Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Month: April, 2015

W is for Wok: a tale from the first year of marriage

That first Christmas we were given a wok. Which required us to go on a hunt for wok oil. Which led us to fish sauce, three kinds of vinegar, ten kinds of soy sauce, and then walnut oil, sunflower oil, truffle oil, extinct rhinoceros oil, the tears of albino alligators, tiger claw oil, dwarf porpoise oil, left handed virgin oil, kink-tailed shark oil, and invisible swallow oil. We stood for an hour in the grocery store just counting the kind of beings we hadn’t realized could become oil, could be ground down, be rendered or imagined into ooze we could use to make our chicken taste like anything living or dead or possible. With broccoli of course. Or snow peas. We loved those. Or carrots sliced into lozenges, buttons, cuff links. Or peppers, some of which now come in bags and so resemble small orange and red voodoo dolls we dressed two in scraps of our clothes and wrapped them together tightly and buried them in a beautiful dark blue container in the back yard where they’ve begun to sprout hallelujah yes fruit out of which an oil can be made that when applied by lovers to lovers makes all other light and heat unnecessary. 


Congratulations! Now what?

I was on campus today to meet the group of undergraduates Mark Kemp and I are taking to Edinburgh in June, through the Pitt in Scotland program.  It was exciting to see the ten students who up until now have only been names on a list. They all seemed full of excitement and the kind of optimism that makes teaching a deep pleasure.  If I begin posting articles about Scotland, Scottish poets, writers, and artists, don’t be surprised.  I hope, as part of my class, to create a blog for us, a place where we can post our experiences, insights, questions, and explorations. There will likely be photographs and videos. I hope to link it to this one. There’s so much to do still, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the to do list. One thing at a time, I remind myself.

After that initial meeting, I walked over to the English Department and ran into a couple of MFA students who were handing in their manuscripts, their last big official act. One of them asked me for advice. What now?

I shot back with a simple thing: “Keep Writing.” Because that’s the only thing I think that matters really. But of course that’s hard to do sometimes. You make time to write. And you need to know yourself, I guess I could have said. Some people don’t need to write everyday. Not everybody does. but if you’re someone who can easily get waylaid or distracted, who might get distracted for a long time, you might need to do it everyday.  At some point, I remember I added, “Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it,” by which I meant gather friends, make a writer’s group, join an online group, do whatever you have to do to keep the pen moving or the fingers tapping away at the computer keys.

It’s simple; you just keep writing. I have been fortunate to be able to do that. There are many ways to arrange your life so you can keep some space in which you can keep putting down words. There are tricks and prompts and exercises, whole books of them. Don’t be too proud to think you have to do everything on your own. Some friends of mine have stopped or given up or found out that writing was a tool that got them to one place and then they could leave it behind because it turned out it wasn’t as necessary to their lives as something else was. Some friends have come back to writing after a time away. Some have switched to photography or graphic work. Some have gone into business and raised families.

The trick to education isn’t that, after you’ve graduated, you’ll be discovered and raised up by someone else. Education gives you choice, if you’ve had a good education, because you know how to think. You still have to choose in a positive sense to raise the energy needed, find the necessary resourcefulness and will power within yourself, and make out of couch cushions and old blankets if necessary a space where you can think and dream and have arguments and make judgements and gather information and laugh out loud with joy when a sentence comes together.

I underestimated this ability when I graduated; many, many people can’t do some of the basic things writing teaches you, and a good education can teach you: how to listen without needing to immediately respond (it’s astonishing how few people can take in information without defending themselves immediately); how to read, both dispassionately and passionately; how to feel in ways that are complicated, that are not just the black or white, right or wrong system that many people have been frightened into thinking is the only way to think; how to sit and be patient with yourself while you work through a question or experience, translating it into words, into other words, seeing what parts of a narrative belong and which don’t and are part of another one, which ones feel true.

We all lie to ourselves, of course. But try not to.

When I think about why I kept writing, why I keep writing, I honestly don’t know the answer. I’m often tempted to chalk it up to luck–if X hadn’t happened to me at the right moment, if Y hadn’t helped me, if Z had said something. I don’t have a proper book. I’ve had friends say for decades that “this year will be the year your book will be taken…” and the year went by. I kept writing. There’s no isbn out there with my name on it. Around forty that absence of a book led me to a depression. Some days during that depression I just sat on the couch and watched tv. I waited for a voice to tell me to live or die.  I waited and waited and finally something in me said, there’s no voice coming. And I got up and started living again. You may go through that too. I wish you good luck with that. I recommend throwing the I Ching because it is on the side of stillness and patience.

Now what? Congratulate yourself! Take yourself out to dinner. Let friends throw you a party or throw yourself one. Buy a new shirt at the Goodwill and call it your writing shirt. Get a job somewhere. If you’ve got a project, great. If you don’t have a project after your thesis, don’t panic. Keep a journal for the first six months after you graduate. The time right after graduating is sometimes a little rocky.  Many kinds of support are removed, and you may fail and fail and fail to write for a while. Have fun with failure, will you? It has a great gift in it: you can be anyone you want as long as it’s present.  You can experiment and tickle yourself again with bad poetry and stories in which the narrator wakes up at the end and essays that are literally about picking your navel.

Keep writing, keep writing, keep writing.

AWP: notes from Minneapolis

I’m waking up on Saturday morning thinking about what this AWP has meant.  The quick things are these:

1. Of course seeing old friends I never see otherwise. 

2. Of course seeing and hugging former students who have gone on to grad schools, who are editing journals, publishing books, starting jobs and families. It still surprises me every year to see them, mostly because I treat the world as a place where I’m going to vanish from any second, I think. 

3. So many books. And every one of them wants to be read. Who among them gets chosen and brought back home with me? Right now, there are seven I bought, six poetry, one prose. When will I read actually them? What about that backlog at home I still have to do something with? 

4. I need to seriously reduce the number of books I have at home. 

5. In the space between 4 and 5, I’ve gotten up, showered, dressed, gone out to breakfast with friends Noah, Liz, and Ann (an annual sanity function), gone back to the book fair, checked on the Pitt table, talked to a few old friends, left the convention center having decided not to go to the one panel today I thought I might go to, gone to Caribou coffee and ordered a tea, was given a coffee, then given my tea, sat down and started typing again. The whole convention is like that, always in motion.  You have to remind yourself to find quiet and to stop stop stop every so often.

6. It’s the last day, so what do I remember?  I didn’t go to any of the big readings (I hardly ever do anymore). Instead I did my regular routine, which is to run around checking in with old friends, former students, some of the presses that regularly publish work I like. I ask people what they’re working on; I talk about our program. This time, I had a brilliant moment with Marshall Warfield, who is a Pitt alum now working at Drexel and who has developed a writing class that involves research and digital publishing. I made him promise to send me his syllabus so we might see if we can adapt it to our program in some way; we are getting considerable pressure to think about digital publishing and have been tossing around ideas about how to set up classes that will be both writing intensive and sensitive to the new publishing opportunities available. 

7. I’m more tired at this AWP than I have been for a while.  We had a number of events at Pitt this year, just before AWP. I’d already taken to calling this one a “vacation AWP”, by which I meant I was mostly going to do one-on-one networking. I might better have stayed home if I wanted to rest, though.  This convention is always work, even if mostly of the pleasant kind. 

8. The writers and editors are younger-looking every year.  I’m grateful that they are still taking work of mine.  I’ve always hoped that like Merlin, I might grow younger every year, at least in spirit. Sometimes I think that the reason I wrote when I was 16 was to keep myself from growing too old too quickly, the poem as non-violent horcrux. To keep myself from dying into a life I might not control. At this point, though, I’ve written out a lot of the anger and confusion of the past. I actually feel more free now as a writer than I ever did. I see the young-looking editors and writers with their impressive beards or dangerous shoes or hardened faces, their bodies full of ambition, and I remember the early AWPs, where I felt so strongly that I needed to prove myself worthy of the tribe. I needed to show I was serious. It can come with terrible costs–especially if your work doesn’t get you the results you expected. I wish them well; some of us bloom early and then never are heard of again; some of us bloom late; some bloom but in small places only a handful of people ever see. 

9. Oh my god, there are a thousand thousand places to submit work. Don’t ever think there aren’t places to send out work. The one regret I have of my writing life is that I didn’t send out more work when I was younger. Also, that I waited until I had what I thought were serious credentials (publications, awards, positions) to feel good about myself. My god, I beat myself up for every rejection! I stopped sending things out for years because of my despair. Dear reader, if you are in that position now, I urge you to begin again.

10. Occasionally I feel overwhelmed by the new literary world, which has such beings in it, to mashup Shakespeare. I’ll never be able to read everyone. What does that even mean, though? Nothing. There’s no everyone and there never will be. Everyone is a fiction of sorts, a labyrinth that’s hard to escape once you enter it.   What is it you want out of a poem, out of a story, out of writing things down? You find a fellowship of people you can count on, who might be models for a way to be in the world, and you follow them trying to absorb as much as you can. When those models fail you, you move on, sometimes taking your former models’ models, sometimes striking out in a new direction. 

Books bought on Friday at AWP


A reblog from last year–AWP advice for first timers

I’ve been seeing all sorts of reference to the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) conference on Facebook, and I decided to go back and look at the advice I gave last year. Most of it still seems solid to me. So I’m reblogging it, with a minimum of editing.

AWP: some advice

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. So many of them have been merely self-promotional or stunningly bland. 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 to buy it. 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 who 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 In the host city 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 intent 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.

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