Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Month: March, 2015


If there is something in your face that God

will not countenance, you will be turned away, that God

can have an easier time of it apparently, his mortal

subjects so delicate they cannot bear what God,

it’s claimed anyway, thinks is abominable to serve

pie or flowers or wedding cake to. If you say that God

doesn’t exist, for example, you too could be turned away,

cast like a stone into a pond which burns with what God

might’ve recalled flames when blooming in the desert,

to homeless, nervous sheep-herders, that God 

no one but Moses saw, and that only a little part,

a fire in a weed, since even he was turned away by what God

was, an unbearable thing, a blindness that was too much 

awful force and self promotion. If you address another, that God

with the universe in his throat, or that Goddess among

the roots, or the Stars sailors depend on, no matter what God

it might be other than that nervous lonely Father demanding

no one eats lobsters, no mixing of fabrics, that God 

that also requires newlywed men not go to war, you

will be turned away. Your hands might be too quick; what God

wants limp prayers? Your voice is too high. Go, stranger. 

The inn is full. You’re odd. We can’t bear that, O God. 


The Word Production to Mean Writing or Making

I’ve seen some proposals lately, written by colleagues in literature and composition, that talk about writing (and making art in general) as “production” and reading as “reception.” Some of this renaming has come from my favorite colleagues, people I have, I think, a lot in common with.  We generally hate hearing civilian casualties referred to as collateral damage. We’ve read Orwell. We would neither say that sex is only for the generation of offspring. Nor would they call me a producer when I write or themselves receivers when they read. They are interested in discussions of a neutral pronoun to use for students whose gender identity isn’t simply ascribable to he or she. They hate calling students “customers”.

I’m honestly not sure why this is irritating me this morning. God knows there are more important issues to be irritated by these days. Maybe I feel unproductive lately. Maybe I have a knee-jerk reaction against a Latinate, industrial-sounding word for what I do with as much of myself as I can. Maybe it sounds dehumanizing, and this is one small place where I might say something useful to prevent more of that. Having a productive cough in my childhood meant you were spitting up phlegm, mucus, snot. It was good to do that, but productive was just a cover for what might make you sick to say, what was socially unsettling.

So much of what’s going on, as we all struggle to figure out how to talk about what we do in the humanities, is figuring out what will keep the administrators from destroying us. We have to make ourselves sound like them, systematic, industrial, cold. We’ve had it easy for a long time, I suspect. Reading, writing, and arithmetic were the warm-up acts of any education, its primary colors. Now it’s difficult to even say those words in a course description–they sound perhaps too basic, too elementary (as opposed to being elemental). Students will in engage in “the production of texts” instead. Sometimes “creative projects”.  No one wants to give a grant to a writer unless she produces something or already produced something. No one wants to give help to someone who might take it, who might be a “taker”.

I’m suddenly remembering being told as a kid not to make a big production about everything. I couldn’t help showing and telling when I was unhappy. I was asking my parents to consume too much of my emotional excess, at least as they saw it.

Is the word “writing” too primitive sounding to the bureaucrats we’re all often really writing to? Or are we all now producing for them? (Check your local intellectual properties clauses.) Do our actual students (our clients, our customers, our audience?) want to take classes in which they produce creatively? Or do they want to write and/or make movies with and about their lives? They get a lot of practice in high school producing writing, we all seem to agree, but without much sense of what it means to actually write, by which we mean do something complicated and thoughtful and sensitive and surprisingly tough.

What Are the Consequences of Silence?

(an answer to one of Bhanu Kapil’s questions in The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers)

You might be surprised to find out your best friend is married, by Elvis, without you. You might never know about geology or nanotechnology or your own insignificance. There is that. This is writing, which is as close to silence as the human voice can usually stand. If it were painting, the stillness might be worse. You can wait a long time for an answer, and sometimes it’s a slap, a shove, a kick to the ground. When it’s over, it’s over. Listen better, that’s a consequence. Listen all the time while you watch to see what the body does: its chattering leg under the table while it’s making a claim about its own happiness. You don’t have to believe anything you hear. So many people seem unable to hear themselves. Remember when we marched in the streets, thinking silence was death? If all silences were the same, we were right. We were tired of being in parentheses all the time.

In Less Than Ten Minutes

This is the secret to success: do everything you need to do in less than ten minutes. Eat, pay bills, drink, write poems, think, vote, grade a paper, shower. Already the news has all your important news down to six minutes. Even your mother stops talking at five. Ten minutes is maybe three or four pages of prose, or a page of poetry, if you consider the five rereadings. Every boss in the world only needs three minutes, though they all take two hours because they get paid by the hour. Ten minutes of anything real should be more than enough to get you through your day, if you really think about it. Everything else is sleep, driving around, and being on hold.

Baby Steps

One of my friends used this phrase “taking baby steps” to talk about how she needed to walk last week, as the great icesheets on our sidewalks and streets were melting, becoming a little more dangerous in fact, even while the rest of the world seemed to be lightening up on its demands. It’s important at moments of change to take it slow, even though your heart might be leaping around wanting you to dance.  Popular culture tells us this all the time, doesn’t it? Think of all those horror movies in which the brave heroine has killed the slasher, killer, alien predator, enemy, and just at the moment when she seems to have beaten It, It rises up suddenly for one last slash, throttle, bite, or explosion. It’s a cliche at this point in film. Still, it’s easy to forget that lesson in real life.  Because, well, it’s us.

I’m also thinking about those little steps because a Facebook friend who recently graduated with his MFA asked a good question the other day: How does anyone move past the “if I write anything, it will inevitably suck” phase?

The answer from a number of friends was simple: you don’t.  You accept it and move on. Eventually it won’t suck. But you might have to write a lot of crap first.

It’s hard to take little steps. As someone who just joined a gym again and has begun working out again, learning to not eat everything I want, move my body again, I’m having to remember this.

For me, most of the work I have to do is simply getting past the threshold of not doing anything. If I can begin to do something, I know I’ll want to keep doing things. Sometimes it helps to start at the most boring but necessary point, I’ve found, which is why I often write out bills or check my bank balance, often writing out a budget for myself for the month, before I begin to write. Anything I write after that is going to be better than that dull accounting. Sometimes it helps to change the status on my Facebook page. Sometimes it helps to read the news. Or to read a writer I despise aesthetically or personally. Whatever it takes to get a mutter started, something in me to growl or wag its tail. I’ve done it for long enough that I now trust that something will happen once I begin. Usually there’s a metaphor that appears suddenly and almost joyously. And when it appears I follow its hints forward.

When I was in Lynn Emanuel’s workshop in graduate school, she used to have us write toward the thing we didn’t like. To write a “Bad Poem” about it even. To write as many bad poems as we needed. Dull lists of our angers and frustrations. It usually had a salutary effect. Who or what is the adversary? Exhaustion? Fear? Ignorance? Discomfort? Laziness? Grief? Anger? A Fear of Being Awful or Trivial or Disenchanted or Mary Oliver or John Ashbery or Doctor Seuss?  Write each fear its own ode, maybe a line a day for a month, for a year.

Of course, how do I turn that assignment on myself in order to workout, or to help my friend who is afraid of falling on ice? To walk deliberately slow maybe, as opposed to trying to be brave and trying to walk normally? To work out deliberately slowly maybe–five minutes on the lowest setting of the treadmill maybe? So far, I’ve been going easy on the ellipticals at the beginning and finding that my body begins to want to go longer.  This morning I started with a song on my iPhone that is the song my husband and I chose for our marriage song, Peter Gabriel’s The Book of Love. “The Book of Love is long and boring,” it begins…and then turns “but…” and the song begins to summon something out of me that still surprises me sometimes: hope, energy, love.

What if you made a ritual to write only three sentences every morning? Maybe only enough for a postcard. The sentences could be about the cat or the birds outside the window or that irritating guy at the cafe. Or to write only a list of twenty words that rhyme, or had the short a sound inside them, or wrote one word for each of the letters of the alphabet? What are 26 things that make your life worth living, make it joyful, make it your life? That might be more than enough for a day.

Spring Breaks

Part of me wants to vegetate for days, but of course I can’t really. There are still student papers in my bag, and they must be read and returned. I was smart to have all my poets hand in midterm folders and meet with me for conferences this past week, so I know that I’ve done my work for them. It’s their job now to revise or write new poems. 

Still, as I said to Michael this morning, I had that old dream of hibernation: if I just close my eyes and go back to sleep, maybe I will wake up in a sunlit world full of tender shoots and warm breezes. The warmth of the bed was so rich I fell back to sleep for at least a minute before waking myself up with a snore. Still, the singingof sparrows  is growing richer every morning now. 

The winter has been, despite the deadly cold, fairly affirming in some ways: a new essay (or very very long prose poem, depending on your definition of those terms) will be coming out of the Kenyon Review Online soon, three poems accepted in other places. One of my posts from last year will appear in an Norton anthology of short pieces. I received word that I’d be teaching writing in Scotland for June through Pitt’s Study Abroad program. 

This week to come, says the weatherman, is supposed to be in the 40s and 50s. For those of us who’ve been so frost-burnt in heart and mind by the months of trudging, slipping, bundling up and unbundling, the surprises of big leaks in the roof or the bursting of basement pipes (with their subsequent calls to contractors and insurance men), not to mention all the other, smaller discomforts of a hard winter, we are grateful for any ceasefire, any easing of tensions. 

I gave my poor students a number of writing exercises over the winter, some designed to help them to see or speak of the effect of winter on the imagine, some to help them project forward into the spring, into the years ahead of them, but by far the one they loved was the one I gave them for the last ten minutes of class:  Write a love letter to the spirit-animal for having gotten them this far. 

They laughed, most of them, at the thought of it, but then they took to it with all their considerable energy. As I walked around a bit at the end, stealthily trying to get a sense of who has been writing enough by the number of pages still left in their journals, I was touched at how many of them had taken the love letter part to heart and signed, Your Friend, and then their name.  

We so-called adults might do the same now that the sunlight is returning. 

If that’s too new-agey for you, you might consider writing for ten minutes to each of Bhanu Kapil’s questions in her book The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers. Here’s one Of those questions, appropriate maybe for the beginning of March, with my own response:

Where did you come from/how did you arrive?

By stork, by story, by drinking too much punch. There was a rumor about the old milkman delivering more than bottles on his rounds. By dawn, I was ready, which means probably I began kicking or wanting to breathe late the night before, maybe around midnight. I arrived as soup, I grew like bread. I was wrapped in blankets like a loaf. I arrived via butter and cinnamon sugar. I lived off cream of mushrooms. Hold open the gate; I was the late arrival, the last egg to hatch, the last come to make it back, to stand up and bawl, to cross the road. Who knows why? 

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