I first met poet and author Sage Cohen (@sagecohen) at the Willamette Writers Conference, while I was an editor at Writer’s Digest. The first thing that struck me about her was her laugh; you could hear it from across the hotel. I also recall her wearing a lovely silver necklace that said one word: Bloom. (I immediately asked her about the artist who created it and ordered something similar for myself!)
While at WD, I acquired her book, Writing the Life Poetic (one of the very few poetry titles we published during that time!), and she just released her third book with WD this month. It’s called Fierce on the Page, and I recently excerpted it here.
Sage and I recently discussed the themes in her book and how she frames the writing life.
Jane: Why “fierce”? What does that mean to you?
Sage: By “fierce,” I mean relentlessly self-responsible. At every moment, we have the opportunity to lean into what life serves up and use that experience to further refine ourselves as instruments of our craft—and our lives. I believe this is the path to becoming unstoppable in our evolution.
I believe the way we write can define (and transform) the way we live. And I believe ferocity is our best compass for finding our true way forward—so we can do our best work, live our best life, and make our greatest contribution. When we want to change or heal or learn or grow, we have the option of writing ourselves there. I wanted to invite people to explore these possibilities—and give them some tools of inquiry.
Fierce on the Page isn’t the sort of book that Writer’s Digest typically produces—it’s not how-to or instructional. This book is story oriented. Why?
In my experience, witnessing the stories of others is one of the best ways to access ourselves. I share how experiences with my son, my pets, my divorce, my co-parent, and my community served as my laboratory for cultivating my craft (and myself). I do this in the hope that readers will invent new ways to discover their own, best way forward.
Also, I believe that we don’t live in our lives; we live in the stories we tell about our lives. For me, writing has always been alchemy: from resistance to acceptance, from pain to beauty. I believe that people who are attracted to a life of writing have an incredible opportunity to transform and transcend the events of our lives, finding a resonance of grace simply by writing something just right.
Most authors prefer to be considered experts. But you advise your readers that they are the only expert they’ll ever need. Why do you say this?
I am the expert of me, and you are the expert of you. What works for me won’t necessarily work for you. Each of our jobs as writers and humans is to seek out strategies that have worked for others, try them on for ourselves, use what works, and let the rest go.
This is more difficult to accomplish than you might think. We all want to be handed a success formula from someone we respect; and often we hang on way too long to techniques that aren’t serving us. I believe that every writer already is enough and has enough of what they need to create the writing life they want. My goal is to help writers discover the tools, attitudes, and strategies that help them leverage and optimize their own raw materials of insight, craft, and voice.
Your son, Theo, and your many pets come through as powerful muses. How has parenting shaped your writing—and vice versa?
Parenting a child and animals is a love practice. And writing is also a love practice. They way I navigate any moment on the page or in my home ripples out to the rest of my (writing) life. In my 30+ years of writing practice, I have learned that anything that matters to us holds all the opportunities we need to become increasingly effective in that realm—and in every realm.
I find that many writers struggle to give themselves permission to write, to call themselves writers, to give themselves the time it takes to write. How do you counsel people on this?
Everyone is a keeper and a teller of stories. We come into this world hard-wired for the repetition of sound, rhythm and pattern in language. Before we can even speak, we delight in recognizing our own experience and learning about those unlike ours through the stories we are told. This affinity for story is ordinary as a lullaby and it anchors us firmly to people everywhere, throughout time.
Some people are inclined to write things down and others are not. Some people feel the call to write; yet they struggle to make the time and space or give themselves the permission to do so. Writers know who they are, even if they’re not writing much yet. My hope is that everyone who is attracted to this mode of transportation will take the risk to ride. You never know what landscape awaits you until you turn beyond what is known and start traveling toward what is possible.
But you should bother only if you love to write—or you suspect you might love it. It’s okay if you believe you’re not tall enough, broke enough, exciting enough or well dressed enough to write. You could even spend some time right now listing every single objection to why you cannot or should not write. Once you’ve emptied your mind of protests, pick up that pen or keyboard and get going. If you love to write, trust yourself to the writing. Yes, it’s that simple. You may even discover as you go that you’re taller or better dressed than you once thought!
What has your biggest challenge been as a writer?
Steering myself from scarcity toward sufficiency has been my most enduring challenge. Because scarcity has a root system that can send up any kind of weed into any kind of context I am cultivating. What I mean is: there is always something to believe I don’t have enough of in support of my writing life: time, money, expertise, readers, approval, or talent. My practice has been to welcome these stories of “not enough,” and then to practice a greater trust in a higher truth: that I can simply love what I am doing, and that is more than enough. No matter what the limitations may be, no matter what the results I produce.
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.