I just can't say enough good things about Joni Cole. I met Joni a few years ago in one of her workshops at the Writers’ Center in White River Junction. She's a brilliant teacher and a wonderful writer—wise, funny, candid, and above all, inspiring. No wonder her new book has been named one of the planet's best new books for writers.
ST: In your new book, Good Naked: Reflections on How to Write More, Write Better, and Be Happier, you talk about how we writers tend to carry around our Great Idea for a long time, even years, before starting to put it down on paper—if we ever do. When did you first get the idea for Good Naked, and how long did it take you to write the book?
concept for Good Naked had been percolating for a long time.
As a teacher, I’d seen how writers—including myself—can make
themselves miserable for no good reason. Yes, writing can be hard,
and our subject matter is often painful, but the whole “suffering
artist” mentality does us no favors. Workshop after workshop, I’ve
seen how writers can swap out all-too-common destructive mindsets and
practices that get in our way for ones that feed our creativity,
productivity, and even joy in the writing process. So why not share
this good news in a book! After I pitched the idea to my publisher
and it was accepted, it took me about 18 months to write the
Naked made the “Best Books for Writers” list of Poets &
Writers magazine—itself an award-winning publication and hugely
influential. How does it feel to have written a book, published a
book, and received a thumbs-up from a literary powerhouse?
JC: Amazing. And vindicated. You would not believe how many times I’ve been dismissed by suspicious writers or fellow instructors when I broach the role of happiness in the creative process. (Which is strange because, conversely, so many people insist suffering is a prerequisite for artists.) But science is on my side, and now Poets & Writers is, as well. I have been gobsmacked by the positive reviews for the book, but I am equally moved by the individual writers who tell me that Good Naked motivates them to write more and write better.
peeked at Good Naked through the “Look inside this book”
feature on Amazon, and it was love at first sight. It’s wise and
LOL funny and I can’t wait to read the whole thing. So I just have
to ask: How much do you sleep? You teach several classes and
workshops a week, and you keep turning out wonderful books of your
own, and you’re not a hermit. How did you become so productive? Did
you grow up on a dairy farm? Were you always this way? What’s your
JC: This question cracked me up—“Did I grow up on a dairy farm?” (No, but I did grow up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, surrounded by dairy farms.) I guess I’m pretty driven, but I don’t think my “secret” is that I’m overly ambitious or never sleep. I just love what I do, leading writing workshops for aspiring authors, and for non-writers who want to avail themselves of the amazing value of expressive writing. Every week, I’m inspired by the participants in my workshops—newbies and seasoned authors alike. I’m reminded of the value of sharing our stories, real or imagined. Also motivating is this reality: If you don’t tell your story, who will?
ST: Do you write every day? Do you have writing rituals, like burning incense or wearing a special baseball cap or using a special pen? Or are you the kind of person who can write anywhere?
have a chapter in Good Naked that addresses the habit of
writing—what serves us; what feels punitive; and what is the sweet
spot between discipline and inspiration. It’s an important topic,
and no one formula works for all. I do know it makes your writing
life easier (not to mention more productive), if you write
consistently, and I am trying to rebuild that habit, which fell by
the wayside after I completed Good Naked. To that end, I do
whatever it takes—light candles, go to cafes, solicit feedback…
It’s weird how sometimes we can be so resistant to doing something
do you say to a novice writer who is working on, say, a first novel
and his first question isn't about writing but about how to get
published? (I meet writers like this a lot.)
happy to talk about the art of writing query letters, finding an
agent or publishing house that is a good fit, building a platform,
etc. But I also let writers know that most works of fiction have to
be finished before an editor will consider it, so they may want to
put their focus on publication on hold, and concentrate first on
craft. Especially because most acquiring editors no longer have the
time or inclination to help writers develop or revise their work.
Even a story with a great concept can elicit a “Pass” if it isn’t
come there are always more women than men in writing groups?
also see this same phenomenon in chorale societies, which is odd
because men like to sing and write as much as women. Who knows why
fewer guys join writing groups, especially considering they need as
much guidance and support as the rest of us. In Good Naked, I
speculate on this. Does the fact that men don’t join as many groups
as women help explain the mystery of the gender gap in life
expectancy, and why women live on average 5.3 years longer? It’s
not so far-fetched an idea, given the health benefits of community
is harder, writing a novel or writing a memoir? Fiction or
question makes me think of Tolstoy’s line, “Happy families are
all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I think
every genre comes with unique challenges of equal degrees of
difficulty. Each form demands its own type of mastery and magic.
often do you get a Great Idea? Are you working on anything at the
JC: I get great ideas all the time, but most of of them don’t last the length of my shower or run. Ha. Or sometimes the idea will fizzle out at my writing desk, because a great idea in your head still has to be made manifest on the page. Truthfully, I think greatness develops more commonly draft by draft, rather than at the onset of the creative process. Right now I’m working on a new set of essays based on a concept that I think is really cool, but we’ll see if it pans out. To keep at it and keep the faith, I’m burning through a lot of candles.
Good Naked: Reflections on How to Write More, Write Better, and Be Happier is available in both paperback and Kindle editions. To order a copy, click here.
To read more about Joni's workshops and to find out about her other books, visit her website, jonibcole.com
For a schedule of upcoming classes at the Writer's Center of White River Junction, click here.