Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Month: August, 2016

The Lists

My dear friend Heidi posted this on Facebook today:

So, here it is… The Beloit College Mindset List for the Class of 2020

Students heading into their first year of college this year are mostly 18 and were born in 1998. Among those who have never been alive in their lifetime are Frank Sinatra, Phil Hartman, Matthew Shepard, Sonny Bono, and Flo-Jo.

Since they arrived on this planet….
1. There has always been a digital swap meet called eBay.
2. Grandpa has always been able to reach for the Celebrex.

3. They never heard Harry Caray try to sing during the seventh inning at Wrigley Field.

4. There have always been Cadillac Escalades, but they just don’t seem to be all that into cars. 

5. West Nile has always been a virus found in the U.S.

6. Vladimir Putin has always been calling the shots at the Kremlin.

7. The Sandy Hook tragedy is their Columbine.

8. Cloning has always been a mundane laboratory procedure.

9. Elian Gonzalez, who would like to visit the U.S. again someday, has always been back in Cuba.

10. The United States has always been at war.

11. Euros have always been the coin of the realm…well, at least part of the realm.

12. Serena Williams has always been winning Grand Slam singles titles.

13. SpongeBob SquarePants has always lived at Bikini Bottom.

14. The Ali/Frazier boxing match for their generation was between the daughters of Muhammad and Joe.

15. They have never had to watch or listen to programs at a scheduled time. 

16. James P. Hoffa has always been president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

17. Surprise: There has always been sex in the city.

18. John Hinckley has always been able to get out of the hospital to go for a walk.

19. Each year they’ve been alive the U.S. population has grown by more than one million Latinos. 

20. TV ads for casinos have always been permitted to mention that there is actually gambling going on in there. 

21. Vaccines have always been erroneously linked to autism.

22. Laws against on-the-job harassment have always applied to parties of the same sex. 

23. Even as the national mood gets glummer, there has always been an annual prize for the most humorous American.

24. Catholics and Lutherans have always been in agreement on how to get to heaven.

25. To greet them with some cheery news, when they were born, India and Pakistan became nuclear powers.

26. If you want to reach them, you’d better send a text—emails are oft ignored.

27. They disagree with their parents as to which was the “first” Star Wars episode.

28. “Nanny cams” have always been available to check up on the babysitter.

29. NFL coaches have always had the opportunity to throw a red flag and question the ref.

30. Bada Bing – Tony and Carmela Soprano and the gang have always been part of American culture.

31. They have no memory of Bob Dole promoting Viagra.

32. Books have always been read to you on

33. Citizens have always been able to register to vote when they get their driver’s license.

34. Bluetooth has always been keeping us wireless and synchronized.

35. X-rays have always been digital allowing them to be read immediately.

36. Exxon and Mobil have been one company—and it doesn’t own any gas stations.

37. They have always eaten irradiated food.

38. A Bush and a Clinton have always been campaigning for something big.

39. Physicians have always had unions.

40. Some have always questioned the sexual orientation of certain Teletubbies.

41. Snowboarding has always been an Olympic sport.

42. Students have always questioned where and by whom their sweatshirts are made.

43. While chads were hanging in Florida, they were potty training in all 50 states. 

44. Presidents have always been denied line item veto power.

45. Nigeria has always been a constitutional republic with a civilian government.

46. The once-feared Thalidomide has always been recognized as a cancer fighting drug. 

47. DreamWorks has always been making animated creatures heroic and loveable.

48. Deceased men have always been able to procreate.

49. John Elway and Wayne Gretzky have always been retired.

50. They have never seen billboard ads for cigarettes.

51. The New York Stock Exchange has never reported its ups and downs in fractions.

52. Airline tickets have always been purchased online.

53. There have always been iMacs on desks.

54. Instant, tray-less ice cubes have never been a novelty.

55. Robots have always been surgical partners in the O.R.

56. Peregrine falcons have never been on the endangered species list.

57. Outstanding women basketball players have always had their own Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tenn.

58. Newt who?

59. War films have always shown horrific battle scenes inspired by Saving Private Ryan.

60. Michael J. Fox has always spoken publicly about having Parkinson’s disease.
#7, 10 strike me especially. 


I try to remind myself every few years to talk to them about what has shaped their imaginations: 
If they learned to type before learning to write longhand or cursive.
If their governing mythology is about catching Pokemon.

Their great hero myth is a boy who survived because of his mother’s sacrifice. 

The great antagonist is a man who shouldn’t be named but who survived because he hid his soul in things by means of murder. 

They may never have seen the Milky Way (a thing I read the other day which broke my heart).

They have always had medication to deal with their anxieties, depressions, and attention problems.

They’ve grown up being told the government is broken, too large, dangerous, lazy.

Many of them are likely to believe that anything that discomforts them is “offensive”.

They may have travelled widely; they may speak another language.

Illegal is a person–an illegal–and not an adjective.

A terrorist, a rapist, a sexual offender is potentially always nearby.

The only forms of disagreement they might have seen have been public: protest, boycott, and threats of violence. 

What are their models for civil engagement: dialogue, discussion, listening, rethinking in light of facts? 

Who are their images for courageous, ethical adults?
Except for getting rich, why are their reasons for living? 

Which of their heroes has ever had to work for a living? 

Who are their role models for surviving broken hearts, a friend’s betrayal, a controlling parent, the death of a loved one? 

Description, Distraction, Disruption, Destruction: Notes and prompts on a practice, part 2

To describe is tricky, isn’t it? How to describe faithfully and without bending the world toward your needs? Robert Hass’ poem The Problem of Describing Trees speaks to this.

By Robert Hass

The aspen glitters in the wind.
And that delights us.
The leaf flutters, turning.
Because that motion in the heat of summer
Protects its cells from drying out. Likewise the leaf
Of the cottonwood.
The gene pool threw up a wobbly stem
And the tree danced. No.
The tree capitalized.
No. There are limits to saying,
In language, what the tree did.
It is good sometimes for poetry to disenchant us.
Dance with me dancer. Oh, I will.
Aspens doing something in the wind.

How can we withstand the tempting and ubiquitous anthropomorphic belief that the world is sending messages all the time to us, sympathizing with or mocking our heartache, our happiness, our difficulties? It’s tempting to stage every murder of our feelings on a dark and stormy night. What’s the harm in telling people that it was? Well, it erases a level of richness from the story, for one. Hopefully your characters are better than clichés. It is a practice of trusting the mystery of the real world.


At this point, I’d like to turn from my defense of description and descriptiveness and look at a poem that uses description in a conscious way. Here’s the prompt that goes with it.

Writing Prompt #2:

Read Elizabeth Bishop’s At the Fishhouses out loud and then put it out of sight.

Write down at least twenty nouns or verbs you remember from the poem.

Then write a descriptive piece about a place where your life changed but maybe only you knew it. Try to use all the senses somehow. Use at least 15 of the 20 words you remembered from Bishop in the piece somehow.

At the Fishhouses

Although it is a cold evening,
down by one of the fishhouses
an old man sits netting,
his net, in the gloaming almost invisible,
a dark purple-brown,
and his shuttle worn and polished.
The air smells so strong of codfish
it makes one’s nose run and one’s eyes water.
The five fishhouses have steeply peaked roofs
and narrow, cleated gangplanks slant up
to storerooms in the gables
for the wheelbarrows to be pushed up and down on.
All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea,
swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,
is opaque, but the silver of the benches,
the lobster pots, and masts, scattered
among the wild jagged rocks,
is of an apparent translucence
like the small old buildings with an emerald moss
growing on their shoreward walls.
The big fish tubs are completely lined
with layers of beautiful herring scales
and the wheelbarrows are similarly plastered
with creamy iridescent coats of mail,
with small iridescent flies crawling on them.
Up on the little slope behind the houses,
set in the sparse bright sprinkle of grass,
is an ancient wooden capstan,
cracked, with two long bleached handles
and some melancholy stains, like dried blood,
where the ironwork has rusted.
The old man accepts a Lucky Strike.
He was a friend of my grandfather.
We talk of the decline in the population
and of codfish and herring
while he waits for a herring boat to come in.
There are sequins on his vest and on his thumb.
He has scraped the scales, the principal beauty,
from unnumbered fish with that black old knife,
the blade of which is almost worn away.

Down at the water’s edge, at the place
where they haul up the boats, up the long ramp
descending into the water, thin silver
tree trunks are laid horizontally
across the gray stones, down and down
at intervals of four or five feet.

Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
element bearable to no mortal,
to fish and to seals . . . One seal particularly
I have seen here evening after evening.
He was curious about me. He was interested in music;
like me a believer in total immersion,
so I used to sing him Baptist hymns.
I also sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
He stood up in the water and regarded me
steadily, moving his head a little.
Then he would disappear, then suddenly emerge
almost in the same spot, with a sort of shrug
as if it were against his better judgment.
Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
the clear gray icy water . . . Back, behind us,
the dignified tall firs begin.
Bluish, associating with their shadows,
a million Christmas trees stand
waiting for Christmas. The water seems suspended
above the rounded gray and blue-gray stones.
I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones,
above the stones and then the world.
If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

“At the Fishhouses” from The Complete Poems, 1927-1979 by Elizabeth Bishop.

Why does she include so much description? In most of the workshops I took, my fellow students would’ve suggested she cut most of it out. It slows down the poem. It makes the reader wait. The “dignified tall firs” image doesn’t really “work”, I can almost hear them say.

Sometimes I remind myself that she wrote this and a number of other descriptive poems right after World War 2; she was in her thirties and visiting places where she’d lived as a child. She lived in a culture where public feeling was apt to be boiled down to something simple—the patriotic and the nostalgic, both common forms of the sentimental in a time of war. It can be hard to get to something authentic, something individual, to see what an authentic feeling or new idea might look or feel like in a culture of noise and cliché. Here it’s probably not a coincidence that it’s the narrator’s looking into the ocean that elicits the particular insight of the poem, that thing we might call its Depth. The word used in the poem is “knowledge”. [ Of course, in typical Bishop style, this knowledge is arrived at but then almost immediately swept away by the last line “flowing and flow”. From water to air, scales to feathers.]

Elizabeth Bishop was restless and for reasons that were both personal and historical found it hard to feel at home anywhere. Another way to think of it was that she found the process of moving, seeing, and thinking important and maybe even pleasurable. Her poems, which often begin in elaborate physical descriptions of a place, often slip into insight or knowledge or feeling afterward. What does it mean not to begin with one’s feelings?

Description may also be a way to remember (as in “put back together”) a world that was cut up for Bishop. It’s also a guess of mine in that description in these poems gives her a way to grieve. Through describing, one remembers; through remembering one can begin to feel. Which can lead to happiness as well as grief, I should add. I’m undoubtedly staining this reading of the poem with my own needs.

Description, Distraction, Disruption, Destruction: Notes and prompts on a practice

(This is a series of notes I made for a craft talk I gave this summer to the Chatham Summer Community of Writers.  I thank them for the opportunity to think about these things. I’ll post more tomorrow.)

When I was a young writer, I wanted to mean, not describe. The problem was that all I knew were clichés and oversimplifications I could only echo at best. The first poem I brought to my first creative writing teacher in college, for instance, started with a dove I’d actually found dead in an abandoned field where I liked to wander. I “saw” it only as a metaphor for my own sadness/fate, for the hurt and frustration I felt as a young man with feelings in a small town and in a complicated family that seemed not to notice them. I did not mention at all the actual sources of my frustrations. I didn’t think poets did that because I ‘d mostly only read 19th century poets. I simply wanted my teacher to tell me that my feelings were justified, that having feelings was a miracle, that I was terrific for having them. My teacher then was a grad student, a young woman who was careful and thoughtful enough not to comment on that poem but to instead gave me a simple assignment: I want you for your next poem, she said, to just describe something. I didn’t understand or think that was very helpful, of course. But I was a good student and smiled and went away. At home, though, I grew angrier and angrier, until finally I wrote what I thought was so deliberately plain a thing no one could see anything in it, and I and handed it to her. I knew I was taking a risk, but my anger at having my obvious genius overlooked threw all caution to the wind.

 What I described in that piece was a scene that I’d witnessed when I very young. My mother and I were in the Memphis airport on a layover. We were eating lunch above the busy airport lobby floor, and I was looking down when a man in a loud plaid shirt was being apprehended by a policeman. The man was loudly pleading against the tightness of the handcuffs, the pain of having his arms bent back. I remember feeling very uncomfortable watching a man plead like that. I wasn’t sure why the policeman had to bend the man’s arms so painfully. Why that image occurred to me as a thing to describe for this assignment wasn’t clear to me then; all I knew when I wrote it down is that it was vivid.

 When the teacher handed it out in workshop, I was amazed at the number of things that the other students saw in it that I hadn’t even known I put in there. My feelings of discomfort were in the details. The other students talked about a deeper meaning than I had “meant”: what it meant to witness something complicated and troubling. I had thought I was “just” describing a scene, but my surprise was (and still is) that when I write down what I see and resist writing down what I might want to mean, there is more to see than I thought.

 When I now give this assignment to my own students, some of whom come to me as equally eager for validation as I had been, I usually don’t tell them this story. As my teacher did, I let my students grow angry that I’m taking away their right to make meaning and struggle to write exactly as I’ve asked—only description! that sad doily-work of the writing profession!!! I secretly hope they’ll write it in the ten minutes before class so there’s absolutely no chance that it will be any good. I want them to risk both my anger at being mocked and their own anger at feeling talked-down-to.  

 Almost uniformly the solely descriptive things they hand in to me are among the best pieces they’ve written so far, and almost uniformly they don’t see it at first. Sometimes this makes them even more angry. Because we often don’t see anything where we don’t want there to be anything. The practice of describing, sometimes of just describing, can produce surprising and subtle eruptions of insight so keen the writer herself doesn’t immediately realize it’s happened until the teacher or class can talk them through it. For many, it’s the first time they’ve ever written without using a cliché. It’s the first time for many to find out that a poem can work without their conscious intention to be meaningful. This is also the first time they’ve made a mistake about their sense of themselves.


One of the reasons I chose description as a subject is because I’m finding myself more and more handing out descriptive assignments for my students, even quite advanced ones.

Why? I’ve been wondering to myself. Here are some reasons:

 1) the ability to represent the world or convincingly construct an alternative world is a necessary skill for any writer;

2) describing is a practice that students can use to generate writing when there is no pressing subject at the moment, and can generate writing when there is an overwhelming subject as well;

3) writing description is a way to disrupt their habitual (and a very human) way of working—in which they believe “angry” is a sufficient description of someone (or dangerous, or ugly, or any large generalization)—and can help them to move out of the world of first/narrow/anxious reactions into a world that is more considered, and richer.

An example for our prose brothers and sisters come from John Gardner’s, The Art of Fiction:

‘Describe a building as seen by a man who has just found out his only son has been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, death, the war, or the man doing the seeing.”

Although it’s much more focused than the poetry exercise, this assignment initiates us into description as way to explore the consciousness of the narrator or of any character, especially a character who is undergoing very complicated feelings, maybe even feelings we might call indescribable. One of the interesting things that happens in the Gardner exercise is that, in disrupting the writer’s ability to name/explain the cause of the character’s grief, the students come to realize that description offers them a deeper reach into the character than merely saying The man is grieving. Suddenly the man is all sorts of possible things.

4) the fourth reason I ask for description from my students is because I’m not actually sure that students have been asked to describe the world. All around us, people, movies, advertisements, political figures, friends throw their feelings on us until reacting back with feelings seems normal, even right. They’ve been asked to respond to everything with their feelings. So they might not have developed a habit for more-or-less objective description.

 But what came before that feeling, I like to ask students who begin sentences with their feelings, to get them to think about the process of arriving at a feeling, that it is complicated by a great number of things, and that feelings are not the perfectly defensible castle they seem to be. What made you afraid of that man on the street, I might ask. How was he walking? What were the small signals you were picking up? Give us those same details. Yes, as an artistic process, this is vital to practice, but also this is a humane practice, to be able to alter your reactions by seeing more carefully, more fully, by something as simple as looking and then describing.

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