Writing the Life Productive: An Interview with Sage Cohen

This interview originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of The Practicing Writer.


By Erika Dreifus

Sage Cohen has made a big and positive difference in my own writing life, both as a poetry teacher (I’ve taken both her Level I and Level II online poetry courses), as an inspiring author, and, most recently, as a kind and supportive friend. I am delighted to share her wisdom and creative energy with you in this interview, which focuses on her newest book, *The Productive Writer: Tips & Tools to Help You Write More, Stress Less & Create Success*.

Sage is also the author of *Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry* and the poetry collection *Like the Heart, the World*. Her essay “The Word is the Way” appeared alongside thought leaders such as Barack Obama, Al Gore, and Thomas L. Friedman in the anthology *How to Achieve a Heaven on Earth*. She has won first prize in the Ghost Road Press poetry contest and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lectures and teaches widely (including a range of interactive, online classes) and publishes the Writing the Life Poetic Zine.

Please welcome Sage Cohen!

Erika Dreifus (ED): Sage, in your book’s first chapter (“Harnessing Potential”) you suggest that we “study our heroes.” You advise us to take a look at a few writers or authors we admire “to start learning about how productivity looks in their lives, and how it is powering their success.” This made me curious as to which authors are *your* heroes in this respect.

Sage Cohen (SC): I have two types of investigations: short-term / goal-oriented investigations and long-tern, big-picture career inquiries. I’ll describe them both briefly.

Generally, a short-term investigation is specific to my immediate goal. So, for example, if I have a personal essay I want to place, I’ll ask myself: “Who are my personal essay heroes?” Cheryl Strayed and Melissa Hart are two of mine. So, I’ll go research where they’ve placed their essays and consider whether any of those publications might be a fit for my work.

Or, if I’m feeling overwhelmed about the mix of writing poetry, essays and nonfiction books — and wondering how any writer can do it all well, I’ll go find several of Diane Ackerman’s books, for example, to reassure myself that there are writers embracing every facet of their writing souls and sharing them with various audiences beautifully.

My long-term inquiries reflect authors and thinkers I’ve studied for a number of years, digesting not just what they say about the writing life or what they write, but how they’ve developed their productive writing enterprise over time. I’ll list my top 4:

1. Christina Katz (http://christinakatz.com/) has been a very important role model to me. My two nonfiction books would not exist — at least not in their current incarnation — without her example and guidance. As I studied and worked with Christina for five years, I learned a great deal about career trajectory, pacing, platform, community building and authoring in the productive writing life.

2. 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. I really appreciate how his author platform is so seamlessly integrated with what he preaches.

3. Jen Lemen (http://www.mondobeyondo.org/) is a social media / community-building / content-creation genius. As one of her readers, admirers, friends and colleagues, I’ve studied her incredible capacity to tell stories that engage people, inspire them to action, and change our world.

4. 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. I turn to his example every time I need inspiration about taking a stand for what I believe, finding my own way, and creating an enterprise that has meaning to me and value to others.

ED: Throughout the book, you refer writers to forms and templates that are available for download at WritersDigest.com. These range from a sample daily time log to a sample social media game plan. How did these items become part of *The Productive Writer*, and did you have any qualms about providing so much freely-available material online in conjunction with the printed book?

SC: I love life-creation exercises. Because this kind of process has been extremely useful to me in navigating my own productive writing life, I wanted to share such offerings with readers. I actually created the forms with the intention that they appear in the book. And in the final hours, the book was too long, and I was advised by my editor that the forms would be appearing online, instead. Because the forms on the WDB site are PDFs, I created my own, free, Word version on pathofpossibility.com. I wanted readers to have a way of typing right into the forms — and using them again and again over time.

I didn’t have qualms about giving away the worksheets. In fact, I consider them integral to the book — and I hope very much that folks are taking advantage of these planning tools as they envision and plot their productive writing futures. I’m hearing from readers that they enjoy reading the book once over first to get inspired, then reading it a second time as they do the exercises and really get specific about naming and claiming what they want to create in their writing lives.

ED: In your chapter on “Tapping Your Source,” you advise that at any one time, writers should be reading a mix of books, including “at least a few of the following topics”: developing the craft, inspiration/fun (“unrelated to your genre”), an admired book within one’s genre, something on marketing and/or selling one’s work, and “nonfiction on a topic that interests you.” You’re careful to note that “this is what works” for you, and others may benefit from a different mix. But once again, I became curious: Which titles are *you* currently reading in connection with your own reading regimen?

SC: That’s a fun question! I generally have maybe 12 or so books and magazines in play at any given time. I like to read *Writer’s Digest* magazine, *The Sun*, and all kinds of other articles and papers I’ve saved up during the day in the tub as part of my evening ritual. As for the categories, I’ll share my current favorite in each.

Developing craft: My commitment on this front lately been simply: writing poems. I have a new manuscript in the works, and what it is demanding of me is writing!

Inspiration/fun: *A Three Dog Life* by Abigail Thomas

An admired book in my genre: Kim Rosen’s *Saved by a Poem*

Marketing and/or selling: Gigi Rosenberg’s *The Artist’s Guide to Grant Writing*

Nonfiction: These two, resonant bedfellows in tandem: *Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness* by Ariel Gore and *The Art of Happiness*, by Dalai Lama.

ED: Your book emphasizes organization. The chapter on “Putting Information at Your Fingertips” is filled with excellent suggestions that I know I *should* be following. I couldn’t help wondering — did any of these ideas stem from any nightmarish experiences (for a writer, anyway) of your own? Was there a time when not having backed up your computer caused havoc, or a major problem resulted from failing to maintain “simple, coherent paper filing and e-mail archiving systems”? In other words, were any of these lessons learned the hard way? If so, please share!

SC: Ah, Erika, you bring me back to the very first tragedy of my writing life. A sophomore in high school, I was writing a paper in my brother’s room on his new Macintosh computer — the first computer to ever enter our house. (I’m dating myself here.) This was my first experience creating something beyond the handwritten-typewritten one-two punch. I spent a full day writing five pages about *The Once and Future King*, then kicked the plug and lost everything. I didn’t know how to back up a document then, or that I should. I learned the hard way. This lesson stayed with me all the way through my current, double-backup regimen of mozy (offsite) and an external lacie hard drive (onsite).

Truth be told, being organized just makes me feel good. I like to know where to find and store stuff. My keys go in the same place every time I enter the house. So does my purse. I like knowing they’ll be there when it’s time to leave again. The chapter you have referenced here was the very first chapter I wrote–and it was the easiest and most fun to write — probably because I’ve been cultivating systems like these my entire life.

I’m the kind of person who has a hard time sitting down to work if there’s one thing out of place on my desk or in my office. Or, I should say, I was that kind of person before I became a mother. Because I’ve been writing my own poems, essays and books for more than 25 years now and writing full-time for clients for 14 years, I’ve had to come up with systems for managing the sheer volume of information coming in, going out, and getting archived. It’s been a skill I’ve learned by necessity, and one I am also temperamentally suited for.

See? You got me started talking about organization and I could go on all day! I’ll stop here, to be polite.

ED: Personally, I was thrilled to reach the chapter on “Writing in the Margins of a Full-time Life.” In fact, if there happens to be anything that your editor might have cut from that chapter — or any further thoughts that you may have had on this subject since sending the book to press — please consider this an opportunity to share more on this particular subject.

SC: It’s funny that you ask this now. Being a person who compressed in two years: becoming a wife, a mother, and author of two books on top of a full-time job that supported my family, I have many, many, many systems for making tons of stuff happen efficiently and effectively.

These days, though, I’m finding that my battle cry has dramatically shifted from “accomplish as much as possible in every moment” to “do less, trust more” and it’s been a huge revelation. Sometimes, just being still is all our writing lives need from us. Sometimes, more happens — or has room to happen — when we simply allow it without trying so hard.

I think what I most want folks to consider right now is that our lives and our writing are both precious resources, and we don’t want to waste a drop of either. How can we align them to resonate with each other in a way that is least effortful and most pleasurable? Water flows downhill. How can we structure our attitudes, rhythms, work and life to make writing an act of ease that moves as naturally as water returning to its source?

ED: Closing words of advice on being a productive writer?

SC: I think of a writer’s relationship with her craft as a courtship that lasts a lifetime. We never arrive at Happily Ever After — thank goodness — we’re just trying on slippers and kissing princes and schlepping around at all hours in borrowed clothes as we find our way forward. And, there is no right way forward. No template that is guaranteed to work for any of us. Our job as writers is to figure out who we are, what we write, who we write it for, and then practice as much as is humanly possible — with kindness and generosity and patience toward ourselves — as we slowly improve and find our way.

Ernest Hemingway is said to have remarked, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” And I think there is truth in this. And relief in this truth. We can only do our best, and learn as we go. My invitation to every writer is to have fun finding out what you love to write, what you have to share, and how to offer your gifts to the people who are eager to receive them.

ED: Thanks so much, Sage. In closing, I encourage everyone to learn more about Sage and her new book at http://pathofpossibility.com/books/the-productive-writer/.