How to Write Better: Get to Know Your Deepest Animal Impulses — and Kill Your Distractions

Novelist and Literary Critic

What's the best advice novelist Joshua Cohen has for aspiring writers? It's not to kill your darlings but kill your distractions. Put down the smartphone, close your laptop, and turn off your TV. Besides taking your writing time from you, watching videos creates a lot of noise in your life — literal and figurative — that keeps you from hearing yourself think and talk.

What frustrates many writers, says Cohen, is that they look for someone else in the writing rather than seek a deeper understanding of themselves. What stands in the way of self-knowledge is artifice, a quality that is unique to human consciousness. Animals at the zoo — an example Cohen uses in this video — experience no social rules, at least not consciously. They have impulses and the impulses are followed.

The task of the writer is to understand human impulses, scary as they may be and uncomfortable as they are to look directly at. Rage, resentment, and the strength that comes from fear all make for good writing, says Cohen, and a bad life.

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Joshua Cohen:  The best way to start writing is to stop watching videos. The second one is maybe to stop being in videos. Yep, but I also – but that’s a joke but as Freud said there are no jokes. There is no substitute for uninterrupted time for the, you know, not the killing your darlings thing of killing your favorite lines but killing your distractions first. 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. Even if people feel like they’re not fluent on the page or on the screen or on the screen that we still call a page. They probably speak with less um’s and ah’s and oh’s than I do sometimes. And but primarily I think that the real question is what are you writing for. And I don’t mean knowing your audience because you can never know your audience. And if you actually want to write well your goal should be that your audience is inconceivable to you.

So what I mean is know what you’re trying to find of yourself from what you’re writing. 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. You know writing is a very strange thing because it is – it’s not the messy thing that you give to children in kindergarten like paints where you can smear it everywhere. Or like when they give a bunch of kindergarteners xylophones and they drive everyone crazy, right. Because it requires a little bit more education, right, to make the same amount of noise let’s say. But writing then becomes the most basic way besides speech of communication. And people do it very easily, right. But then it also becomes the hardest thing to do. And I actually tend to think about it like when I go to the zoo which honestly has probably been twice in the last ten years. But when you go to the zoo and you watch animals fuck. Can you say that on this? You can watch them have sex and you’re like oh, that’s easy.

Now there are obviously different rules in the animal kingdom, or none. But it’s thinking like oh, if only it were so simple, right. And I think that getting in touch with some of those honestly instincts that are animal inside of us like rage, resentment, the strength that comes from fear will always again make good writing and life bad.

If I knew who or what my audience is, was, will be then I’m not writing, I’m calculating which is a, which I mean in the way we kind of use the word calculating. But also meaning that kind of good old American confidence man huckster sense, you know. 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. And first of all there’s the, there’s just the fact that all of these ideals are normative within generations, you know, and change, right. 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.

I mean that’s the gamble you take or that’s the gamble I would like to take which is to say to put myself in a position where I am unsure as to how something will be received and maybe unsure as to what something is. But there’s something in the – there’s some integrity in the language or there’s some integrity in the playing out of the thought however disconcerting it might be sometimes to me or bewildering. There is something in those states of discomfort and of discomfort presented with linguistic integrity that sort of makes be believe that someone will read me and know how to explain that mood to me, right. Someone will read me and know how to explain that impulse to me. I think so much of my life which is inseparable from my writing is about trying to find explanations for certain impulses. And that’s what I think what a future audience might give. But of course, you know, there’s hope just not for us, right. You’re never going to be around to have it all, smooth it out for you.