Joni B. Cole is an author, educator, and founder of The Writer’s Center in White River Junction, Vermont. Her latest book, Good Naked: Reflections on How to Write More, Write Better, and Be Happier, was recently reviewed by The Writer magazine: “Who says books about writing have to be dull, dry, and pretentious? Joni B. Cole is here to put the fun back in fundamentals. In Good Naked, she is part teacher, part cheerleader, and part laugh-out-loud humorist. What’s not to love?” Joni discusses her new book and shares an excerpt below.
What motivated you to write Good Naked?
A big part of the motivation was to help writers loosen their grip on this notion of the “suffering artist” because I, for one, am sick of suffering through the creative process, especially when it does me no good. This is not to say that we don’t have to tap into painful material; suffering is often the source of our stories. And I’m not saying that writing should always come easy. Hardly. But I wanted to provide reassurance to all those aspiring authors—and here I’m including myself—that we can do this worthy work. We can make this act of writing a more productive and positive experience. There are practical ways to get over the intimidation of the blank page, and the resistance to revision. At its core, Good Naked is a “do-this-not-that” guide based on what I have seen works to get people to write more, write better, and be happier in their creative process.
I just wanted to add that the book also serves as my side of all those arguments I have had in real life and in my head with certain authority figures, and literary snobs, and dismissive types who are a relatively small but vocal part of our writing culture. These are the voices who tell us our “little” stories don’t matter, and discourage us from trying. These are feedback providers who think being brutal is an actual teaching method, when in fact, it’s just lazy and mean-spirited. We’ve got enough negativity and cruelty in the world at the moment. I want to do my part to help scrub it from the writing world because it’s obnoxious and counter-productive.
Dozens of books dedicated to the art and craft of writing get published each year. What sets your book apart?
Dozens?! I’m going to pretend I didn’t just read that. But seriously, I believe what sets my book apart is nothing and everything. I do indeed cover a popular subject matter; that is how writers can overcome their self doubts and other head issues to enjoy a more productive creative process. I also offer insights into narrative craft, but then again so does Creative Writing for Dummies. But my book is different because, well, because I wrote it.
In Good Naked, I address this issue that “every subject, every life experience, every iteration of the seven basic plots, every theme related to life and death and everything in between has already been addressed by writers who came before you, many of whom did a bang up job. Even the weirdo ideas out there have been covered…” But to this I say (as should every writer), so what. Because a book’s value doesn’t depend on the uniqueness of its subject matter; it depends on whether the writer lends her or his authentic voice and unique perspective to the material. My book is set apart from others in the genre because it is my take on the art and craft of writing. It offers a mix of insights and cheerleading that is so me, or at least the me who has been teaching aspiring authors how to meet their writing goals for over twenty years. Also, the book is funny, or so I’m told, and you can’t say that about the Dummies series.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay; Dear Mr. You by Mary Louise Parker; The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho; Never Go Back by Lee Child; and Blood Hollow by William Kent Krueger. The pile also includes the latest issue of The Atlantic, which poses the question, “Why is Silicon Valley so Awful to Women?” and which makes me glad the tech industry was at the bottom of my list of career choices. Plus, there is a bunch of printed-out information on Calamity Jane because I’m writing an essay about her.
In the following excerpt from the title chapter “Good Naked,” Cole shares her thoughts on why every draft is a “holy” draft.
In the popular book for writers, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott has a chapter entitled, “Shitty First Drafts.” She advises writers to think of our early efforts in these terms, as a way to free ourselves from the pressure of high expectations. If we accept, even own the fact that our first draft is going to be shitty, we may be less inclined to second guess ourselves, and more accepting of whatever mess we make on the page.
I remember loving Anne Lamott’s book when I read it years ago. But I never liked the concept of shitty first drafts. For starters, I don’t want to write shit. Not even in a first draft. This does not mean I expect beautifully structured stories to flow through my chipped fingernails, though wouldn’t that be a lovely miracle. In fact, my first drafts typically are an accumulation of random musings, scenic fragments, and rants at people I am too intimidated to confront in real life. Still, I need to believe I have more going on than a poo-throwing chimp at the zoo. But what really bothers me about the concept of shitty first drafts is the idea of labeling this stage of the creative process in such derogatory terms. While a first draft may be miles from polished prose or poetry, it is also far from crap, and calling it ugly names only makes it that much harder for the writer to recognize its merits.
In my workshops, participants have no place to hide. Students are expected to read aloud from their work every week, including ﬁrst drafts. Almost to a one, they preface their reading with an apology.
“I’m sorry this is so bad.”
“Ugh, the beginning of this chapter doesn’t even make sense. And I don’t have a clue where it’s going.”
“Okay, I’ll read what I wrote, but it really sucks.”
I understand why writers resist sharing unpolished drafts. I don’t even like going to the gym without lip gloss. Regardless, this is a workshop, meaning my point is not to shame participants by outing their mismatched tenses and other editorial weaknesses, but rather to shed light on craft and the creative process. Think of it as the difference between good naked and bad naked. When you are in a low-lit bathroom enjoying a steamy shower, for example, with your glossy curves as inviting as a seal pup’s, that is good naked. Whereas later, when you are still damp and trying to squeeze into your control-top underwear, that is bad naked. Sharing your early drafts is good naked. Yes, you are exposed, but there is your creative process in all its shining glory.
Sometimes one of the apologists in a workshop will read what she wrote from, say, a ﬁfteen-minute writing exercise, and the piece will be astounding—an entire story gracefully unfolded in a narrative arc, captured in concrete detail and metaphoric images, and resonating with thematic signiﬁcance. How did she do that? The other group members and I shake our heads in wonder, while the writer herself looks bemused. The only explanation is the magic that can happen when writing from a prompt. You, me, the retired postal worker who only signed up for the class because his wife wanted him out of her kitchen—we are all capable of this kind of magic, given the right incantation, mood, and moment. But as this apologist demonstrates, most of us are initially blind to the merits of our own work, simply because we wrote it. Keep this in mind to avoid prematurely trashing a draft, ﬁguratively and literally. (Also keep in mind that if you do dash off a brilliant writing exercise, the next person in line to read will hate you, but in a good way.) Though brilliant writing occurs more freakishly than one might expect in a ﬁrst draft, more typical is that someone will share an early effort—whether the result of a timed writing exercise or weeks of forced effort—and the piece will reﬂect something quite different: words on the page that mark a beginning.
Let’s pick on an easy target in ﬁrst drafts: adverbs. As Stephen King once said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Elmore Leonard also warned that to use an adverb in almost any way is a “mortal sin.”
To emphasize the evils of adverbs, some writing instructors forbid their students to use them, even in ﬁrst drafts. I am not a fan of adverbs any more than these teachers, but I think that rule serves only as one more barrier between the writer and a healthy creative process. A ﬁrst draft is the one place where we should feel free to happily, deﬁantly, gluttonously toss in adverbs. Later, these modiﬁers may be viliﬁed as Satan’s spawn, but in a ﬁrst draft they make great placeholders. They capture the gist of what we want to say without slowing us down by ﬁguring out how to say it in just the right way. Consider the following:
Suddenly, he decided to tell her she needed to move out!!!
What is wrong with that sentence? You could answer, just about everything. The three-syllable adverb “suddenly” undermines its own meaning. The use of indirect rather than direct dialogue fails to convey the intensity of the protagonist’s feelings. The sentence is all telling and no showing. And the reasons not to use an exclamation point, let alone three, are obvious!!!
On the other hand, you could say that sentence rocks. Because now the writer has a ﬁrst draft that captures his intentions. And there that adverb-y sentence will wait, doing the important work of holding that thought until the writer sees his way through to some kind of end, and can then revise accordingly.
Suddenly, he decided to tell her she needed to move out!!!
He decided she needed to move out!!
She needed to move out!
Earlier today in our workshop, one writer shared a draft that jumped from yellow apples decaying on the lawn, to a wooden trunk in an attic, to a shackled prisoner telling a loved one that he is dying of cancer. The writer didn’t want to read the parts about the apples on the lawn or the trunk in the attic because the story found its foothold in the tension and immediacy of the prison scene. She was right to recognize that her meandering opening didn’t serve as a good beginning, but those lead-in paragraphs beautifully revealed the way our creative minds are always at work, ﬁnding patterns and connections and meaning through unconscious devices like free association and repetition. At this stage of the process, our hardest job as sentient beings is simply to stop thinking and get out of our own way.
In the same workshop, we also reviewed another early draft where the narrative ﬂatlined for several pages, thanks to a long, expository block of backstory. But that section taught the writer a good deal about her protagonist, and if divvied up and sized appropriately, the information likely will serve other scenes throughout the story.
The class also considered the ﬁrst draft of an essay in which the writer raced us through a meaningful personal experience at the pace of a spooked horse. But with the achievement of this draft, he can now mine the material for what I call “hot spots,” those key moments worthy of scenic development.
This is why I push writers to share their early drafts. This is why there is no need to apologize for the fact that a ﬁrst draft is not a ﬁnal draft. We spend so much time hoping to discover the secret of how to write more effectively and expeditiously. I think the answer is right there on the pages in front of us. The answer is revealed in each and every draft, from the ﬁrst to the last. How do we access our muse? A ﬁrst draft can show us, if we aren’t too distracted by calling it names. How do we get from here to there? Look! There is the creative process, all mapped out for us draft by draft (by draft by draft).
Not too long ago, a woman in one of my workshops said something that made me rethink my own difficulty confronting a blank page. She came to the group with a scene she’d been struggling to write for quite a while. Before she started reading aloud, she said, “This is a predraft so it’s really holey.” I am sure what she meant was that the piece was full of holes, but her words struck me in a different way. What I heard was “holy,” as in sacred. Holy, as in highly valued and important, deserving of great respect.
That was when it really hit home that writers need to honor every draft. We need to respect even our predrafts. We need to recognize the value of every stage of the development of our manuscripts because if we don’t, we are always going to be apologizing, and are likely to overlook the crucial role that every draft serves in the creative process. A ﬁrst draft is not a blank page. A third draft paves the way for a fourth draft. A penultimate draft illuminates those tiny missed opportunities that can elevate our work to its highest level.
Many times, I have heard people say, “I don’t like writing but I like the fact that I’ve written.” This feels wrong to me on so many levels, which only makes it worse because sometimes I feel this way too. As working writers, our entire job description is to create drafts. This is where we spend all our time. So if we do not ﬁnd meaning and merit in the now of the creative process, if we are always wishing for a draft more advanced than the one we are working on in the moment, then our writing lives will always be devoid of joy, until all of the work is done.
I try to remind myself of this when facing that dreaded empty screen. This is a predraft, I remind myself, so it is really holy. Even when my words still don’t ﬂow easily, sometimes this actually helps. Sometimes it silences the doubts in my head long enough for me to appreciate the total freedom that is unique, even sacred to this early stage of the creative process. I have already made it clear in this chapter that thinking in terms of a shitty ﬁrst draft has never inspired me when I sit down to work. But I can tell you one thing as a writer who wants to keep writing: nothing is more motivating to me than not wanting to feel like shit.
©2017 Good Naked: Reflections on How to Write More, Write Better, and Be Happier by Joni B. Cole (University Press of New England). Cole will be offering free readings / Good Naked workshops at the Norwich Public Library on April 27, and the Hartland Public Library on May 3. For details, visit jonibcole.com