In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–Jeff Oaks
In The Field is a blog series devoted to highlighting the writing life and artistic process of our contributors. This week we continue with our series now featuring contributors from our most recent issue, Vo. 22 “Tending to Fires”. Vol. 22 is now available for sale in our online shop.
1. Tell us about your cnf pieces “Driving” and “My High Horse” in Volume 22. How did they come to be?
“Driving” was written as a draft in a journal in the summer of 2014, when my brother and I were driving back from Provincetown where we had indeed just scattered our mother’s ashes in the Atlantic Ocean. I didn’t recognize it as a “piece” until I began putting together all the poems I have written about my mother’s last year-and-a-half of life and the subsequent recovery from that. As a kind of coda to our time together as brothers, “Driving” is now the last piece of that [forthcoming] book, The Things.
“My High Horse” was written, I believe, in 2018, when I was beginning to notice that, although most of my friends and I are “progressives” we have become very quick about judging other people’s motives and worthiness. When I was a kid, my mother, whenever she caught herself or one of us saying something mean about someone else’s life, would often say something like, “Of course, being perfect myself…” as a way to puncture any self-inflation going on. It made us laugh, and brought us back to earth. “My High Horse” was written in that spirit, at a time when I could feel myself getting very angry about choices I saw some of my fellow citizens making. One of the principal dangers, I think these days, is the belief that “everybody is awful” or “I hate everyone” or “people suck.” You have to have hope in other people to get real (meaning large-scale), but it’s hard to do that if you’re just stuck in hate and fear and anger. At that point, my mother’s self-puncturing voice appeared, almost as an exercise to recognize what kind of High Horse I was sitting on, what beliefs keep me in that sad saddle.
2. What excites you as a writer? What turns you off, makes you turn away or stop reading a piece of writing?
As a writer: Getting past the boredom and irritation of my own writing and finding some metaphor or swerve of phrase that changes everything. What turns me away from reading: not finding anything new in terms of information or surprising in terms of language or complicated in terms of emotional depth.
3. What was an early experience that led to you becoming a writer?
There were so many [experiences], practical and mystical, that led me to writing, and which easily led to something else—entomology was an early love, as was psychology. I loved looking at the natural world and I was deeply interested in trying to figure people out. I’ve always wondered about the lives of small things—ants, bees, slips of the tongue, whispers in a crowded room. But the central moment was when I was 16 or 17 and went to a poetry and fiction workshop for high school students. I said beforehand that I wanted to work with the fiction writer because I thought maybe writing a bestselling book would be a way to be someone.The fiction writer was, however, very dour. But Judith Kitchen was the poet, and when I heard her read and talk about art and life, the room lit up for me. I’d never seen an adult who so-loved her life. I switched workshops and followed her. Later, she ran workshops at some local libraries, and I went until she recognized something in me was in need of her attention. She invited me to meet with her a couple of times, read early poems, and urged me to follow writing as a way to live in the world. She was the key that unlocked the door.
4. What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work? Do–or have–you had any mentors in your writing life?
I have had many wonderful role models, teachers, and friends over the years: Liz Rosenberg, Milt Kessler, Lynn Emanuel, Ed Ochester, Toi Derricotte; my writing pals Geeta Kothari and Jenny Johnson in Pittsburgh, and Liz Ahl, Noah Stetzer, and Jan Freeman elsewhere. Friends on Facebook and Twitter are a constant source of inspiration and challenge. My literary heroes are Eduardo Galeano, E.B. White, Emily Dickinson, Carl Phillips, Kimiko Hahn, Emerson, among many, many artists.
5. Do you practice any other art forms? If so, how do these influence your writing and/or creative process?
In 2017, I started painting and drawing, after not having really done it since the mid-80s as an undergraduate. I had two books I was, and still am, working on, and painting gave me a chance to do something that had silence in it. Painting is so much of the body; I find it occupies me when nothing else can ease my anxiety. At the moment, writing and painting are in separate worlds, although my new book of poetry, Little What, features a painting of mine as its cover, so maybe there will be occasions for dialogue.
6. What craft element challenges you the most in your writing? How do you approach it? What is your quirk as a writer?
Plotting in a deliberate way is my challenge. Which is probably why I never ended up writing that bestselling novel that would have made me rich. I would say I have a sense of dramatic structure, which I can usually count on rising up as I work.
7. How does the current political climate influence your art or creative process?
I stopped writing in 2017 with Trump’s inauguration. I really couldn’t believe what had happened and was terrified by what was now likely to happen to the country. I had no hope. I was angry and frustrated and full of grief. What finally helped me pull out of it was, as I said, painting, just making shapes of color on a canvas or page. Sometimes just drawing lines and reading people like Lynda Barry or looking at Paul Klee or Milton Avery paintings. And then teaching helped too. I was surrounded by undergraduates who still had hope, who needed to see that hope was still possible. Talking to them, making writing prompts for them, I began to write again in my journal. Writing now usually means putting together a lot of little scraps, sentences, lines, until they start to add up. Before that, I usually wrote a whole first draft fast and then revised down. Now I start with pieces and revise those into bigger pieces.
8. What are some themes/topics that are important to your writing?
Usually, I start with a question or a scene or an image and work from it until I get to something I didn’t expect to find. The only time I start with a theme is when a literary journal like Creative Nonfiction has a call for something. I wrote my first long essay for their Animals issue, a topic I am quite interested in, and more recently for their Marriage issue, a theme I had a lot of questions about. Otherwise, my themes are the ones that every writer has—attending to the details of the world, exploring the self, testing the limits of my language where I can.
9. What does your creative process look like? How does the environment you are in shape your work or where do you like to write?
Weekdays, I walk the dog, take him to camp, then go to a cafe to work for a couple hours. Weekends, I walk the dog, give him a peanut butter Kong at home, then go to a cafe and revise or submit. That’s the basic structure of my days. Because I’ve become an administrator and a husband, and so have less free time than I used to, writing now usually means putting together a lot of little scraps, sentences, lines, until they start to add up. I like working in a cafe because I can steal language from other people. Or use their conversations as starting points for my own wandering.
10. What projects or pieces are you working on right now?
I’m currently working on a second book of poetry/short prose, tentatively titled The Things, about my mother’s death, of which “Driving” will be a part of. A book of autobiographical essays is nearly done. And finally, there are some new prose/ pieces that seem to be accumulating into something.
Jeff Oaks’s first full-length collection Little What was published by Lily Poetry Review Books in September 2019. His prose and poetry have appeared most recently in Creative Nonfiction, The Georgia Review, The Missouri Review, and the Kenyon Review Online, as well as in the anthologies Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction and My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them. He teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh. You can find more about Jeff at his website jeffoaks.wordpress.com/.