Joshua Cohen is the author of Book of Numbers, a critically acclaimed novel called “The Great American Internet Novel,” Witz, named a Best Book of 2010 by The Village Voice, and Four New Messages, named a Best Book of 2012 by The New Yorker. Cohen is also the New Books critic for Harper’s. His essays have appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, The Jewish Daily Forward, Nextbook, Tablet Magazine, Triple Canopy, Denver Quarterly, The Believer, The New York Observer, The London Review of Books, N+1 online, Guernica Magazine‘, and elsewhere.
Cohen comments on the writing process in his Big Think video, “How to Write Better: Get to Know Your Deepest Animal Impulses — and Kill Your Distractions.”
Cohen says aspiring writers need to kill their distractions in order to hear themselves think and talk.
“The best way to start writing is to stop watching videos,” says Cohen. “The second one is maybe to stop being in videos. There is no substitute for uninterrupted time…” And then hearing yourself talk honestly and hearing the way in which – or for me at least hearing the way that ideas are framed in speech give me a sense of how they might be framed on the page.”
Cohen also recommends that writers seek to understand themselves rather than looking to for someone else in the writing.
“So what I mean is know what you’re trying to find of yourself from what you’re writing,” says Cohen. “I think most people are stuck because they are either trying to find another person in what they’re writing or they’re not even sure what they are – they’re not even sure why they are hurting themselves so badly.”
Write for Yourself
Cohen says writers too often write calculating social norms, but norms change. He recommends instead that writers write for themselves in order to have a chance at lasting relevance.
“If I knew who or what my audience is, was, will be- then I’m not writing, I’m calculating,” says Cohen. “I’m reckoning up intended effects, interpretations. I’m weighing what people are going to read in certain ways. As irony, as offensive, as anodyne, as prurient, as “honest” right.”
“All of these ideals are normative within generations…and change,” continues Cohen. “So we already know that all of these things that I’m sort of calculating to are going to be utterly upended by a younger generation that’s going to consider me old and passé and worthless. There is, though, the hope that if you write with a certain openness to moods and states of mind that make you feel uncomfortable those might be portents of future inconceivable moods which then would really be understood by future inconceivable audiences.”