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Fierce on the Page

Thursday, September 15, 2016

How do you define your own success? Author, entrepreneur and poet Sage Cohen joins Byron to talk about her latest book, Fierce on the Page. In the book, Sage encourages writers to hold themselves accountable and set goals. Tune in to hear Sage's advice for improving your writing, productivity, and creativity.

Byron White:               Welcome back, everyone. I’m here with Sage Cohen. Sage, welcome back.

Sage Cohen:                   Thank you so much for having me. It’s good to be with you.           

Byron White:                 You indeed. I enjoyed our first podcast and discussing a book you’ve written in the past but you’re on to something new. It’s called Fierce on the Page. Tell us about the new book which, by the way, has a beautiful cover design. I’m looking at it right now.           

Sage Cohen:                   Thank you so much. Well, Fierce on the Page is an invitation to make writing practice a life practice and life practice a writing practice and to become bigger and better and more fierce by doing what we love as writers.  

Byron White:                 Tell us, is the book designed for writers trying to make a living in writing for other people which is seems to me in my sketch or really anyone writing anything at any time?             

Sage Cohen:                   It’s for anyone writing anything at any time. Basically, to be more effective at what they’re doing, to be clearer about what they’re doing, more effective at reaching their goals and more satisfied with both the process and the product.

Byron White:                 And how does this differ from Writing the Life Poetic and also the Productive Writer that you’ve written and of course, you have some other poetry question stuff but how does the book differ from those two?

Sage Cohen:                   The Writing the Life Poetic is an invitation into a poetry practice, so that’s very specifically targeted for poets. The Productive Writer and it’s a how-to and The Productive Writer is also a how-to and it’s a book [00:01:48 inaudible] exploration of strategies for becoming more productive in your writing life and it’s also for writers of any genre or any type of writers. So Fierce on the Page is not really a how-to, it’s more a journey. It’s a collection of 75 essays and essays are explorations of how writing in life intersects and how to train ourselves as writers to use what life gives us and to find our own way and to make that way as powerful as we can for ourselves. So it’s… I don’t know. I think Fierce on the Page more like a dojo, like a place and invitation for people to come in and train themselves, work with their writing and their life to become as potent as we can be on the page and in life. So it’s not a “you must do this to be fierce.” It’s an invitation to know yourself and work with yourself and become more effective in leveraging what you’ve got.

Byron White:                 The word ‘fierce’ struck me. It’s quite interesting about this book. Where did you pull that phrase in the word from Fierce on the Page? What is fierce about content creation and writing?

Sage Cohen:                   So what fierce means to me is relentlessly self-responsible and I think if we are going to be effective in the writing life, that’s what we need to bring to it because we don’t have bosses. Well, sometimes we have bosses. But for the most part when we’re writing, we are responsible for our own trajectory for how we write for the results that we produced and so, really being accountable to ourselves I think is the most essential practice in getting where we want to go as writers.

Byron White:                 How do you divide the boundary between a client you might be writing for and yourself in injecting your and infusing your own style and tone and personality into the writing and separating that from the responsibility you have to sell products, let’s say, for a customer?

Sage Cohen:                   If I’m writing for a customer, I inhabit whatever their goals are, their voice, their brand voice. I understand what it is they’re offering and who it is they’re offering it to and I really make myself one as much as possible with that objective. When I am doing my own writing for my own audience, I strive to just make as much of who I am available in my own voice. So they’re two very different kinds of delivered roles.

Byron White:                 Do you feel like there’s tension between those two?

Sage Cohen:                   No.

Byron White:                 Should there be for healthy balance?        

Sage Cohen:                   Tell me what you mean by tension?           

Byron White:                 Well, writing for client in fulfilling their goals and objectives with the tone and style that will connect with their audience can often be quite different than what a writer would write on their own and for their own pleasure and their own goals. When did the two come together, is there tension between the two? Does a good writer just have this wonderful elegant tone and style that could be adapted to write new things? Is there art and science that you put into writing if you will that can be applied to the customer’s world and if so, describe that to us and what your thoughts are on that?

Sage Cohen:                   For me, there is no tension. I think in anything we sit down to write, it’s important to know what are the objectives of this piece. What am I trying to accomplish whether it’s for client or it’s for a book that I’m writing for myself or a blog reader, what do I want? What do people need to know and what is the most effective way to deliver that information? In Fierce on the Page, I discovered through my blog that writing personal stories as the way in to writing practices is a very powerful experience for readers and so I followed that form in the book. For clients, it’s almost like acting. It’s inhabiting… this brand speaks in this voice to this audience and I take on that role. The tension, I guess the tension, in any kind of writing is wanting to be the best, to make it the most effective communication possible, and in inhabiting, playing all these roles, and inhabiting all these voices, I feel it has made me a much, much stronger and more versatile writer.

Byron White:                 Great answer. I love your chapter or section or story if you will called Bite the Monkey. Bite the Monkey. Could you tell us about your German shepherd in this story and how it had some insights into how you think about things?

Sage Cohen:                   Sure. So I have and an elderly now German shepherd named Tamachi and she gets very worked up at walk time and is very messy and so had to practice of biting various body parts when she was excited as we are walking out the doors, so I discovered that getting for something to bite something purposeful would keep me safe and keep her delighted and would get us out the door much more easily. So in this essay, I kind of explore. So what does that mean in our writing life? What are the tendencies that we each have that create interference that are not serving us and how can we…? Instead of ruling them out or saying their bad, how can we just give them something… give those tendencies something to occupy themselves with that lets us continue to move toward what we want to do. So how do we limit our distractions? How do we minimize our bad habits and kind of keep ourselves on track? 

Byron White:                 It’s such a great story. And I’m not sure what it is but… and it also give me insight, I think of the German shepherd. German shepherds like to bite things when they’re excited. I was sort of attacked as a young child by a German shepherd and not…

Sage Cohen:                   Oh, no.

Byron White:                 Yeah, so I have this lasting impression that all German shepherds are like just creatures that are just going to bite you. And what’s interesting about that is that whenever I’m around German shepherd, I’m absolutely convinced that a German shepherd sees that in me and sees that fear in me and therefore wants to bite me. Even as I’ve tried to get know German shepherd as I’ve gotten older, I’ve always have this tension about it, so it’s fascinating. Do you find that that is the case with German shepherds? Is your German shepherd getting older; are they still excited when they want to go for walk? Do they still bite you? Do they still have to bite the monkey?

Sage Cohen:                   Well, I’ll qualify that my dog is a mix. She looks primarily shepherd and she also, I think has something fluffy and fluffy in there. But the shepherd, in my humble opinion, it’s the shepherd dynamics around this bite. All of her sort of finger on the trigger kind of extreme responsiveness seem shepherd-y to me. And yes, she can barely walk and there’s still mouthing. It’s just part of… guess, part of her nature. My son and I still find her monkey at walk time and we give it to her and then we go about our rituals getting the leash and getting things together and she has a very good time biting it and throwing it around and then we go. So I think it is a really good metaphor for knowing what our nature is and doing what we need to satisfy that nature without making it a problem.

Byron White:                 Mm-hmm.

Sage Cohen:                   I could call her bad or I could give her something to do that works for all of us and I think that’s all of our opportunity as writers and there is no one-size-fits-all. I can’t give you the how-to that’s going to interrupt you from your social media habit if that’s your main thing that’s in your way. But I can invite you to notice that you have that habit and to start finding out to start exploring. What satisfies me? What gives me whatever social media needs or how can I build it into my life in a way that is going to be more manageable for the bigger picture of what I’m trying to produce.   

Byron White:                 You were a senior copywriter and a marketing [00:11:23 inaudible] for a little while. I love one of your chapters called Make It Matter. Tell us about some of your frustration in writing, in rewriting, and re-imagining multiple times and what that has done to your writing?

Sage Cohen:                   Well, I write about in this chapter that in a way, I brought a kind of mindset that I had as freelancer to this job and that mindset is every time the client wants to see it again a different way a lot of times what happens to this client since they have an idea of what they want and then you give them something and they realize, “Oh, no! I actually want something else,” or “I want it to be on a magic book,” or “I want it to be 30-page manifesto,” and things evolve as they get written. And so, my commitment to Make it Matter was to not get frustrated that at the thirtieths… at the 30st draft, we’re still figuring out the client what they want and that’s not always the case. That’s not even often the case. But to show up for each draft like it really matters and that it’s satisfying in a note itself to serve that problem for that draft and to not worry about where the process goes from there.

Byron White:                 Very good answer and a tough challenge. We’ve wrestled for many years now with a right way to get inside the head of our client, not to mention their target audience, which is even more difficult and learn what they want and if you will, on-board them to a proper way to place orders in our platform, do you have any thoughts on that or any revelations that might even come to your… into some of the chapters of your book on the relationship that you have with the client that you’re trying to write for. How can that be improved? For example, is tone and voice… is speaking to them important? Should we be encouraging people to leave voicemail, voice messages which they can do now for free by the way with orders that they place? What are other interesting ideas you might have to connect with your client and learn what they want and save time along the way?

Sage Cohen:                   I try to come at it from as many different ways as possible because everyone is different. Every client has different skills in understanding and articulating what they want. So there’s always a brief that get signed off on as sort of the final deliverable before work starts but along the way, I will ask for examples of work that they have done that they feel reflects what their voices… what they feel their best work is. That’s in the family of what they’re looking or what they think really strong examples are in their industry. Who are their competitors that are doing it great and what’s great about their voice or their communications? And then what about other industries that are let’s say also extraordinarily service oriented but have nothing to do with their business? What are they doing well? What are they drawn to about that brand or that voice or a particular communications so that they may even start thinking about things in a way that they haven’t in terms of… a lot of times, what’s tricky is coming in as an outsider is that people in the company are so accustomed to thinking of things in the way that they have always thought of them that it’s hard to get… it’s hard to take a step back and see things fresh. So I try to guide the conversation to come at it in as many different ways that they may even surprise themselves in articulating what they’re looking for and if you come at it for so many different angles, it’s likely that something is going to catch. Some gears is going to start turning for everybody.  

Byron White:                 Your chapter 21 talks about Define Success on your Terms. I bet there’s some writers listening in, they’re saying, “Yeah, right, that’s a dream.” Define what you mean by “your terms.” Do you mean the word that your creating for yourself or unpaid writing or tell the writers what you mean by that? 

Sage Cohen:                   I think that’s important for anything. So let’s see…

Byron White:                 I know you talk a little bit about… yeah, go ahead.

Sage Cohen:                   To some people, success is showing up at their writing desk for 15 minutes a day. And then from there, success becomes producing a short story in three months. And from there, so if you don’t know what you’re striving for, you don’t know how to measure success. For some people, it’s making several hundred thousand dollars a year serving clients or it’s making your first thousand dollars writing something for a client. So as writers, it’s important to know where we are in our trajectory in what we consider success and what we’re moving toward and to not get tangled up in what we… what other people’s idea of success is or our fantasy of success but what… what am I going for right now? And then maybe what am I going for in the big picture? What are the success milestones along the way?

Byron White:                 Tell us a little bit about failure that you continue to see as you meet other writers and help coaching them. What are some of the bigger mistakes that writers are continuing to repeat over and over and over again, much like the definition of insanity, I might add?

Sage Cohen:                   Well, my biggest issue with failure is that we try to avoid it. I think that’s the most dangerous thing as a writer. I have a chapter called Failed Harder, in which I propose that failure is the past. If you’re not trying things and failing, then you’re probably not trying things that are challenging enough that are putting you at your growing edge and that every time… one of my mentors talks about that his father was a failed person growing up and that I think he got one yes… in every hundred no’s, he got a yes. For not going after the no’s, we’re not going to get to the yes. And to just sort of embrace failure as part of the evolutionary process of writing because it’s something that we all, at every level for entire writing lies. It’s just they didn’t.

Byron White:                 How do you let go of your failures? Do you have any tips on that?

Sage Cohen:                   Well, I’m not sure that we need to let go of them as much as we benefit from making them doorways like well, I try that, that didn’t work. So, what am I going to try next? I think it’s very easy to say that didn’t work, so I can’t do it and that’s the end. I failed. But if something didn’t work and we just try something different, the story only ends when we decide it’s over. So, where it can lead us? What is the generative feed of that failure?

Byron White:                 I love your chapter on B.Y.O.B, Become Your Own Brand. Tell us about this concept of ‘brand me’, if you will. And your thoughts as it relates to advertising and some tag lines you mentioned as well.

Sage Cohen:                   Trying to remember what I said in there.

Byron White:                 Why writers need brand was an inter… that was an interesting subchapter within there. The business already begins with the craft or writing or writing leaves off, pitching to editors, symposium, promoting your work, blah, blah, blah… you can do some really, really good stuff about ‘brand me’ and as a writer your brand is both your promise you make about who you are as well as how you live and write it. Thought that was a really great line.

Sage Cohen:                   Yeah. I’m remembering that I invite people in that chapter to think about their favorite writers and what they come to them for and [00:20:01 inaudible]. We’re going to get straight up truth and we’re going to laugh hard. How much to drawn? We’re going to really kind of grapple with our demons and find new ways to appreciate them and we’re going to just learn how to be with our truth and… we know that when we go to certain writers the kind of experience that we’re going to have and the tone whether we’re going to be laughing or we’re going to be serious. Whether we’re going to be uplifted or we’re going to be grappling in the mosh pit with ourselves. And so, I invite writers to think about to be really conscious of every single piece of content they produce and if it’s in alignment with what they want to be producing. Does everyone need to know about your fertility issues in social media if your expertise is grammar? Just what it… To become conscious of … to think of every piece of content we put out there as part of our body of work and to become conscious about is it reflecting what we want to offer? What we believe our offering is? And this is something that we understand better, the more we do it and the further along we are in our writing lives. We may not know what it is we want to offer but I think if you put a stake in the ground somewhere and start orienting around it and see what happens when we are consistent and coherent in the world and in our writing, things can get very interesting.

Byron White:                 I love how you… in this section, I thought this was to me sort of a centerpiece of understanding what this book is all about and who it’s written for. You have this sort of ‘name and claim the brand of you’. And you answer this very question you think other people should ask and I just want to quickly read the questions and your answers and then have you comment on them. So, question number one was who are your readers or who would you like your readers to be? My readers are committed to their own evolution. They want to discover new ways to be effective, productive, and successful, and they want a relationship with an author they can trust and enjoy. It’s question number two. What are you offering them and how would you like them to see you? I want to offer motivation, inspiration, information for readers. I want them to see me as a friend accompanying them through whatever topic I am covering whether it’d be creative writing, marketing, or divorce. Number three, what is your brand voice, the tone, language, and personality you’re writing. And I love how succinct this is. Let me just have a parenthesis here, “You say succinctly. My voice is friendly, welcoming, encourage, occasionally exalted, practical, and poetic.” I mean I think you’ve kind of nailed your brand. And I think having heard people today talk, having you… the people listening today having heard you talk, it’s  amazing how those few words I just read completely nail your brand, your tone, your voice, your purpose, your mission, it’s really pretty cool. 

Sage Cohen:                   Thank you.             

Byron White:                 Yeah, good writing there. But more importantly, so how do you come up with that. When do you decide that that was your mission and has it changed over time? Did you have to find yourself and this brand that you’ve established over time or does it just arrive on your doorstep and you plug away?

Sage Cohen:                   Well, I’ve been writing… I’ve been writing like my life depended on it for more than 30 years. And so it’s been a mix of… I mean I’m constantly discovering new things about what I’m doing and why. I think paying attention is the very important practice. I have paid attention to what I’m doing. I stumbled around having no idea what I was doing for most of that time. But what started happening when I started blogging in 2006 was I started to get feedback and to hear from people what the experience was that they were having of me and that was paying attention to that. I mean I thought I was writing this literary blog and people were having such spiritual experiences of the things I was writing. That’s interesting. Wasn’t an awareness I had. So for me, it’s a matter fanatically paying attention to what I believe I’m doing, to the feedbacks that I’m getting about what I’m offering people and continuously trying to articulate more and more accurately as I go what I’m striving for and what it is I think I’m accomplishing along the way.

Byron White:                 Wonderful. Now, what is next for you? Because that would seem a logical question given that you’ve been a guest on the show. Are you brewing up something new and interesting?  

Sage Cohen:                   Well, I’m in the process of creating some online experiences to guide people in their fierce on the page journeys to act as kind of a coach and a guide and to help people to find some of these things for themselves. So that’s something that’s in the works. And I have a book in the works as well called Radical Divorce where it’s a somewhat similar format where in sort of essay form. I’m exploring for parents going through divorce, ways to make that transition a healing, life-affirming, improvement on life for everybody in the family.

Byron White:                 Well, that’s sounds pretty impossible having gone through a divorce but I look forward to taking a look at that. Good for you for taking on that ambitious goal. I’m not surprised at all. We just have a couple final questions for you as we do at the end of every podcast. Who would you like to get a hold of you and how can they get hold of you?

Sage Cohen:                   Gosh, anybody who wants to write more effectively, to enjoy their writing more, and to get more of the results that they’re looking for. I would love to be in conversation with. They can find at Fierce on the Page.com and my email is thesage@fierceonthepage.com.

Byron White:                 Terrific, Sage. Pleasure to have you on the show again. Thanks for tuning in with us.

Sage Cohen:                   Thank you so much for having me. It was a delight. Great questions.

                                       Byron White:     Thanks again. We look forward to your next book and I’m happy                                        to help you get the word out and the readers in. Thanks for listening, everyone.                                          We’ll see you next week.