey, who doesn’t want that? I know we’ll figure it out, but right now, because I worry about things, I worry.

The truth is, I like to worry. “This shaking keeps me steady,” as Roethke wrote. I don’t trust people who don’t worry. When people tell me, Don’t worry, I worry even more. But every so often, they seem to pile up uncomfortably, like laundry. It helps me to write them down, to sort them into piles, to prioritize into necessary and unnecessary, to write down deadlines. November has come in wet and cold, and with the news this morning that the Polar Vortex will sweep down next week, the same week the contractor is coming to fix a leak in the gutters, the same week I’m going to be preparing for our new Chancellor’s visit to the department. So much change and work.

Michael shrugged on Tuesday night and said, “We’ll adjust,” and he’s right. We will. He loves roller coasters, after all. Still, I know he worries about all sorts of things, not least of which is going back to school. But I’m sure about him there. He’s sure about me getting my work done, having my free time. I may have to rewrite my feelings about marriage popping up at the end of so many novels as a cheap plot device to resolve all crises. It’s nice to be able to lean on someone else’s confidence in you now and then.

And of course I worry about trusting too much in that….