For those who are creatively inclined, it can be easy to put our writing or art in a box that sits in the corner of our daily life. Perhaps we think of it as apart from what we might do for a living, our life with friends and family, or our other passions like travel or running or cooking.
Sage Cohen taught me differently. An author, entrepreneur, and poet, Sage suggests that writers think twice about compartmentalizing our storytelling selves. And, in her grounded and even voice, implores us to live authentic and fully integrated lives. Her gentle but clear argument is that writers should accept themselves whole, and that they deserve to.
A writer of nonfiction books, poetry, ad copy, fiction, and business writing, Sage is a student and master of many forms. She’s author of Fierce on the Page, The Productive Writer, Writing the Life Poetic, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. She’s also been nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Prize.
When I think about writers who have been my best teachers, I immediately think of Sage. She’s also someone who I consider full of wisdom on how to live the writing life. In our interview, we talked about how to figure out if you’re a real writer, how working in multiple forms shapes our writing, and the power of writing your truth.
LC: I think a lot of us unconsciously believe that one day we’ll simply arrive and be the writer we always wanted to be. We think, “if I just got published in that journal…” or “oh, if I could only master that one form, I’d be a real author.” And yet, the ideal state is always growth and evolution. What advice do you have for writers about embracing the journey? How did you learn to let go of the outcome and enjoy the process?
SC: My personal obsession has always been to transmute experience to insight-to discover something through writing that was not available to me through mere living. For at least the first decade of my writing practice, this was the only outcome I was after.
Even when I started sending work out for publication, and in the many years after, the opinion of the outside world has been a minimal influence for me. I’m delighted, of course, if and when people want to read what I have written. But what keeps me writing is that discovery process that is negotiated entirely between the blank page and me.
For this reason, I think of a “real writer” as someone who writes. We don’t need the right journals or publishers to make us real. It is the choice to show up at the page day after day, month after month, year after year, that makes us real.
My hope is that every writer finds some primary joy that keeps them coming back to their writing practice – one with a root system far deeper than the fluctuations of other people’s opinions.
LC: It’s a part of your personal philosophy that “revealing the truth about our lives may be the most important contribution we can make.” What story or stories were the hardest for you to reveal? Did you consciously decide to take the leap of faith and share them? If not, what inner or outer forces pushed you in retrospect?
SC: I started blogging in 2006 with a goal of finishing and posting a piece of writing every day. Most days, I wrote a brief personal essay similar to the type I write on my blog now, at sagecohen.com. At that time, revealing anything about myself at all felt life-threatening. It wasn’t so much the content that was scary as the act of declaring “this is who I am.”
Each time I hit “publish”, and found myself to still be alive, I relaxed a little. Now I have 12 years of proof that I will survive revealing the truth-any truth-about my life. I believe this willingness to be vulnerable has been one of the most important practices of my (writing) life.
The hardest stories to tell have always been those that involve other people. Especially people who have hurt me. I am not at all interested in blaming others, ever. But I am interested in reporting on the truth of how I feel and revealing my own transformation process. Sometimes, this requires revealing difficult moments to show how I moved through them to a new point of view or place of healing.
For example, my ex-husband makes frequent appearances in my writing at radicaldivorce.com. I explained to him at the start of the project, and I think it is evident in my work, that my goal in writing about the hard stuff is finding a way to make it easier – for both of us, and for everyone navigating the complicated path of co-parenting through and beyond divorce.
Being clear about my values (to do no harm) and intentions (to re-write our family story to one of hope and happiness) helped me navigate risky material in my writing and my life.
LC: You write in so many different forms: poetry, nonfiction books, fiction, essays, even business writing for huge companies. And they all make up your writing life. Do you have words of wisdom for writers who might feel uncomfortable trying out a new form? What have you learned or carried over from one to another?
SC: I think writers do best when we follow the golden thread of our desire. If you’re called to try a new form, go for it! As you do, I suggest approaching with a spirit of curiosity and adventure-leaving all self-criticism behind. Because no one begins any new venture as an expert.
Incredible things happen when we return to (and welcome) beginner’s mind. We expect less of ourselves. We make mistakes. We flounder around. And there is so much magic and discovery in this not-knowing. We find new language and narratives. Fresh images and voices. We are more willing to make big leaps because there’s less at stake-we have less to prove, and less ego on the line. And when we’re lucky, we may even stumble into a new form that is interesting enough to make a primary practice.
The good news is that there is no waste when you try new things with your writing! Every form you explore will contribute to your writing skill set. For example, writing poetry has honed my ear for advertising copy. Decades of business writing gave me confidence in my capacity to tackle book-length projects. Everything you write hones the instrument of you. So, you’ll become more effective at any form you choose.