The Hard (but Fun) Part: Getting the Words Out



Continuing this week, Esther Cohen, author of five books, including Book Doctor, Don’t Mind Me And Other Jewish Lies, and God is a Tree,
will be contributing her new column entitled “My Writing Life.” In it, she'll be discussing everything and anything involved with the writing life...which pretty much includes everything and anything. Last week, she wrote about what makes a writer

“A story has no beginning or end: one arbitrarily chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”

--Graham Greene       

Thank you all for writing to me last week. And for sending me your always interesting stories. I’ve been thinking about you and me all week: how we can help one another to write it all down, to tell the stories we all deserve to hear.

Telling stories is wonderful, and hard. If we are the creative types (and it seems like the people on WEbook fall into this category – at least the people are who I’ve met online this past week), we probably don’t know the story until we begin to tell it. We might know a few details of the characters lives: like, he was much too thin; her voice was gravelly and unpleasant; they never liked one another much, although they’d been married for years; her work was hard; she took care of sick elderly people. But she loved it; nearly as much as she’d loved her first husband, remarried the fourth time. Still living in Trinidad.

That we write it down, and how, is what we’re going to try to do together. Here’s a little about how I do it:

I’m sitting now in an actual writing room, in a library not far from my apartment. Many people are here with me. They all look anxious. Some seem as though they are writing interesting sentences, though it’s always hard to tell. You can’t tell just by looking at the writers what they’re actually writing. It’s possible to find out, if you have the patience. A woman near me holds what appears to be l,000 index cards. They are in light colors -- yellow, purple, blue, green, Dentyne red. Her system of paper clips is equally elaborate. She looks as if she’s turned OCD into an amazing art form. I have always admired organized people. I write on everything. Once, I had a paper bag full of poems. A roommate thought, she said later when she explained why she threw out the bag, that my poems were just scraps. I’d even written one along the outside of a white paper cup, a poem for drinks: cold hot, and luke. “I think/ I’ll have/a paper cup drink.” My roommate, a chanting Buddhist from Kansas City named Kelly, often cleaned up. For years, I imaged that my poems burned, and entered the clouds where my words spread out in a way they couldn’t have if chanting Kelly hadn’t made her mistake.

My real-life apartment, where I have lived for more than half my life, is rent-stabilized. In New York that sentence is equivalent to another: I will NEVER move. I can’t because I can actually afford my rent. Had I known I would live in my apartment forever, I would have chosen a larger apartment. But I didn’t know that. Not then.

I was in my 20’s. My friend Emily and I looked at nearly l00 apartments. Yes, there were that many apartments then. And I have always loved walking into other people’s lives, and the excuse to do just that: to see their coffee mugs, their books, their pens, all the details that they’d chosen to surround them, to accompany them, to be there with them while they lived. We found the apartment where I still live, over 30 years later, on a block that was called iffy by those people who knew about blocks. A couple lived here before me, with their daughter. Their taste was more or less opposite to mine: they had a bright gold shag rug, many mirrors, a neat couch tightly covered with see through plastic. The word for their space was clean.

My central criteria then, before I knew anything about what to look for in a home, was that the shadows in my bedroom crossed in the corners. How I came up with that as a criteria I actually don’t remember. But I had an idea that I wanted to sleep in a room with crossing shadows. I’d probably seen one once. The couple worked in a liquor store down the street. Their daughter was going into high school. They decided, they told us (Emily and I were dressed in gold and silver) that this was not a good place to raise a child. They were moving to Florida, and buying a Carvel concession. They would sell us their perfect couch for $25.00.

We took the apartment. We asked the super to remove the rug and the mirrors and the plastic covering from the couch. (He kept all three.) The couch was the oddest color of green: kind of pea soupy. Over the years hundreds of people stayed on that couch. That couch became their temporary home. I often thought the neat couple of origin would have been wildly unhappy to know what their space had become. (I think their name was Clark. Maybe not.) My building itself is so many stories: my first neighbor, Mrs. Israel, who confessed to me the week before she died that there had never been a Mr. Israel (she always said he died); the beautiful woman from Columbia who was actually a prostitute, and who counted a few famous men among her clientele; my friend Richard who suggested, nearly 30 years ago, that we have a secret building newsletter that we distribute to every other apartment, just to see if we’d get a reaction.

I promised you all a weekly poem. Here’s one, from a recent book I published about getting older, called God is a Tree.

Everyone is
And thinner
Than I am.
So what
So what
So what


Now it’s time for you to tell me your stories. Can you tell me something about who you are? Where would you like to begin that particular story? I’m very happy to be here with all of you, and anxiously await all you have to say.

Yours in Words,

* * *

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  1. Jonathan Arcturian8 October 2009 at 02:13

    I once lived in a very similar apartment, though I don't remember the intersecting shades. We collected our furniture from wherever it could be found. For a while our most comfortable chair was a wonderful green barber chair, complete with pedestal and elevating pump! How we'd spin in that thing! We'd found it in the basement, all dusty and cobwebbed. Cleaned it up and made it shine. But one day our landlord was in our apartment, checking out yet another leak in the ceiling, and he spotted the chair. Claimed it as his own. How sad. Brought back to earth.

  2. I once had a rent-stabilized apartment on Irving Place in New York. One morning in the summer, I was awakened by sleigh bells; it was an odd sound, considering I knew, very clearly, even in my half asleep mind, that sleigh bells on Irving Place during the summer just didn't belong.
    I looked out my windown, still half asleep and was startled to see my street covered with snow. The surrounding buildings, all nineteenth century brownstones and storefronts, looked like a Christmas card. There were garlands of pine branches looped over doorways, and, going slowly past my window there came a horse-drawn sleigh, it's bells chiming in rhythm to the clop of the horse's hooves.
    Whoa! Where was I? Had I stepped back into the past? Was I still asleep? Was the stuff last night a little too strong?
    Needless to say, after a few minutes of shock, I threw on some clothes and ran down to the street.
    Fortunately for my sanity, I discovered I had walked directly onto a movie set--the set for Ragtime, a film from some years ago, based on the novel, that takes place in NYC at the turn of the 2oth century.
    A lovely way to wake up, but a little startling.

  3. Hello Esther! Nice ta' meetcha! A little about myself? oo THOUGH to do these days I'm afraid. Hmmm ... Well, I like to say I am a "work in progess" on any and all profiles I need to fill out, on the various "writing" sites I belong to. But exactly WHAT that means anymore has become blurred for me. Too many extreme and imperative situations, have happend, so rapidly in my life, that I am awash in "stress" toxins. Hey! there you go! Maybe I'm "toxic" these days! OK OK LOL
    On the bright and healing side of things (it's ok Esther, as my friends say : "Hang in there, she (me) grows on ya' after awhile!") I have just joined the the honorable ranks of "published" writers' here at WeBook! Believe you me NO ONE is more amazed than I am.I recently won a spot in the poetry anthology they are about to publish. I'm still walking in dazed circles in my apartment (no stable rent in Calif. though! I WISH! You lucky stiff! lmbo) Every once in awhile I bump into the wall and change direction. My roomates have taken to steering toward "nessasaries" every now and then too! Bless'em
    And THAT my dear new WeBook friend (I hope) Is enough of THAT I think for now. I don't want to hog all the space here yammer'in about me! OH! BTW my user name here (as if you don't know already! sheesh warr!) is "warriorwitch" The name says it all for me! ROTF

  4. Ummm ... May I please know WHY an "automated program" would WANT - er... maybe I should say how? Sheesh! Why,how,want, WOTEV! to "post" ANYTHING?- lmbo

  5. Hello ^-^ Nice to meet 'cha, Esther. I still live in my mom's house (Umm... I just turned 13. I believe that it's kind of obvious I still am) but I we lived in an apartment in Seaside Heights after our house fire. I was probably... 8? 9? Maybe a bit younger. Anyway, my brother smoked and accidentally missed the ash tray when putting a match out. For three months, the Sunset Hotel was our house, just three blocks away from the beach and two blocks away from the Casino Arcade (the BEST arcade you'll find down there. trust me. The rest are scammers or SOO easy that it's not worth playing any of their games). It was a few days before Christmas, so we had a fake tree, and our giant Iguana scared the man who was taking care of the animals, so he was there, too. Grouch was funny. He'd walk around the hotel, staned in the window and scare people because of his size, sit on the top of the Christmas tree as our ornament, and sit on our chest as we woke up. Although he wasn't allowed, who cares?
    It was after the fire that my writing career started. I still haven't gotten anything published except for a couple poems in a variety of areas, but I've always loved writing since I was little, labeling me an "Unpublished young author" since I was fairly young (even if my writing hasn't gotten to the high level it is at until recently).
    I find your story interesting and can't wait to hear more about you!
    Good luck,

  6. Nice Post I already digged this,I subscribed to your blog when is the next post

  7. Jerry L Abrahamson10 November 2009 at 04:30

    I have written over 600 poems and am trying to get an agent and am having no luck. They keep saying that my request needs to be revised. Please tell me what I'm doing wrong.

  8. great and nice post. It caught my attention and I like reading it.


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