Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Month: October, 2018

For Tony

I just heard that an old friend of mine died. We knew he was dying, had a bad cancer, was at his last days, last house, last bed, last words. His last sunlight came and withdrew from his last window. He sank into whatever we all are at last. He would’ve said my using the word last over and over was too clever a gimmick, that in revision I ought to face up to my grief better, be less clever, let the real poetry emerge from that. Last night I was even looking at his books again, thinking I should read him again, especially the prose he wrote about the poetry he loved, but I put it away as a macabre sentimentality that I was engaging in instead of really engaging in poetry itself, reading as opposed to feeling the loss of a friend I knew I didn’t really know very well but we were colleagues and happy to see each other when our paths crossed in later. He was quick and lean, a kind of whippet or maybe one of those retrievers who have to be fitted with tracking collars because they always seem ready to leave you, their senses attached to a far subtler world than yours will ever catch. Or ready to catch fire, maybe I mean, thin-furred and wired to lightning. Always ready to produce a jackknife to open whatever junk mail the world has sent. He made packets of poems for his students I used to sneak copies of. Around him the air smoked almost, even his hair seemed like steam. He could talk to you at the same time he could listen to some thrum in the universe, maybe I mean. Or maybe I mean he treated you as if you were a possible answer to a question. Anyway, I was glad to hug him the way I’m grateful to hear a cello being played by a person who loves life but also knows it’s not easy for anyone. Not one of us was going to get anything right finally, but why not try to embrace even the lonely percussionist, thin triangle and mallet in hand, waiting for his cue to make things shimmer? All these things happening to us constantly, rising and falling away, turning us around so we only get to see or hear or smell or taste the barest smudge of camaraderie, which itself is more than enough to praise, keep ourselves attending to like a fire we want to keep alive forever against the darkness the body eventually enters. Like a friend, we hope, who is happy to see us. Who wants to know everything that’s happened since we last


Easy story generator exercise

1. Buy a lot of index cards–5 x the number of students in your class.

2. On pack 1, write the name of a profession—plumber, surgeon, advertising executive, and so on—on a card( one profession per card). Some titles can be vague. Others should be specific (Spanish teacher, greeter at Walmart, etc).

3. On group 2 cards, write one location. Again, get a good mix of locations (a Dunkin doughnuts table or counter, a bowling alley, the lobby of the Pittsburgh Hilton).

4. On group 3’s cards write a time of day or day of the week. One per card. Stormy night. November afternoon. Again, a good mix.

5. On group 4’s card, write a dilemma. (Has just found out he has cancer; Is about to leave her job; has just found out his ex has made a fortune…be inventive with the range of serious human dilemmas but maybe not too specific about too many details).

6. On group 5’s cards write a random element. A box of eclairs. A dead fox. The number 27. The smell of gasoline and oranges. Give them weird and specific elements.

7. Randomly give every student one of each card. They have 20 minutes to half an hour to write the story of how this character with this problem got to this place. You must include the random element somehow in the story.

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