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Archive for January, 2011|Monthly archive page

Sage Cohen Uses Both Sides of Her Brain: So Can You

In Business of Writing, Craft, Interviews, Profiles on January 17, 2011 at 7:40 pm

 Sage Cohen first slipped quietly onto my radar via Christina Katz, (whom many of you know as Writer Mama). I quickly friended Sage on Facebook and watched in awe at her productivity and grace, all the while becoming a new mother. She continues to inspire me with the publication of her third book: The Productive Writer, which speaks to both the artist and the business person in every writer. Join me for a Q and A with her now about learning to place as much importance on process vs. results, using both sides of your brain, structuring your time wisely, and much more.

JR: What inspired you to write/create The Productive Writer?

 SC: My first book, Writing the Life Poetic, was published by Writer’s Digest Books. When I learned that another editor at WDB wanted to publish a book focused on organization for writers, I pitched it and they bought it. As we got under way, the topic fanned out a bit and morphed from “organization” to “productivity.” It’s been a really fun and relevant topic for me, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to share my ideas with readers.

JR: One of the things I love best about your book is that it couples strong work ethics with what you might call more “artist-friendly” concepts like building a writer’s “blueprint” and “embracing fear.”  How does this blend of right and left brain help writers be more productive?

SC: In my experience, the best strategies and tools are not effective when layered on top of the shaky foundation of bad habits and attitudes. So, my goal is to help people create the writing lives they want by first understanding who they are, how they think and work and vision and plan best, and then engaging these strengths to get the results they want.

 I invite readers to answer questions such as: What motivates me? What do I most want to accomplish? How much time do I have and how do I intend to use it? What do I want to produce? How do I define productivity in my writing life? What did I just do that worked, and what strategies do I want to reinvent?

 Once the reader has a clear picture of her own writing goals and work style, she can choose and use the tools and techniques that are best suited to her. I also offer a range of strategies for identifying and managing resistance along the way—such that even procrastination and fear can be channeled productively.

 JR: In Chapter 16 you discuss the importance of not always relying on external validation. What are some first steps a writer can take to start validating herself even in the face of rejection or not yet achieving publishing goals?

 SC: I think the absolute most important thing is to stay focused on and committed to your love for your work. If you’re writing because you have to—because you’re called to—then what So-And-So thinks about your final product is going to be far less relevant than that YES feeling you get when you’re engaged with your craft. This clarity of commitment is a safe harbor a writer can always return to.

 The other choice a writer can make again and again throughout his career is to focus on and appreciate her process, rather than her results. For instance, if I’m striving to have poems published in a certain publication, when I drop that envelope in the mail, I celebrate the fact that I got three poems written and polished, sealed, and sent according to specs and in time for the deadline. In short, I appreciate myself for doing everything I could to move toward that goal. The rest is out of my hands.

 Along these lines of process (versus results) thinking, I look at every rejection not as an end point of failure but an opportunity to try something new that might work better. And I invite readers to do the same, because there’s always a seed of opportunity in every so-called “failure.” In chapter 20, I share “My Writing Success Log” that’s designed to help writers track what’s working, what could work better, and what they intend for the future. Having a written record of your determination to succeed is a powerful way to stay motivated and grateful for all of your hard work.

 JR: You say in Ch. 6 “Consciousness is the first step toward change.” Tell us how this applies to writing.

 When we know what we’re doing well––or poorly––we then have an opportunity to either repeat what’s working or start experimenting with alternatives to attitudes or behaviors that are not accomplishing what we had hoped.

 For example, let’s say a writer starts using the daily time log that I recommend for a few weeks. He discovers that it typically takes him about an hour to write 1,000 words of rough-draft fiction. He sees also that he spends at least three hours a week on Facebook. He is surprised to see both how much time he was wasting online and how quickly he was able to get words down on the page. He decides to cut his time online down to one hour/week and commit to writing 2,000 more words every week. He continues to track his time and his results, fine-tuning his process and goals from there. 

 JR: I think your publishing story is a very inspiring one, as you are a poet first, and it might not seem intuitive that you would go on to publish writing books…was it a surprise to you as well?

 SC: You bring up a very interesting issue of identity here. It is true that I have identified as a poet first and foremost, and then as a writer of other genres later. Yet, fiction and essays, strategic content and thesis-driven papers have all shaped who I am as a writer. My major in college was comparative literature, and I have been writing marketing communications and advertising content professionally my entire adult life. 

In a way, the unfolding of each of my identities as a writer has been surprising––because writing has always been so intimately entwined with whom I am. Realizing that I was “a poet” in my early 20’s nearly knocked me off of my chair. And each succeeding revelation about the various writing realms I have named and claimed has been equally stunning.

I always expected that I would write books, but didn’t have a clear picture of the trajectory for doing so. In the movie The Secret, Jack Canfield explains that he drove in the dark all the way from California to New York, seeing with his headlights only 200 feet ahead of him at a time. This is how it was for me in arriving at the doorstep of authoring books. I got clear about my destination, took small and consistent steps in that direction, and was surprised to find myself clear across the country in no time at all.

 JR: Tell us something that you learned in the writing of this book that was unexpected…or anything else you’d like to say that I haven’t asked.

 SC: I learned that it isn’t necessarily any easier to write a second book than it is to write the first! For me, it was like first training a Labrador retriever and thinking, “I have the hang of this master-of-the-pack attitude.” Then you get a German shepherd puppy, and you find that none of your training accomplishments translate to this new relationship. Instead, you have to start at ground zero to adapt yourself to this dog’s herding instincts, hair-trigger fear of just about everything and hard-coding to chase cats and squirrels. I was reminded that in any writing project, we are always a beginner finding our way in new terrain, no matter how many days or years or decades we have been sitting down to the blank page.

 ***

About Sage Cohen

Sage Cohen is the author of The Productive Writer (just released from Writer’s Digest Books); Writing the Life Poetic and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. She blogs about all that is possible in the writing life at pathofpossibility.com, where you can: Download a FREE “Productivity Power Tools” workbook companion to The Productive Writer. Get the FREE, 10-week email series, “10 Ways to Boost Writing Productivity” when you sign up to receive email updates. Sign up for the FREE, Writing the Life Poetic e-zine. Plus, check out the events page for the latest free teleclasses, scholarships and more.

How to Talk Yourself Off The Ledge of Creative Despair

In Craft, Musings on January 15, 2011 at 9:12 pm

I’m standing up on a ledge that barely has enough room for my feet. Every micro-inch of movement kicks grains of pebbles down into a roaring abyss of traffic and noise. I got myself up here, but how will I get down? People I trust and love are standing just outside my line of sight, promising me that it will all be okay if I only listen, take their hands and trust, but I am frozen in place, with terror. What if I don’t make it?

This is the metaphor for the place I get to in my darkest moments of doubt about my writing. The ledge. Different things can send me up there: sometimes it’s feedback I’ve heard a thousand times hitting the “I don’t want to!” temper tantrum place inside me. Sometimes it’s missing the precious blank morning hours of solitude that I had to write in before my son was born. Sometimes it’s the latest news about the publishing industry, or the feeling that the “destination” I’m aiming at with my writing is just so damn far away and that I don’t have the stamina to get there. And every time it comes with the same thought: I am a fraud. Who am I to teach others about writing when I can’t even do it myself? Am I doomed to be the one who sees what must be done, but never the one to do it?

Thankfully, I can tell you the answer is no. When I was up on the ledge most recently, the wind chilling my face, the exhaust burning acrid in my throat, I wasn’t so sure either, but I got down. Here is my recipe for taking yourself down off the ledge when you think you might not otherwise make it:

1. Write it Out: The only way I make any headway is to first discover what I am going through. The only way I know how to do this, is to write about it. Journal, stream of consciousness, morning pages–whatever method you have that works for you, make sure you know what it is. You might think it’s one thing: you received a rejection, let’s say. When, upon writing, you discover it’s that you were rejected by a publication you didn’t really want to be published in…or in my case, I went to the place of: “I am just mediocre,” only to realize what it was really about was: “I don’t have the luxury of time I once had in which to work as hard as I know I have to work.” (ironically this is the very theme about which I want to be writing, balancing work and art, motherhood and writing…)

2. Feel it. Before you move on to step three, I find that if you can just give yourself a tiny bit of alone time to feel the grief or frustration, rage or disappointment, you will be on a much faster track to getting rid of it.

3. Talk it Out: After I know what’s troubling me, I have found that this artist’s despair gets lodged in the body, tugging down the emotions and the attitude with it, and that I must almost literally extract it from my physical person. The way I do this best is to talk about it, let it be witnessed, shine the light of other people’s wisdom, gentleness and kindness on it, purge it from me.

4. Walk it Off: After you get a witness to your pain, someone who can simply validate what you’re going through and offer gentleness, nothing like a good old fashioned walk, or yoga hour, or any kind of exercise…this will further help you to extract it from your body, where it leads to illness and fatigue and eating bad things.

5. Educate Yourself: So often I get stuck in know-it-all mode. Because I teach writing and write about writing, I must know all there is to know, and therefore be a failure when I can’t do it myself. That’s when it’s time to take a class. I signed up for a class I’ve wanted to take for ages, finally giving it to myself. Or, if you find yourself in the opposite situation, where you feel like you don’t know anything, sometimes the best thing you can do is pick a focus, just one thing to work on, and take a class, go to a lecture, a writing conference, or even just pick up a book, rather than trying to take on the whole thing at once.

6. Back on the Horse: Finally, the only way you’ll make any forward progress, is to come back to the painful source and start again. Whether it’s revisiting feedback on a piece, starting something fresh, switching projects, if you don’t come back, you are, in essence, stuck on the ledge, with the night bearing down, cold and lonely upon you. And that’s just no fun at all.

A Year of Spaciousness

In General, Musings on January 3, 2011 at 5:02 am

 I will not begin the New Year with an apology for my lack of posting. Instead I will begin it with a sense of gratitude that my life is so full, and yes, occasionally overly-full such that I can’t even take the time to post a blog.

My writing partner and friend, Becca Lawton, and I are declaring 2011 the Year of Spaciousness. I suppose this might conjure running along vast open spaces like beaches or wild meadows–and it certainly can. But to us it means setting up our lives to be able to include all the important things, without pushing those things to the wayside, or letting stress and overwhelm rule the day. We want our lives to be big, billowing with creativity, family time, various regimens of health and writing and socializing that feed us. 

To make a spacious life means to decide what is important and what can wait. To ask, at the end of my life, will I say “I wish I’d done more of x…” Or hopefully: “I’m so glad I made time for”…making shadow puppets and playdough sculptures with my son; staring into my husband’s eyes over coffee or lunch, just the two of us; writing in messy, wild bursts, and then burnishing those words to a powerful, potent gleam; testing the edges of the amazing vessel of a body we’re all given, seeing how strong and fit I can make it; spending time with people who make me laugh and nod, and feel so far from alone.

So in my year of spaciousness I intend not to care a whole lot about bottom lines and the desolate predictions of the publishing industry. I will work hard, but not so hard I neglect my family or my health. I will joyfully tend to my writing with care and craft, and I will choose events and people that are the real life equivalent of an wide, open, inviting shoreline crashing up against a vast and powerful ocean.

Will you join me?