Writer Interview: Elizabeth Cohen, Whirling Dervish of Writing

Figuring out your writing process is like figuring out what you want to be when you grow up. The only way to figure out that you like to write in your parked car while rain drums the roof (been there), is through trial and error. That's why I like to hear what works for other writers. Where they write. Why they write. It goes a long way in the inspiration department. Twice a month, we'll meet a new writer—someone I admire who can teach us a thing or two about making writing strides. Subscribe to be the first to meet them.

With no further ado, Meet Elizabeth Cohen.

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I studied with Elizabeth at the University of Western Connecticut MFA program, where I quickly learned that she has a knack for understanding the writing process and the business of writing.

In one workshop, she helped each of us identify an angle for our book that would make it unique and salable but stay true to the story. I resisted. I could't envision my work as a finished book, and Elizabeth understood why before I did. She said, "I get it! You don't know your ending yet."


I was writing a memoir, and at that point I didn't know how my life was going to turn out, much less my book. Elizabeth understood, and it was a tremendous relief.

Elizabeth knows that writing intersects with life in tangible and personal ways, and she teaches in a way that's mindful of that. I learned quite a bit from this classy lady, so I'm thrilled to introduced her to you now:


wsforicon How did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Elizabeth: I knew I wanted to be a writer because everything I saw and heard about seemed to me to have value as a STORY. Every phrase and gesture and moment seemed to have value in a poetic sense.


wsforicon Did you ever question whether it was possible to be a writer, or did you always believe in the dream?

Elizabeth: I didn't wonder about being a writer so much because I felt very deeply, on something like the cellular level that I was one. What I did wonder about was whether I could be a writer and poet as a profession. And that I really struggled with in my twenties, and tried various other professions before deciding to give it a go and my all...which worked out. Thankfully.


wsforicon What's your writing process like? Are you a procrastinator or do you wake up ready to go?

Elizabeth: I am a procrastinator. I hate these writers who carve out two hours a day religiously. I resent their ability to be so steady and regular. I wait until I can no longer wait and it is bursting out or even making me ill. And then I dive in and write like a dervish. I whirl through projects. It isn't exactly healthy.


wsforicon Where do you do most of your writing?

Elizabeth: Dining room table. I have lots of very fine office spaces assigned to me and in my house, but there is nothing like a big ol' table to spread out on.

wsforicon What's the strangest place you've ever written?

Elizabeth: Strangest place I have ever written. Hmmm. I have been known to write poems on my hand from time to time when I cannot find paper. I pull over on the highway to write down snippets and ideas.


wsforicon Any words of advice on seeing a project through from start to finish?

Elizabeth: My advice on following through is all about choosing the right project. If you choose the right project then you WILL follow through, because you will want to.

And if it is really the right project, you will not be able to think of much else. You will become obsessed and every waking minute away from it will feel just bad.


Elizabeth has been a gas station attendant, a waitress, an editorial assistant, a fact checker, a journalist and is presently an English professor. She lives in Plattsburgh, New York with her Daughter Ava, their dog Samo and many delicious cats. She is the author of three books of poetry (soon to be four!); The Scalpel and the Silver Bear, a biography of the first Navajo woman surgeon; The Family on Beartown Road, a memoir, and forthcoming this August, The Hypothetical Girl, a book of short stories.

The Hypothetical Girl will be released on August 6 of this year:

51GB4h9fEsL._SY320_"Love meets technology with a dash of quirk in this collection of highly original short stories.

An aspiring actress meets an Icelandic Yak farmer on a matchmaking Web site. An online forum for cancer support turns into a love triangle for an English professor, a Canadian fisherman, and an elementary school teacher living in Japan. A deer and a polar bear flirt via Skype.

In The Hypothetical Girl a menagerie of characters graze and jockey, play and hook up in the online dating world with mixed and sometimes dark results. Flirting and communicating in chat rooms, through texts, e-mails, and IMs, they grope their way through a virtual maze of potential mates, falling in and out of what they think and hope may be true love."

You can pre-order from Other Press, Amazon, and Random House.






The Key to Writing: Begin and Let Go

Connecticut, 2009 When I started graduate school, everyone around me seemed to know what they would write for their thesis. One third semester student said, "Know what you want to write right away. If you don't start your thesis your first semester, you're going to fall behind."

I was fresh off my application interview, where I had stammered through an answer to what I would write for my thesis. I spit out scattered words about nature and sense of place and examination and analysis...good old fashioned B.S.

"I just wondered if you wanted to write a memoir or essays," my interviewer said.

"Oh, well in that case, essays." I couldn't imagine writing a book-length anything.




Then came time for my first assignment. I wrote about a trip I had taken to the Yucatan Peninsula with my then husband because I wanted to be a witty travel writer--Barbara Kingsolver meets David Sedaris, if you can imagine such a combination. I did not want to write about marriage or relationships.

But a funny thing happened every time I tried to write: a subplot crept in. I was unhappy in a lie-in-bed-and-wonder-if-I-was-dying kind of way. And because I didn't want to admit it, I wrote 30 pages of slop to arrive at the 15 pages of mess I turned in.

Luckily, my professor was patient. He sifted through my pages and took the time to figure out what my story was about--a woman trying to make sense of her life, not just a trip to Mexico.

By the time I finished grad school, I was divorced. And instead of writing travel stories, I had written a book about marriage and relationships and starting over. My mentor told me it was time to start using the M-word. And you know what? I was okay with that. My writing and my life had both evolved into what they needed to be.



Now. The lesson in my story is not that writing will upend every aspect of your life (insert sigh of relief). Most often, you will sit down with the intent to write about marriage or travel or cooking, and that's what you'll write about. And after you've written about it, you'll still be married or single or live in Minnesota or Colorado and the basic tenets of your life will remain intact.

Connecticut, 2009  Photography and Writing Workshop

But writing that memoir taught me two very important things: if you want to write, simply begin. Then let go of the outcome.

No matter how convinced you are of your topic or your story--be it novel, memoir, essay or something else--it will take on a life of its own. It will morph and grow and change as you write it. Your job is to shepherd the piece through that process. To guide that story, not control it.

And (here's the best part.) If you don't know what that story is yet? Write anyway. You'll find it through the simple act of putting the pen to the page--it will reveal itself.



Letting go is not always easy. Neither is starting--especially if you're a Class Act Procrastinator like I am. So let's practice together.

Below you'll find the first paragraph of a short story I wrote. It's your turn next. Write the next paragraph in the comments section. If someone beats you to it, write the third paragraph. If one paragraph seems to end the story, start another. It doesn't matter if you're a fiction writer, a playwright or an essayist. Don't worry about good or bad writing. Just have fun. Begin and then let go. 

713kwWSjXkL._SY300_Once you participate, I'll enter your name to win a free copy of a book by a dear friend of mine: Tough Love: A Wyoming Childhood by Kate Meadows. Kate saw me through grad school, standing by me during a time of great change, and her book is a testament to bravery and courage and figuring out who you really are. Tomorrow, I'll polish up the story and post it on the blog, and announce the winner. Here goes (it's a bit dramatic. But let's just be dramatic together):


Seta had gone into the closet once, nine months before, to show Bethany the box where it sat on the shelf. They were on their second bottle of wine.

“Don’t you want to put it somewhere nicer?” Bethany asked. 

Seta didn't respond. Just turned off the light, walked to the kitchen and corked the wine.

Now, a thin layer of dust coats the grey plastic box. She pulls her sleeve over her wrist and wipes it clean. For a moment, she feels guilty for keeping it there. Then she picks it up.

(See the results of our story HERE.)


Giveaway from WritingStrides: Free Mentoring Sessions

Four weeks until the WritingStrides blog goes live on April 15. It's pretty exciting to think about growing a community of writers where we can encourage each other in writing, especially now that I've been learning about your goals. -2I've been impressed. You dream big, and you dream in specifics. When I decided to write, I only knew I wanted to write. I didn't really know what that meant. But you have some very detailed dreams: to get published in a specific magazine, to be a travel writer, to publish scientific papers (yep, you read that right), to publish blogs... the list goes on.

The awesome thing about having such specific goals is that you have two very key pieces of information: you know your starting point and where you want to be.

There might also be a whole lot of unknown territory in between, but I think that's important, too. It's where all the fun happens. And the learning and growing. It's in honor of all that unknown territory that I'm announcing my first official WritingStrides Giveaway: a set of three coaching sessions with me.

Here's how it's going to work. Subscribe to the WritingStrides Newsletter, and use the WritingStrides Block Buster. Then, email me your writer's statement and your first three steps to the future by April 14. I'll randomly draw one winner from the entries and announce it during launch week, the week of April 15. There's some fine print: the giveaway is for newsletter subscribers only, and the mentoring sessions need to be used within one year of winning. But other than that, it's really that simple.

I'll be waiting to hear from you (and yep, your answers will confidential, just between you and me).


WritingStrides Blog Launches April 15!

Make April 15 more than tax day--make it the day you commit to take your writing farther. The WritingStrides Blog will have tons of tips & tricks and writing inspiration to help you build your writing process, plus navigate the ups and downs of the writing life. You'll find: Author & Writer Interviews. Wonder about the writing habits of published authors? Like, do they really get up at 5 a.m. and write every single day? Don't they ever procrastinate? And what's the strangest place they've ever written?

-4Pen to Paper. Let's forget about the need to be perfect and remember that the best writing grows out of the moments we learn to let go. WritingStrides writing activities will give you an excuse to put that pen to paper and make writing an act of discovery.

Inspiration, Tips & Tricks. Personal insight from me into the writing process. I'll cover the writing process, the emotional ups and downs of writing, tips on revising and anything else that comes up during my own writing journey. (Have a topic you'd like me to cover? Contact me directly!)

-5One for the Well. My life coach helped me learn that I can only give from a well that is overflowing. It's true in life and for writing, too. Once a week I'll share something purely inspirational, that may or may not have anything to do with writing. So you're putting something back into your creative well, not just running it dry.

The best way to stay in touch with the WritingStrides blog is to sign up for the WritingStrides Newsletter before the launch. You'll get a free guide right away to start busting your writing blocks, and once a week I'll update you on Launch Week. I'm lining up author interviews (like friend and mentor Elizabeth Cohen whose new book, The Hypothetical GirlI can't wait to read!). I'll also let you know about launch-week giveaways for subscribers (how's a free mentoring session sound?). I'll include some writing activities and insights, too, so sign up today and get ready to take your writing farther.