Portland writer Sage Cohen talks with Christopher Luna about how to be a productive writer
Sage Cohen has achieved a level of success that many writers merely dream about. A respected poet and teacher, she has also written two books on craft for Writer’s Digest: Writing the Life Poetic and The Productive Writer. Sage has worked hard to establish herself, and has learned many important lessons along the way. Her generosity of spirit has driven her to share what she has learned with others who are struggling, or just getting started. Writing the Life Poetic is a great book filled with practical advice for beginning and veteran poets alike. Sage also edits an e-zine of the same name that contains words of wisdom from local authors including Steve Williams and Constance Hall, Brittany Baldwin, Toni Partington, and myself (http://archive.constantcontact.com/fs010/1100476723030/archive/1102663212204.html).
The Productive Writer contains many helpful tips on time management, professionalism, building relationships, and “putting vision into action.” As Cohen explains, “productivity is a lifestyle choice. Just as a vegetarian reinforces daily this way of life with the food he chooses to eat, the Productive Writer holds a clear and meaningful value that gets expressed in a myriad of ways every single day—in the writing she does, the relationships she has, the spirit in which she works, and the opportunities she creates to move toward her goals.” The good news is that the ideas Sage shares are simple, useful, and easy to implement right away. The Productive Writer can be used to make big changes in your writing practice through exercises designed to help you face your fears, motivate yourself, and manage your submissions.
Sage Cohen recently agreed to answer a few questions about her new book and her work helping writers increase their output and efficiency. I was particularly interested in how her ideas can help poets to be more productive.
How did you begin writing?
This question lands for me much the same as "How did you begin living?" At some point when I had enough mastery of language and writing to put them in service to my needs, I found that life made more sense and my experience was easier to navigate with writing as my lens. It took many years to have self-consciousness that I was actually writing, as there was no goal other than to keep myself company, and no intended audience beyond myself.
What was the hardest part of becoming a productive writer? What time management challenges did you face?
This challenge is different for everyone. For me, the hardest part has always been prioritizing myself and my writing ahead of my many, many other commitments. It's been an ongoing dance, discerning how to live a life that reflects my goals -- both personal and professional -- and nourishes my being while giving service in the ways that matter to me.
When did you know that you had discovered your platform? How did it change your creative process?
In a class on platform with Christina Katz, I proposed platforms on a variety of topics ranging from single parenting to pet care, and Christina reflected back to me very simply, "But aren't you a poet?" Somehow, I had neglected to consider my most important craft to be platform-worthy. With this feedback, a lightbulb went on. I named my platform "Writing the Life Poetic," and within a year, I was teaching online poetry classes, producing a zine and writing a nonfiction book by that same name.
What have you learned from business writing that has helped you to write poetry?
I have become more methodical in my approach to writing poetry and learned to trust the labor of it, regardless of outcome. I sit down and work at something, anything -- revising an older poem, freewriting, following a phrase or image to see where it leads me -- understanding that it is the work of showing up to the blank page with an open heart and moving pen (or fingers on the keyboard) that creates the space for what wants to come through to reveal itself.
And, because I have come to trust my authority as a business writer, I think I also trust myself more as a poet. I know what I'm doing with language, which helps me surrender to all that I don't know about language as I'm in the throes of a poem's particular blindnesses.
One of the great things about The Productive Writer is that it demonstrates how useful it is to be organized. Have you always been this organized, or was it a skill you developed over time? What
mistakes did you make, and what did they teach you?
I am definitely temperamentally suited to organization. I feel better when my life, my work and my stuff is orderly. But I see my organization systems as a work in progress -- one that I've been refining all of my life. I don't like to feel overwhelmed, and I don't like to miss deadlines and I don't like to lose information that is important to me. These discomforts have driven me to find ways to effectively manage and prioritize a huge amount of information, paperwork, goals, deadlines, and now the ever-outgrown toddler clothes! I claim no mastery over this pursuit, but I do have a passion for the process.
Who inspires you?
My son Theo and our muse menagerie of two dogs and three cats are constantly awakening me to the poetry of our ordinary, magnificent lives together.
Who are some of the professionals who inspire you to be productive?
The example and guidance of Christina Katz (http://christinakatz.com/) taught me a great deal about career trajectory, pacing, platform, community building and authoring in the productive writing life. Christina was the most powerful influence in my platform creation and pitching, writing and promotion of my two, nonfiction books.
Seth Godin (http://www.sethgodin.com/sg/) is the most productive thinker / writer / paradigm-transformer I have ever experienced. He churns out insightful books faster than Superman leaps tall buildings.
Jen Lemen (http://www.mondobeyondo.org/) is a social media / community-building / content-creation genius.
Chris Guillebeau (http://www.chrisguillebeau.com/) has cultivated a movement through his blog that has sustained him financially and led to a traditional book deal. On his blog, in his book and through a number of free offerings, he generously shares with readers how he's done the whole shebang.
Do you have a professional mentor? What did you learn from this person?
One of my favorite tips for writers is, "Pretend you are Pam." Meaning, when you get stuck in fear that you don't know enough or aren't good enough to do something, pretend you're someone you believe to be worthy. I swear, it will catapult you right out of your own imagined failure into something far more interesting.
This example has grown out of my own habit of imitating my dear friend, colleague and role model for many, many years: Pamela Kim. Back in 1997, she was my boss and then my business partner. Over the years we have collaborated on endless work and life projects, often serving as each other's primary feedback loop. I have learned from Pam so much about being a professional business woman, creating truly useful systems, and having a productive writing life that is in harmony with who I am and what I want from my life and my work.
How is business writing different from writing a poem?
When I'm writing copy for a client, my goal is to understand their objectives, get inside the perspective of the targeted reader, and then tell a story that bridges the two--showing the end user how a particular product or service is going to address some specific problem or need. So, the writing approach is extremely strategic, with a focus on telling a particular story that inspires a very particular outcome. And, I'm working with a client who is the ultimate decision maker about what I've written. When they are satisfied with what I've written, that's how I know when content is final.
When I write a poem, I am in a completely receptive space that is pretty much the opposite of strategic. It's more like listening for language to choose me, and then meeting it at the page. As words, images, music start unfolding, I grope around for a palpable sense of what they want from me. It's almost like being a beginning partner dancer -- the follower -- paired with an expert leader. I follow the cues as best I can. And once I have a draft, I'm generally cutting back to the quick of the poem's barest and truest intention, trying to release its scent from the burden of words.
In your opinion, what is the biggest mistake that many writers make?
Ready for a tongue-twister? I think that thinking of mistakes as -- well -- mistakes is the biggest mistake a writer can make. I try to view things that didn't go as I had hoped as opportunities for learning more about myself, my writing, the human experience, the publishing world -- whatever the case may be.
How does one repair one’s relationship with a client if the work is unsatisfactory?
I don't think a client relationship is ever irreparable if the writer has been professional about meeting deadlines, communicating well and delivering something that reflects their best effort to meet the client's expectations.
I consider any content that doesn't meet a client's expectations to be a reflection of a miscommunication about objectives. If something isn't hitting the mark, I ask for more information about what the client is striving to accomplish with the communication, how they feel that my draft is not achieving that, and then refine from there.
Of course, it's possible that a client and a writer could decide that they are not a match after a few rounds of revision, and that's ok. Like any relationship, sometimes you have to take a few paces together before discovering that what the client is seeking and what you are offering do not resonate well.
In the book, you talk about embracing fear. Please say a few words about how and why writers should embrace fear, and how this has been a useful tool for you.
I think fear is the number one productivity kabosher. Perfectionism and procrastination are two sneaky ways that fear derails us. Chances are good that if there's some goal you have in your writing life that you're not moving toward, fear is at the root. I dedicated an entire chapter in The Productive Writer to helping writers work with fear in the hopes that it becomes a source of fuel rather than a dead end--because fear actually has tremendous energy that can be harnessed to our benefit.
Probably the scariest thing in my writing life has been public speaking. Because I have been so terrified of it, I made myself do it at every opportunity throughout my life. The more I have practiced, the more relaxed and effective I have become at speaking to an audience. These days, I'm noticing how I actually need that fear energy to give me the big burst of adrenaline that gets me through the hour or two or three when I'm "on."
My hope is that writers will find ways to honor the negative stories that come up when we are afraid, while learning not to let them stop us. In the movie A Beautiful Mind, there is a moment when John Nash (played by Russell Crowe), the famed, schizophrenic mathematician, is is told that he will be awarded the Nobel prize in Economics. He is taking a walk with the person from the Nobel prize committee who asks him, approximately, "How did you silence those voices that were interfering with your work and your life?"
Nash replies something to the effect of, "I didn't stop them. They're talking to me right now. I have simply made a choice to stop engaging with what they're saying."
This is every writer's opportunity with fear -- to learn to live with the negative stories that get air time in our minds -- without letting them limit what we know we are called to do. The productive writer feels the fear and does it anyway.
Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. She holds an M.A. in creative writing from New York University and a B.A. from Brown University. Sage lectures and teaches widely—including the popular online class Poetry for the People, publishes the Writing the Life Poetic zine and recently launched the online community and learning laboratory The Path of Possibility (http://pathofpossibility.com/). She and her son, Theo, live in Portland, Oregon.
The interview above is the latest in a series of conversations between Christopher Luna and his Partners in Truth and Beauty. To read the earlier interviews in this series, follow the links provided below.
Derek Fenner, artist, writer, and co-founder of Bootstrap Press: http://christopherluna-poetry.blogspot.com/2010/02/work-february-2010-interview-with-derek.html
Ryan Gallagher, co-founder of Bootstrap Press and translator of Catullus: http://christopherluna-poetry.blogspot.com/2010/04/work-april-2010-interview-with-ryan.html