Book Notes: Author Encourages Writers to Trust the Process

  • Author and writing coach Joni B. Cole has written a new book of advice and support for writers.

Valley News Staff Writers
Published: 4/7/2017 12:05:10 AM

Joni B. Cole, the founder of the Writer’s Center in White River Junction, has heard every possible variation on why people think they can’t write, are afraid to write or fear that what they have written is suitable only for lining a bird cage. And she has concrete suggestions for how to maneuver around the fear and (self) loathing.

In the recently published Good Naked: Reflections on How to Write More, Write Better and Be Happier (University Press of New England), a follow-up to her 2006 book Toxic Feedback: Helping Writers Survive and Thrive, Cole, who has led workshops for 20 years and written six books, sets out to demystify a process that has been overly exalted.

The muse lurks, but doesn’t appear all that often. To quote Picasso, as Cole does: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.”

Yes, Cole said in a phone interview from her home in Wilder, literature is a magical, mystical thing, but if writers focus on all the reasons why they’re not up to the job it will only discourage them from the actual nuts and bolts process.

There’s a reason why the book is called Good Naked, Cole said, and that has to do with accepting the exposure, whether in a workshop or writing group or alone, of one’s strengths and frailties at every stop along the way from first to last draft.

“It’s so important because I want to bring everyone into the fold. I don’t want them to rule themselves out for very invalid reasons,” she said.

The craft and mechanics of writing require discipline and practice, and “that is a practice that is accessible to so many of us if we would stop getting in our own way,” Cole said.

Some writing teachers rule through intimidation and hierarchy, passing on to their students a similar attitude of competition and derision. This is not Cole’s preferred method. Everyone can learn from each other, from the most accomplished, published writer to the aspiring one, she said; she’s seen it happen over and over.

The demystification in Good Naked might as aptly be called de-mythification of long-held tenets about writing that, Cole said, serve the writer poorly.

The myth that writers work in splendid isolation, which is true for some, but not all, of the time, because it does not take into account the readers of those early drafts who supply invaluable criticism. The myth that a good piece of writing falls whole from the sky. The myth that writers are born, not made. The myth that criticism is most useful when it points out what is wrong rather than what is right. The allied myth that not engaging in “brutal honesty” means you cannot distinguish between great, good and indifferent writing.

Then there’s the assertion: You say you’re a writer? So, just write. To which Cole has a pithy response: Shut Up.

“When you have a sense of support and a sense of community, when we stop disparaging our first drafts and stop denying our existence ... when we stop these practices we’re going to write more and write better,” Cole said.

There has to be an understanding, she said, of how “unshaped, mysterious, murky and wobbly” first drafts are. You could call a first draft bad, and apologize for it ad nauseam, but what writers of any level sometimes forget is that the early draft is “the nascent embryo stage of birth,” Cole said.

There is one tenet, though, that Cole does defend. Writing is revision. And revision, and revision, and revision. Don’t pick apart the drafts until nothing remains. Instead, regard each draft, Cole said, as “absolutely doing the job a first, second or third draft should do.”

“If we disparage our drafts we’re really disparaging the creative process, and then how do we find joy in it?” she said.

There’s a larger point here. Writing is not about self-expression per se. It’s about the relationship between writer and reader, a kind of social contract in which the reader agrees to defer, for a period of time, thinking about oneself and instead thinks about and enters into other people’s lives, Cole said.

“I think writing is one of the best forms of social activism. I feel like the way we engage readers is the one way we expand people’s empathy, imagination and connectivity, across realms and genres. It’s the stories that we share that enhance our humanity and our compassion,” Cole said.

Cole will read fromGood Nakedat 7 p.m. on April 27 at Norwich Public Library, and again on May 3 at Hartland Public Library. For a complete list of readings and information go to jonibcole.com.

Author AppearancesAnd Readings

The Norwich Bookstore is inviting poetry devotees to a string of readings over the coming two weeks, starting tonight at 7 with members of the Still Puddle Poets sampling from Hanover resident Carol Armstrong’s new collection, Rich Remembering.

The group helped Armstrong, now in her 90s, publish the new collection; a snowstorm in March had postponed the event. While admission is free to the gathering, which Armstrong is expected to attend, seating is limited, so call ahead to 802-649-1114 or email info@norwichbookstore.com.

The parade of poetry continues on Wednesday night at 7, with readings by Sharon resident Ina Anderson from her collection Journey Into Space, and by West Fairlee’s April Ossman from her second compilation, Event Boundaries. To learn more, visit norwichbookstore.com.

The bookstore also is hosting two readings of nonfiction prose over the coming fortnight. On Thursday afternoon at 4:30, Dartmouth College professor Brooke Williams will read from and sign copies of Open Midnight: Where Ancestors and Wilderness Meet, his memoir contrasting his year alone in the wilds of southern Utah with the journey, in a group of Mormans, to Utah of one of his ancestors from England during the Civil War.

On Thursday night at 7, Peter Gould shares stories from his collection Horse Drawn Yogurt, about Total Loss Farm, the Guilford, Vt., commune where he spent part of the 1970s during the back-to-the-land movement.

And on April 19 at 7 p.m., Middlebury College graduate Andrew Forsthoefel will read from his memoir Walking to Listen: 4,000 Miles Across America, One Story at a Time.

With an eye toward encouraging participation from his audience, children’s author David Martin reads (and sometimes sings) from his works at Latham Memorial Library on Thetford Hill on Saturday morning at 11.

Martin’s books, aimed at readers fourth-grade and younger, include Shh! Bears Sleeping, Peep and Ducky, All For Pie, Pie For All and We’ve All Got Bellybuttons. To learn more, visit thetfordlibrary.org.

Danelle Sims will read Agatha Christie’s whodunit short story The Witness for the Prosecution at Woodstock’s Norman Williams Public Library on Saturday afternoon at 4.

Left Bank Books in downtown Hanover kicks off its spring series of readings on April 18 with Selma James talking about The Black Jacobins Reader, a compilation of analyses of her late husband C.L.R. James’ groundbreaking history of the Haitian Revolution. The reading, and subsequent Tuesday-night gatherings, starts at 7 p.m. To learn more about this and the coming readings, visit leftbankbookshanover.com.

Talk Amongst Yourselves

At its next gathering, April 25 at 7 p.m., Thetford’s informal discussion group on nonfiction will take on Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, at Latham Library on Thetford Hill. The book is available at most libraries via interlibrary loan, and as an audio and ebook via listenupvermont.org and nh.lob.overdrive.com.

The classic-book discussion group at Norman Williams Public Library in Woodstock takes on Edith Wharton’s 1917 novel Summer, one of her two books set in New England, on April 29 at 10:30 a.m. To learn more, visit normanwilliams.org.

Presentations

On Monday afternoon at 4:30 at Norman Williams Public Library in Woodstock, Kathy Kirkland, interim chief of palliative care at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, will give a free presentation that includes a demonstration of an exercise she uses to teach clinicians in palliative medicine and other disciplines how to closely read a text and write reflectively. Her work at DHMC and in Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine includes weaving “narrative medicine” into the training of medical students and residents.

New Hampshire author Diane Les Becquets, whose four novels include Breaking Wild, will deliver the third annual Centurions Lecture at Newport’s Richards Free Library on Tuesday night at 7. Admission is free.

Awards

The Richards Free Library in Newport recently announced that Vermont writer Julia Alvarez, of Middlebury, will receive the Sarah Josepha Hale Award medal at the library arts center on Aug. 19.

The 67-year-old Alvarez’s life’s work includes her novels about her parents’ native Dominican Republic (among them How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies), several collections of poetry and nonfiction and, most recently, books for children and young adults, among them Where Do They Go?, her collaboration with East Barnard artist Sabra Field on broaching the subject of death to children.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.

Correction

Joni Cole's book Good Naked: Reflections on How to Write More, Writer Bette and Be Happier is published by University Press of New England. An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the publisher.




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