Begin Again (again)

by Jeff Oaks

It’s the End of May again. Here comes summer. Time to get serious about a project, I tell myself. Then I feel paralyzed with choices, none of which I feel completely, overwhelmingly drawn to. They will all require me to get to work: 

Revise that semi-finalist in manuscript of poems. Something is off in it, clearly. And clearly enough is good in it that I don’t want to screw it up. 

Pull together that second manuscript of poems that begins with my mother’s death and ends on my marriage. There are enough poems, but that’s about it at the moment.

Craft that craft essay for the conference where I’m teaching: Chatham’s Summer Community of Writers. 

Write some notes to the twenty contestants for a student contest I’m judging.

Try to find an alternative structure for the creative nonfiction manuscript, one essay of which will have to come out now. 

Try not to think about the young adult/fantasy that’s been tugging at my pinky for a decade. Try not to think about that one page of prose I think establishes a voice I might be interested in enough to write a short novel. 

Write up syllabi for my three classes in the fall. I want to re-think two of the classes;  I haven’t taught the third one in a while, so why not re-think that too? 

There are always too many things to do, aren’t they, once you accept being an adult? 

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It helps me a bit to write down the due dates. The revision of the manuscript has a close submission deadline.  The craft talk has a deadline a little later.  But the comments for the students shouldn’t take long, so if need one source of tension off my plate immediately, I could do that too. 
And so it goes, a constant juggling of dates, urges, guilts, tensions, all slowly pushing this multitudinous me forward. 

I haven’t even gotten to things like the replacing the furnace (done!), getting the car inspected (I suspect some belt needs to be replaced), giving the husband and dog their due, loving time, and making sure the various administrative things I’m paid to oversee get done. 

I have said nothing about reading other people, have I? I have Rebecca Solnit, John Berger, Barbara Hurd, Brian Blachfield, and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen on my bedstand.  I’ve been dipping in and out. I did finally finish Ronald Blythe’s River Diary and John Lewis-Stempel’s lovely Meadowland, both books I bought last year.

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I should also say that it helped me to go back to my old, black and white composition book/notebook. To just write down things, sideways, in the margins, out of order at first, out of sight to anyone but me.  It helped to think without the slightest chance I’d make a mistake and publish that hodge-podgey thinking, that confusion of responsibilities. 

It should say it helped that a young woman came in and sat at the large table I was at in the cafe, pulled out her own notebook, and began to write in it, not horizontally as is usual, but vertically, so all her sentences were parallel to the spine of the notebook. It was such a clear approach to the problem of the beginning–write strangely, absurdly, against what’s expected–that it gave me some heart. Do what you need to do to get yourself moving again. Who knows whether what she wrote was good or interesting or publishable? Once the hand starts moving, the mind with all its hierarchies of anxieties stops repeating its self-and-other lacerating mind-chatter. Or the body stops listening to the mind’s nervous chatter. And in the quiet that begins to follow, the mind more often than not finds itself starting to hum along. 

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