The Hippo


Aug 23, 2019








Joni B. Cole’s Good Naked

3S Artspace: 319 Vaughan St., Portsmouth; book signing and prompt workshop Saturday, April 8, 1-3 p.m., free; half-day writing retreat Sunday, April 9, 9 a.m.-1 p.m., $125
Gibson’s Bookstore: 45 S. Main St., Concord, Saturday, May 6, at 2 p.m.

Good naked
Cole on how to write more, better and more happily

By Kelly Sennott

 One of Vermont writer Joni B. Cole’s pet peeves is the legend of the tortured artist. Please.

“The truth is, if your creative process is a happier one — and I use the term ‘happier’ pretty broadly — but if you do have a creative life that is more positive, you’ll actually write more and write better,” Cole said during a recent interview, just before teaching a workshop at the Writer’s Center of White River Junction. “We cling to the myth of the suffering artist, and I don’t know why, because it just doesn’t service!”
She addresses this idea more fully in her latest book, Good Naked: Reflections on How to Write More, Write Better & Be Happier, published April 4 by the University Press of New England, which she talks about at a variety of upcoming events. Many of them — including the two at 3S Artspace this weekend and at Gibson’s Bookstore May 6 — are accompanied by writing prompts or workshops.
Good Naked is divvied up into essays infused with advice and real-life stories from her career as a writer and writing teacher. The goal: to help writers let go of their fears and move forward in their creative process, and to enjoy doing it. 
“Writing is really hard. I never say it isn’t,” Cole said. “But there’s no such thing as a good or a bad day. If you’re writing, it’s always a good day.”
Cole is on the New Hampshire Institute of Art faculty and teaches in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program at Dartmouth College. She’s written several books, including one about writing (Toxic Feedback: Helping Writers Survive and Thrive) and one she recently re-released, Another Bad-Dog Book: Essays on Life, Love and Neurotic Human Behavior
In addition, Cole has been teaching at the Writer’s Center of White River Junction, Vermont, for 20 years. Her students include writers of all levels. Over the years, she’s come to learn and has strong opinions about what writers need. Past participants have called her a cheerleader, a description Cole is happy with. Yes, she offers constructive criticism, but it’s often sandwiched between points on what is working. 
“A lot of people come in and say, ‘Just tell me what’s wrong.’ And they are both fearful of brutal feedback, and yet they ascribe to it. ‘I don’t want you to just be nice’ — I get that a lot. But at this stage in the game, it’s not about being nice or being brutal. It’s about giving a writer what he or she needs to move the work forward, and often, the best teaching method is to show what’s working in the piece already. You could call that being nice or you could call that good teaching,” Cole said. “There’s already an assumption there’s a lot to appreciate because it’s not a blank page.”
One of her essays, “Planet Writer,” looks at common behaviors among writers, like the strange rituals they take up in order to write (lighting candles, drinking ginger peach tea, using that one certain mug) and common tendencies like letting a “Great Idea” sit and wait, not knowing where to start. Years go by, Cole said, and by the time these writers finally get to their once beautiful Great Idea, they see it now “bears the features of a feral pig.”
Their mistake, Cole said, is believing they should know where their story should start in the first place. Start in a middle scene. Start at an end scene. Start anywhere. You’ll figure it out as you work.
“Don’t try to write your book from beginning to end in a linear order. I can guarantee you’re going to get stuck. And when you get stuck, there go those 60 pages or so in a drawer somewhere. I’ve seen it thousands of times,” Cole said.
These writers also often hold fear of showing their less-than-perfect drafts to other readers. This happens at every workshop — in fact, it happened at one just the day before her interview, when a student started to read the first draft of a short story. 
“Before she started reading, she said, ‘This is really silly,’ and, ‘This is a first draft. I apologize.’ Everybody does that. But what happened was, nobody hung themselves! Nobody started throwing things at her!” Cole said. “She got real insight into what was already working and why. … And she got practical advice, and appreciation for how much that draft is already accomplishing. So the exposure of our drafts at any phase, even those really rough drafts, is ‘good naked.’”

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