Creative Writing Class Meets Published Author Leah Cohen
by Vinicius Bulhoes
A professor, a mother, and a writer. Leah Cohen has a hectic schedule, but she does what she loves. “It’s exhilarating because I love all of those things, but the most difficult part is that I get really tired. I could fall asleep on a dime, so sometimes I look forward to a time when the pace of life slows down a little.”
Cohen currently holds the W.H Jenks Chair in Contemporary American Literature Visiting Professor position at Holy Cross, and she is the author of eight books. She visited two creative writing classes on May 8, 2012. Creative writing teacher Mary Beth Ryan, who graduated from Holy Cross, wanted her students to hear from a published author, so she invited Cohen to her class.
Cohen grew up in Queens, New York, where she attended Lexington School for the Deaf. She graduated high school by the age of 16 and went on to study drama at NYU. “I didn’t love high school. I was so impatient to get on to the next thing. I’d always loved acting and making up stories, and to me they seemed very similar, so I went to NYU to be an actor.”
She later transferred to Hampshire College for literature, and after working two years as a sign language interpreter, she studied at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
“I realized, I was 16, I didn’t know that much about the bigger world, and I was spending three days a week studying me, and I just thought that doesn’t make sense. I need to learn more about what’s not me. So that made me decide to transfer colleges and study writing.”
After studying journalism at Columbia University, Cohen started a proposal for her book, Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World. She soon got a writing contract and began her first book.
Cohen spent three months researching and writing her book proposal, and with that she received a contract. She then spent one academic year shadowing two deaf students, and by the time she was done writing she had already gotten a publisher. “It was 18 months before it came out. Publishing is just kind of slow. It felt long at the time, but it was actually pretty quick I now know.”
When Cohen writes, she dedicates four to six hours to it, starting early in the morning when no one is home. “I’ll write and then I’ll get up and do the dishes, or I’ll get up and put away some laundry, and I think it helps me think, when I sort of get up and walk around, and then I come back and write some more.”
Her least favorite part about writing is not knowing what comes next. “Impatience is a theme with me.” She was quick to point out.
“It’s not the moments of creating something new. I think sometimes it’s stitching those two pieces together. It’s when I’m waiting for the next little burst of knowing what comes next in the story. That can sometimes feel not so pleasant.”
Strangely enough, one thing Cohen loves is revising her work. “I know a lot of students hate revision. I love revision. I feel like that’s when I can go in and really work out the wrinkles and try to make the sentences cleaner.”
Although she is very hard on herself with her own work, when it comes to receiving her editor’s feedback, Cohen is quite flexible. “I tend to be a sort of good girl to a fault, so I don’t get into battles with my editors generally. You can’t be afraid to kill your darlings. If you fall in love with a certain sentence or a certain piece of a story, it can be hard to see when it’s not really working. You have to be ruthless about editing out what doesn’t belong.”
Along with being a published author comes the sometimes negative reviews. “It’s hard to be indifferent to them,” said Cohen. “As soon as I read a review, whether it’s good or it’s bad, I step away and remind myself that that’s not why I write. In a way it’s nice to get a good review and it’s painful to get a negative review, but neither of those experiences are really directly about the thing that I care about when I am creating a piece of fiction or nonfiction.”
Much like a good journalist, Cohen doesn’t set out to persuade people of a certain idea with her stories. “I try to really honor the story that I’m illuminating, and when I do that it makes me feel and think things strongly. My hope is that if I am true to the story, readers will feel and think strongly too, but I don’t want to prescribe what they feel and think.”
Her best advice to high school students? “Keep focused on what you love about what you’re doing, and try to be true to that rather than to please these external measures of success.”
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