Archive for the 'Beyond What You Know' Category

Beyond What You Know: An Integrated Career; An Integrated Self

October 2007 Family Fun Magazine
When I’m not writing poems and essays, I’m writing marketing content; that’s my day job. For the past 11 years, I’ve been a freelance consultant paid to align business and consumer interests through strategic communications. I’ve historically held these two types of writing (literary vs. business) as separate-but-equal, with this formula as my benchmark: I write for money by day, for love by night.

My online platforms represent this great divide; I have one website for my business, and one for my creative writing life. This has mostly served me well. Clients want to know who my other clients are and what my track record is working for businesses in similar industries; they’re not concerned with where my next reading will be. And someone who wants to buy my poetry book doesn’t necessarily have an interest in learning about how I translate strategic objectives into results.

And yet, something has been happening in the past few years to build a bridge between the two. As I’ve taken myself more seriously as a poet, I’ve discovered more and more ways to do poetry-related work that contributes toward my income. Through teaching Poetry for the People, providing individualized coaching for writers, and working on my book, Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read & Write Poetry, my days and nights have become a far more integrated mix of income-generating work that is creative, strategic and even poetic.

And as I stop holding the types of work I do as separate, so do the people around me. For example, my marketing clients, upon learning of my book, have expressed curiosity about how my poetic expertise might translate to doing more innovative campaigns for them. I’m even exploring with a few the possibility of teaching their internal writing teams how to liven up their language.

At the same time, I’ve been recruited to flex my marketing muscles through opportunities such as the reading series I host at Barnes & Noble and my role on the VoiceCatcher editorial collective marketing team. In short, I am finding that there are far fewer barriers between corporate communications and creative writing than I had originally imagined.

It’s hard to say which comes first: the integrated career or the integrated sense of identity. But what I do know is that many of the distinctions we make and live by are not absolutes. A life of writing can be as expansive as we imagine it to be. Writing for love and writing for money are both equally possible.
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Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic, forthcoming from Writer’s Digest Books, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. Her poetry and essays appear in journals and anthologies including Cup of Comfort for Writers, Oregon Literary Review, Greater Good and VoiceCatcher. In 2006, she won first prize in the Ghost Road Press annual poetry contest. Sage holds an MA in creative writing from New York University where she was awarded a New York Times Foundation fellowship. Sage teaches Poetry for the People.

Beyond “What You Know”: On Poetry & Prosperity

October 2007 Family Fun MagazineBy Sage Cohen

When I majored in comparative literature as an undergraduate, my friend Jayne’s father, an accountant, asked me what kind of job I intended to land with such an ambiguous degree. “It will teach me how to think, and I’ll be good at any number of jobs if I’m a capable thinker,” I countered. His sons and daughter were getting practical degrees: accounting, journalism, medicine. Each knew what he or she would be doing with their education. Jayne’s father shrugged his shoulders and wished me luck.

Five years later when I was a year into a master’s degree in creative writing, Jayne’s father asked me why in the world I would get such a useless degree and how I intended to make a living when I graduated. The smart aleck in me responded, “I’m going to marry your son Abe, and he’s going to support me.” Jayne’s father never inquired into my career path again.

I think this conversation reflects a typical cultural fear: if you pursue the arts, you will starve. You will become ill suited for the workplace. No one will hire you. End of story. This is why many a parent has discouraged many a poet over the years from embracing such impractical passions.

I never bought into the starving artist archetype. For me, starving is no fun. Being penniless is a grind. Just as you can’t plant potatoes on a bridge, it’s hard to build a creative practice on a life that has no foundation on solid ground. A roof over my head and the certainty of being able to pay my monthly expenses have always been the foundation of my creativity.

When writing poetry, there’s a very simple way to sidestep the starving artist archetype: don’t expect to make a living writing poetry. Jayne’s father was right: poets don’t make a living writing poetry. A creative writing class may refine your use of metaphor to a surgeon’s precision, but that won’t buy you a cup of coffee. There is a very important distinction between money and prosperity. It’s easy to lump these together, but I propose that you don’t. Instead, I’d like you to consider how you define prosperity. For me, a leisurely afternoon in a coffee shop with a pile of poetry books, a notebook and a pen, and a regular refill of tea is prosperity. A good conversation with a friend is prosperity. My dog licking my face is prosperity.

This is not to say that we who write poetry are somehow above earning a good income. I’m just pointing out that income is one thing, and prosperity is frequently something else. Wallace Stevens, one of the most wildly imaginative poets on record, was an insurance adjustor by day. William Carlos Williams was a pediatrician. Mari L’Esperance is a therapist. The great blessing of poetry is that a “day job” can’t take poetry away from you.

Nor do you need poverty to write poetry. You simply need to know what prosperity means to you, and create a balance of what you do for money and what you do for poetry.

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Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic, forthcoming from Writer’s Digest Books, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. Her poetry and essays appear in journals and anthologies including Cup of Comfort for Writers, Oregon Literary Review, Greater Good and VoiceCatcher. In 2006, she won first prize in the Ghost Road Press annual poetry contest. Sage holds an MA in creative writing from New York University where she was awarded a New York Times Foundation fellowship. Sage teaches Poetry for the People and Personal Essays That Get Published.

Beyond What You Know: Teach Yourself How to Present

October 2007 Family Fun Magazine

By Sage Cohen

Chances are, you’ve been to a lecture, presentation, writing conference, workshop or other instructive writing event in the past few months. Why did you select that event? What were you hoping to learn? Did the experience meet your expectations? How did the speaker or teacher communicate information to you? Was the technique effective? Did you come home with an expanded horizon and a heavier writing toolbox?

If you’re able to answer the questions above, you’re well on your way to standing up in front of an audience and sharing your own expertise with them. Sounds scary? Maybe it will be; new experiences can be scary. But don’t let that stop you! Once we do something a few times, it becomes familiar. Eventually, we start to see ourselves as experts-and once we do, the rest of the world will see us as experts, too.

So how do you make the leap from reading this column to presenting to a group of people? One step at a time!

  1. Brainstorm a list of the writing-related topics you know best and love most.
  2. For each topic, list your related accolades, such as: got a master’s degree in this area; have published three pieces on this topic (or in this genre); won an award for this type of writing, etc. Writing down these affirmations of your expertise may help boost your confidence as you consider the next steps.
  3. Choose the topic you feel most comfortable with and brainstorm a list of places where you might present it, such as: at your child’s school; through the adult education curriculum at your community center or place of religious worship; at a local bookstore, writer’s organization or writing conference–you get the picture!
  4. Prioritize your list and research contact information for the person who organizes such events at each organization you’d like to approach.
  5. Write a short and sweet pitch letter that explains who you are, what your qualifications are, what you’d like to present, and how you expect this will benefit said organization’s membership. You can use this pitch for email, snail mail and verbal communications as appropriate.
  6. Start at the top of your list and keep pitching until you get a “Yes”!

When deciding how to structure your event, consider what works well for you as an audience member when you attend similar events. Then try to create an experience for listeners that you would appreciate if you were in their shoes. On the day of your event, come prepared with your attractive handouts, business cards, a mailing list and flyers about other upcoming classes or speaking engagements you’re offering.

With one speaking event under your belt, you’ll have new and impressive proof of your expertise to add to your next presentation pitch; and your momentum as a public speaker will be in motion.

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Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic, forthcoming from Writer’s Digest Books, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. Her poetry and essays appear in journals and anthologies including Cup of Comfort for Writers, Oregon Literary Review, Greater Good and VoiceCatcher. In 2006, she won first prize in the Ghost Road Press annual poetry contest. Sage holds an MA in creative writing from New York University where she was awarded a New York Times Foundation fellowship. Sage teaches Poetry for the People and Personal Essays That Get Published.

Beyond What You Know: Take the Wide-Angle View of Your Writing Career

October 2007 Family Fun MagazineBy Sage Cohen

Because I write poetry, for most of my life I thought of myself as a poet. And because poets don’t make a living simply writing and publishing poetry (even the most famous ones supplement their income with teaching, speaking and lecturing), I resigned myself to a fate of scribbling poems in the margins of my life while I got paid to do other things.

Then a few years ago, I took Christina Katz’s platform-building class where it dawned on me that the scraps of margins I’d been filling year after year added up to pages, even books. Through the exercises in that class, I discovered that somehow under my own nose I had already built the framework of a platform; I just didn’t know it. And I certainly hadn’t claimed it.

As it turns out, my primary love of writing poetry was fueling many secondary activities and accomplishments: publication, awards, writing residencies, teaching, public speaking and running a reading series. For the first time, I also understood that the marketing communications business I’d founded more than a decade ago-the one that pays the bills-is also a part of my poetic process. Being paid to write in the corporate sphere has honed my ear and kept my pencil sharp.

In short, I discovered that “poet” was far too limiting of a descriptor for what I do. “Writing the life poetic” felt more inclusive of how I live and work; I claimed this phrase as the umbrella platform of my writing life. By stretching my own self-definition, I started to see the work I was doing in my community through a new lens. Suddenly, so much more seemed possible and within reach. Within months of this realization, I was circulating a newsletter, had updated my website, had been invited to read and speak at several conferences and events, and had pitched a book. A year later, I’m putting the finishing touches on my book Writing the Life Poetic, forthcoming from Writer’s Digest Books. The old idea that being a poet doesn’t pay has been kicked to the curb.

What I learned from this experience is that the name we assign to our writing work and our writing life can be a cage or a limitless field of potential, depending on what kind of lens we’re looking through. How have you named your writing life and your role in it? Might you be seeing yourself too small-and as a result selling yourself too short? What if you were to take a wide-angle view and give yourself a little more room to move and grow? You just might find that as your identity expands, your writing repertoire and audience will expand proportionately along with it.

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Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic, forthcoming from Writer’s Digest Books, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. Her poetry and essays appear in journals and anthologies including Cup of Comfort for Writers, Oregon Literary Review, Greater Good and VoiceCatcher. In 2006, she won first prize in the Ghost Road Press annual poetry contest. Sage holds an MA in creative writing from New York University where she was awarded a New York Times Foundation fellowship. Sage teaches Poetry for the People and Personal Essays That Get Published.

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Beyond What You Know: Allow Fallow Time

By Sage Cohen

Nature has four distinct cycles. No matter how lofty we might imagine ourselves to be, writers are subject to the laws of nature like every other living thing around us. There is no permission slip that will excuse us from this fate, no matter whose signature we forge!

Yet, despite a lifetime of witnessing the world around us bud, blossom, drop petals, push out lush fruit, ripen, burn glorious autumn flames of color, lose everything, slumber, then start over, we seem to expect more of ourselves. Many of us strive for a nonstop cycle of bud, blossom, fruit, harvest, repeat. (This is not surprising, since this is how the clockwork of our culture turns: to produce, produce and produce some more.) But the fact is that flora and fauna don’t work that way, and neither do we.

It’s simply not natural or sustainable to be continuously producing. Farmers rotate their planting so that the land can replenish after a harvest. Writers who want to make the most of their natural resources will make similar choices. One of the great blessings of the writing life is that we are not beholden to supervisors or stockholders. This means that we get to decide how, when and where we write. You can clock in and clock out if that’s what works for you. But I recommend finding a way to align your process with the natural world and learn from the seasons how to trust the cycles of your writing.

Once upon a time before most of us knew of her, Alice Walker was given a grant to write. She proceeded to move out the country where she spent a year knitting. As she knit, the characters in The Color Purple made themselves known, and the force of the story’s narrative gathered like rain clouds. I’m guessing that by the time Walker sat down with pen to paper, a veritable storm of a narrative shook the entire landscape as it poured forth from her. When it came time for harvest, we readers had the good fortune to pluck The Color Purple ripe from the virtual vine.

I remember the first time I heard this story about Alice Walker’s writing process. I wondered if she worried, as I have, that when she was “doing nothing” that nothing was happening. I wondered if the people around her (if there were any) were anxious that there was no sign of a book being written during that year. But clearly, this is an author who understood far more than I did about embracing and moving with the cycles of nature.
I’m not proposing that you match what the seasons are doing exactly by writing furiously all spring and summer, then spending the winter canning and preserving all of your good ideas. But I am suggesting that you have a four-part rhythm that’s worth exploring so you can better understand when your high productivity times are, when it’s time to add fuel, and when it’s time to rest.

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Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic, forthcoming from Writer’s Digest Books, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. Her poetry and essays appear in journals and anthologies including Cup of Comfort for Writers, Oregon Literary Review, Greater Good and VoiceCatcher. In 2006, she won first prize in the Ghost Road Press annual poetry contest. Sage holds an MA in creative writing from New York University where she was awarded a New York Times Foundation fellowship. Sage teaches Poetry for the People and Personal Essays That Get Published.

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Beyond What You Know: Establishing a Great Submission System

October 2007 Family Fun Magazine

By Sage Cohen
“Luck favors the prepared, darling.”

– Edna Mode, The Incredibles


At a recent gathering with a few poet friends, Bob mentioned that he doesn’t send his work out.

Shawn challenged him: “Which of the poems that you haven’t sent out have been published?” This stumped Bob for a minute, and then we all laughed.

The simple truth behind Shawn’s question is this: the people who send out their writing are the only ones who have a chance of publishing it.

For many writers, especially those focused on creative writing, the leap between writing and publishing can feel like a Herculean one. The best parachute for taking this leap is a solid, easy-to-use submission system. The logic is simple: the easier it is to send your work out for publication, the more likely you are to do it. And the more regularly you send out your work, the greater your odds of seeing your words in print. Following are some suggestions for establishing a submission system that can set you up for success.

Submission system basics
Whether you prefer paper files or computer files, soft copies or hard copies, it’s important to know where your work is and what you intend to do with it next. Following are some of the categories I’ve used to manage my publishing process. Imagine that each is a tabbed section in a big “Publishing My Writing” binder––or a series of folders that are easily accessible in your computer. Take whatever pleases you and make it your own.

Label sections of your notebook or folders:

Finished pieces
Submission guidelines
Contest information
Submission log
Published work
Cover letters

Under “Submission Log,” because it can be confusing to keep track of which pieces you’ve sent where, I recommend creating a spreadsheet or log that tracks the following:

Name of publication Piece(s) Sent Date Sent Results Notes

I order my submission log chronologically with whatever is most current at the top.

Establishing a good rhythm
Procrastination can be the death of your submission system. That’s why it’s important to get a good rhythm going and stick with it. I generally dedicate the last Sunday of every month to “writing administration,” which means that I actively use all of the systems here to send my work out to magazines, literary journals and websites, etc. My friend Shawn sends out his poetry every week. I’m impressed with this, but it’s a rhythm I could not maintain. You may need to experiment to see what submission interval is realistic for you. I recommend that you choose a regular time, be willing to be flexible, experiment until you get it right, and then follow through on your commitment to your writing and yourself.

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Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic, forthcoming from Writer’s Digest Books, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. Her poetry and essays appear in journals and anthologies including Cup of Comfort for Writers, Oregon Literary Review, Greater Good and VoiceCatcher. In 2006, she won first prize in the Ghost Road Press annual poetry contest. Sage holds an MA in creative writing from New York University where she was awarded a New York Times Foundation fellowship. Sage teaches Poetry for the People and Personal Essays That Get Published.

Beyond “What You Know”: Contests Add a Notch to Your Belt

October 2007 Family Fun MagazineBy Sage Cohen

If you are seeking publication for your creative writing, contests can be a great way to increase your visibility, income and platform status. Being published always looks good on your writing resume. Being a contest winner looks even better. That’s why I recommend building contest submissions into your regular regimen of sending work out.

Whereas the standard literary journal submission costs you nothing and typically pays you nothing more than a copy or two of the publication when your work is accepted, you’ll pay to submit your work to a contest. And if you win, you’ll most likely be rewarded with both publication and a cash prize–and sometimes even a reading.

Because most contests require a submission fee–anywhere between $10 and $20 is common–and these can add up, be thoughtful about how frequently and where you submit your work. If you’re sending out work to journals and magazines every month, for example, perhaps you could submit to a contest every quarter. Like any submission ritual, once you get a good rhythm going, contests will become a natural part of your process. The more you submit your work, the greater your odds of winning may be.

Throughout every year, there are a wide variety of contests sponsored by literary publications for fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry. Here are a few reliable resources for learning about the contests that might be the best fit for you:

·    absolutewrite.com
·    fundsforwriters.com
·    poetsandwriters.com
·    practicing-writer.com
·    thepoetrymarket.com
·    winningwriters.com

A note of caution: There are presses and organizations that offer contests where, unbeknownst to those who participate, everyone who enters wins something. All winning pieces are then published in a large volume, and winners are encouraged to buy these collections for $75 or more. Such presses are called vanity presses, because they prey on the vanity and naiveté of writers who do not have enough experience to know that this is not a legitimate publishing venue. You should never have to pay to receive a copy of your published writing. Any publication that requires you to do so should raise a red flag; investigate carefully before proceeding.

When sending creative writing to contests, the same rules of engagement apply as with regular submissions: do not send simultaneous submissions (the same piece to multiple places at the same time) unless a publication explicitly says that it’s ok to do so. I made this mistake once and experienced the one-in-a-million honor/horror of having the same poem win first place in two prizes simultaneously. Of course, I had to turn one down–the ultimate in bad form for me and inconvenience for the journal. Don’t let this happen to you!

Your homework assignment this week: check out the resources above and find one contest that looks appealing with a deadline that will work for you. With your next batch of submissions, send your work to this contest. Repeat this at whatever intervals make the most sense for your time and budget and get ready to add “Award-winning poet” (or fiction writer or essayist) to your resumé!

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Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic, forthcoming from Writer’s Digest Books, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. Her poetry and essays appear in journals and anthologies including Cup of Comfort for Writers, Oregon Literary Review, Greater Good and VoiceCatcher. In 2006, she won first prize in the Ghost Road Press annual poetry contest. Sage holds an MA in creative writing from New York University where she was awarded a New York Times Foundation fellowship. Sage teaches Poetry for the People and Personal Essays That Get Published.


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