Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

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Hey Friends and Family!

Little What is now available for pre-ordering. I’m working on an October launch at White Whale. Stay tuned for details!



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.

My High Horse

Every morning I get up on my high horse to have a look again at the world. No one else knows how to drive. Everyone else is out for him/her/and now themself. Nobody else cares whom he/she/they hurt. Everyone is so busy panicking they can’t breathe or be logical. It’s bewildering. No one sees the big picture, the true cost, the colossal waste. No one seems able to restrain human desire enough to save the planet, control population, lower our consumption of fuel, food, merchandise, common resources. The rich are monsters who have much, much more than they shall ever need; they seem to have no notion at all of how to share. The poor are ravaged by need, riddled with prejudices and a lack of imagination. Neither of them seem willing to be still and make good choices, work, study, change their lives. Not like the rest of us. Well, a few of us maybe. How lucky I am to have this high horse, I think, which gives me such an ability to move between the unconscious and savage and dangerous and doomed. He is a wonderful horse, tall and expert at moving almost undetected in crowds, at parties, at the grocery store. He hardly takes up any room he’s in. I’ve gotten him trained so well, at this point he teaches nearly a third of my classes so I often find myself having fallen asleep while he talks about the history of modernism or the trouble with syllabics as a form or the writer’s need to describe a character more before arriving at a judgement. He can go on and on with almost no tug on the reins until I wake up, and as long as I smile at the end of my nap, the students often don’t know which one of us was there. I’m not always sure myself if I’m honest, which I try to be. All day long, people in need stop by the office to ask us questions of protocol and procedure when they can’t find an answer on Google. Sometimes they bring their own high horses in and we talk about the future. At night, having guided me all day through the dangers of the world, most of which are moral lapses and ethical failings of politicians and not really terrorists or same-sexual marriages, my hard-working and intrepid horse clip-clops me back home where, for dinner, I make it something large, quick, and practical, full of green leafy vegetables (for now I need to restrain my own consumption of processed white things like sugar, flour, milk, salt, and Apple products). We settle together on the couch, under a blanket if the house is a little chilly because we’re trying to save money, and watch tv or play video games, no better than anyone else, we snort to ourselves, as we blow up our enemies and conquer kingdoms, or laugh at the foolish situations other people seem to be able to stay out of.

Ghost Story: notes for a midterm

(I fell behind in my blog a day intention and so am punting today, reprising an old post about ghosts, which will use both G and H, and so I can get to I later today and be caught up. It is of course cheating to do this, but I had a chance to work on a poetry manuscript these last couple of days and decided that everything not a poetry manuscript was going on the back burner.)

Here is the in-class writing assignment I give my autobiography students around midterm when they’re starting to burn out.


Make a list of stories you have never told anyone about. Five minutes.

Choose one of the stories

Here’s are the rules to telling the story using multiple abrasions to the language:

1. You may not use the same syntactical structure twice in a row. A review of your choices: fragment, simple, compound, complex, compound-complex.
2. You must create interruptions to the narrative. You can have up to two consecutive sentences follow the narrative but then the third sentence must be non-narrative and can be quite weird, strange, musical, sensual as long as it doesn’t propel the narrative forward. You can have as many non-narrative sentences as you like AS LONG AS the non-narrative sentences don’t themselves become expected. The idea is to keep the language at a constant boil, as it were, a constant state of tension. Make the reader work.
3. You may not use the letter M.
4. The word “ghost” must appear somewhere in the piece. See below.
5. Choose a vowel sound that you can use to haunt the story OR create a phrase you can repeat occasionally ( but NOT in regular intervals!)
6. Extra credit: use ten words whose meaning you don’t know throughout the story.

A word about the word ghost, taken from Wikipedia:

The English word ghost continues Old English gást, from a hypothetical Common Germanic *gaistaz. It is common to West Germanic, but lacking in North and East Germanic (the equivalent word in Gothic is ahma, Old Norse has andi m., önd f.). The pre-Germanic form was *ghoisdo-s, apparently from a root denoting “fury, anger” reflected in Old Norse geisa “to rage.” The Germanic word is recorded as masculine only, but likely continues a neuter s-stem. The original meaning of the Germanic word would thus have been an animating principle of the mind, in particular capable of excitation and fury (compare óðr). In Germanic paganism, “Germanic Mercury,” and the later Odin, was at the same time the conductor of the dead and the “lord of fury” leading the Wild Hunt.

Besides denoting the human spirit or soul, both of the living and the deceased, the Old English word is used as a synonym of Latin spiritus also in the meaning of “breath, blast” from the earliest (9th century) attestations. It could also denote any good or evil spirit, i.e. angels and demons; the Anglo-Saxon gospel refers to the demonic possession of Matthew 12:43 as se unclæna gast. Also from the Old English period, the word could denote the spirit of God, viz. the “Holy Ghost.”

The now prevailing sense of “the soul of a deceased person, spoken of as appearing in a visible form” only emerges in Middle English (14th century). The modern noun does, however, retain a wider field of application, extending on one hand to soul, spirit,” vital principle, mind or psyche, the seat of feeling, thought and moral judgement; on the other hand used figuratively of any shadowy outline, fuzzy or unsubstantial image, in optics, photography and cinematography especially a flare, secondary image or spurious signal.

The synonym spook is a Dutch loanword, akin to Low German spôk (of uncertain etymology); it entered the English language via the United States in the 19th century. Alternative words in modern usage include spectre (from Latin spectrum), the Scottish wraith (of obscure origin), phantom (via French ultimately from Greek phantasma, compare fantasy) and apparition. The term shade in classical mythology translates Greek σκιά, or Latin umbra, in reference to the notion of spirits in the Greek underworld. “Haint” is a synonym for ghost used in regional English of the southern United States, and the “haint tale” is a common feature of southern oral and literary tradition. The term poltergeist is a German word, literally a “noisy ghost,” for a spirit said to manifest itself by invisibly moving and influencing objects.

Wraith is a Scottish dialectal word for “ghost, spectre, apparition.” It came to be used in Scottish Romanticist literature, and acquired the more general or figurative sense of “portent, omen.” In 18th- to 19th-century Scottish literature, it was also applied to aquatic spirits. The word has no commonly accepted etymology; OED notes “of obscure origin” only. An association with the verb writhe was the etymology favored by J. R. R. Tolkien. Tolkien’s use of the word in the naming of the creatures known as the Ringwraiths has influenced later usage in fantasy literature. Bogie is an Ulster Scots term for a ghost, and appears in Scottish poet John Mayne’s Hallowe’en in 1780.

A revenant is a deceased person returning from the dead to haunt the living, either as a disembodied ghost or alternatively as an animated (“undead”) corpse. Also related is the concept of a fetch, the visible ghost or spirit of a person yet alive.

Bellwether (Ron)

Bellwether is a word formed by a combination of the Middle English words belle (meaning “bell”) and wether (a noun that refers to a male sheep that has been castrated). The shepherd could know where the flock is by the sound of the bellwether or hear if there was trouble, I presume.

It’s come to mean a leader or the leading indicator of a trend. As in: Ohio is a bellwether state in that it has voted for the candidate who eventually became the president; it has not missed since 1964.

This is a slight change in meaning, though, since we now use the word bellwether to mark someone or something who might help us see the future instead of as a way to mark where the flock was in space. The bellwether doesn’t lead its sheep anywhere to some better life, just some new grass to crop.

It’s a beautiful word, though, right up there with cellardoor. And it’s certainly better than the new terms—thought leaders, influencers, or change agents—which are almost universally mocked among my friends at least for their lack of truth or beauty. Maybe the present thought leaders heard about the castration requirement and got cold feet.

For Rachel Carson, the loss of songbirds was a bellwether. The disappearance of frogs and bees and the Eastern Mountain Lion, which was just declared extinct, might be other indicators of where we’re going. Other people watch the stock market where they ring a bell every evening.

What are the bellwethers in your life? Who do you follow on Twitter or Instagram or Facebook? Who would you follow off a cliff or into a pack of wolves? What’s the difference between a leader and the one in the lead? Where are we going anyway?

Lives of the Robots: some notes

Hologrammed dead-celebrities selling out auditoriums and robot priests in today’s newsfeed. Cliches called poems selling thousands of copies. Are we already the dead, choosing endless repetition, afraid of anything but the pre-programmed? Anything new is often painful, at least at first. Is this why the different, the artists, the outsiders are often endangered, because they bring with them the new, the surprise, the difficulty of moving back into life after despair (or childhood)? What change are we avoiding by being dead?

Do’s and Don’ts: some notes

Over on the Best American Poetry blog, Alan Ziegler has a good list of Do’s and Don’ts in his Creative Writing Workshop. It’s adapted from his book The Creative Writing Notebook. For those of you looking for help thinking about teaching practices, this might be useful. It’s a much better list than anything I’ve written over the years, sensitive and clear about expectations. In a couple of weeks, when my class turns to workshopping poems, I may just have students read Zeigler’s post and discuss it.


By the way, after spending some time looking up the right way to punctuate Do’s and Don’ts, I have decided to go with Grammar Girl, aka Mignon Fogarty, who writes this:

“Generally, you don’t use apostrophes to make words or abbreviations plural (e.g., CDs, 1970s, hats), but English has a few exceptions. For example, you can use apostrophes when they help eliminate confusion, which happens most often with single letters. Mind your p’s and q’s is the typical spelling, and we write that the word aardvark has 3 a’s, not 3 as.

Dos and don’ts is an especially unusual exception. The apostrophe in the contraction doesn’t seems to make people want to use an apostrophe to make do plural (do’s and don’ts), but then to be consistent, you’d also have to use an apostrophe to make don’t plural, which becomes downright ugly (do’s and don’t’s).

Style guides and usage books don’t agree.

• The Chicago Manual of Style and others recommend dos and don’ts.

• The Associated Press and others recommend do’s and don’ts.

• Eats, Shoots & Leaves recommends do’s and don’t’s.

What Should You Do? Unless your editor wishes otherwise, if you write books, spell it dos and don’ts; and if you write for newspapers, magazines, or the Web, spell it do’s and don’ts. If you’re writing for yourself, spell it any way you want. Just be consistent.”


Do’s and Don’ts offer a particular pleasure: the opportunity to chart out what you want and don’t want. It’s hard to know sometimes what we do want. Take some time to why some out for yourself. Why not write a manifesto for yourself today? Or a Do’s and Don’ts for Introverts? A Do’s and Don’ts for Presidents?

Reading Poetry: Jan Freeman’s Blue Structure

All last year, full of anxiety after the election, I read mostly poets from the past, poets who had lived through worse things than the Trump Presidency. I read Rukeyser, Akhmatova, Brecht, and Rich mostly. I reread David Young’s three translations of Paul Celan. I didn’t read much of anything else except for a few escapist fantasy novels and book and articles I was using in classes. I have trouble reading when I’m feeling anxious. (I can hardly read when happy either, if I’m thinking about my reading and its moods.)

But a year of that is enough, isn’t it? Since this year’s an election year, I think to myself, maybe we can change control of the legislature enough to stop the Republican plans to give the commonwealth of the nation to a few families who already have more money than they can ever spend. I hope we can anyway, and that hope has given me a little buoyancy as a reader, enough to spend some time with some books I read last year but had been unable to write about. I had thought to write a lot more about poetry last year for this blog, as a way to resist the awful despair I felt, but I could not overcome that despair and rage enough to actually write blog pieces.

The first book I want to talk about is Jan Freeman’s book Blue Structure. It was published in 2016 by Calypso Editions but I didn’t get it until 2017. It’s a beautifully made, slim book about grief and loss. As poetry, it is intimate and almost vatic at the same time as it traces by way of voice–often using repetition the way a bat uses sonar to build its world out of cry and ear–the spaces where the poet finds herself after several close deaths.

So voice is several things at once: a plumb line for building a house or a boundary line; a form of intimate conversation; proof of grief; and lifeboat. It is what the poet has left that might reach the dead whose presence is both inside and outside her simultaneously, who still inhabit the narrator’s space and must be re-housed as she begins to re-make that space in order to live in it. I love the beauty and strangeness of Freeman’s poems, which remind me of Rukeyser’s voice at times but are all her own.

Blue Structure is a book of you and I’s, of addresses to gone but still beloved and longed-for presences. The poems search through myth, through family stories, through secrets, as they keep talking, singing, remembering, and grieving all at once. My favorites are these: “An Old Dog Lay Down On a Sandy Road,” “A Song,” “Hands,” “Voices,” “An Accounting,” and “The Secret”.

Here’s the title poem Blue Structure, published at the Ekphrastic Review. It will give you a sense of Freeman’s voice, although there are other structures–tight, gorgeous lyrics and a couple of delicate sequences- within the book I think you’ll find equally beautiful.

I recommend the book for anyone. The grief and love throughout are certainly personal to Freeman but her voice opens the poems up to any reader who has felt that strange new world the death of a parent, close friend, or lover leaves you in.

Poetry Workshop: a syllabus

The House Next Door: a diary

All the house reports died in April, and I’m sorry about that.  I was worried for legal reasons about putting so much information out here. Things have finally improved, I’m glad to say, but it has taken a lot of money, a lot of patience and careful work. We are at the moment safe and the house isn’t about to fall down.  

Sadly, the insurance company has been useless, the contractors and developers have been absolutely silent (no one has still apologized), and most of my legal/governmental sources of protection proved useless. We ended up using our own money to put in a drain and replace our water heater and furnace.  I’m in the process of refinancing the house, which is something I should’ve done before, to renovate the house.  Maybe we’ll sell in a year when M graduates and hits the job market. 

Still, the amount of silence from so many quarters was startling, frustrating, and humbling. These silences were largely male and completely white, I need to mark. I came to understand why certain people come to believe that government is of no help to them, that their tax dollars are disappearing into vast silences, behind closed and indifferent doors. 

Some days I despaired. Some days I raged. Some nights I was sure I was having a heart attack. Some days I feared I was going insane. Some people live whole lives there. Some people virtually shut down in order to get through life. They certainly stop thinking anyone else can help. 

If I hadn’t had an inheritance, if I didn’t have my family who offered help if we needed it, if I didn’t have my work to distract me, if my work didn’t pay me enough money to keep my bills paid, if I didn’t have my husband to talk things out with, or the dog to walk… 

Or if I had had access to a gun or had had no mindfulness practices….

I spent an enormous amount of time self-medicating by playing Skyrim or binge-watching RuPaul’s Drag Race.  Both those things require a certain access to technology and culture.

Meanwhile, we read constantly about the raising of rates on epi-pens and basic prescription drugs, of the loss of basic health services, of the enormous salaries and bonuses given to CEOs who leave after doing bad jobs. The beneficiaries of all this money are largely white, rich, men, who work hard to keep attention away from themselves. Look at those people of color, they say, that’s where the real problem is. Look at those gay people trying to act like real people and be married, they say. Can you believe all those women using tax money to kill babies? Those lazy people wanting to be paid for their inactivity? 

I do feel the return to the days when Silence=Death. I’ve resisted it, because I hate any simple equation like that. Silence has often equaled rest, pleasure, relief, and thought. We can’t be silent, however, about the losses about to be inflicted upon us, our neighbors, and our communities. 

One gift is this: we’ll know more in the end. I know more about my own house now, about building codes, refinancing, about the need to go and protest virtually every development you have any question about. It is awful, mind-numbing work, but it has to be done; we have to dedicate ourselves to it, even make art out of it, if we can. 

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