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

Novelist and Literary Critic
Over a year ago

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.