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

What's the best advice novelist Joshua Cohen has for aspiring writers? It's not to kill your darlings but kill your distractions. And get in touch with your deepest animal impulses.

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.

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.

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The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source:

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

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The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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