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I am AACC: Susan Cohen

Faculty Snapshot
English Professor

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What advice would you give to nonfiction writers?
“With nonfiction you’re applying fictional techniques to reality. You’re still constructing a narrative, you still have to develop characters, and you still have to say, ‘I’m going to tell this narrative but what if I started here?’ And tell it from there. What if I highlight this aspect of this story? So the ‘What if?’ still applies.
“There’s a big debate about the different between truth and the little t in truth. In creative nonfiction we have to tell truth, yet in fiction we can fictionalize yet still tell a kind of truth. I think the harder job is the job of the creative nonfiction writer because they’re more limited. I would ask them, how can you tell this story that is going to capture the imagination of the reader even if you are limited by the facts?”

What do you like to do for fun?
“I like to read and I like to hike. I’m outdoors a lot.”

What’s your perfect setting for writing?
“Every summer I go to where I grew up which is this little town in Montauk, New York. I have a house there and I sit in my office which has a window, so my desk faces the window and out the window is the ocean. I am completely calm there; it’s almost as if I can’t contain myself. I sit down and my mind is thinking of all sorts of things.”

What do you do when you get writing ideas?
“My husband thinks I’m crazy because I’ll get up in the middle of the night to write. More importantly, I keep a daily schedule; I write two hours a day. You can’t always do that during the school year, but this summer I was very diligent and wrote a minimum of two hours a day for two months. Sometimes I don’t know what I’m going to write, and sometimes I will have written only three sentences. Other times that little sort of thing that prohibits me will break down and I’ll just spill out words. Sometimes those two hours a day is revising time. To me revising is just as important as writing. I think that if you have a daily practice of writing, the long run is going to be much better for becoming a writer than always working off of inspiration and not going back to that piece. Most of the writers that I know over time develop a daily practice of writing but it’s really hard to do.”

Who are your role models?
“My two children these days they are my role models. My daughter is 24 and for the past two years she has been a professional vagabond. She travels the world; she lives very lightly; her philosophy is to ‘live lightly on the earth.’ All of her belongings fit in her backpack. She has lived in New Zealand; she has worked on organic farms in Oregon; she has sold her artwork on the streets of Panama City; right now she is waiting tables in Cork, Ireland; and she’s headed to India in October. She’s a role model for her bravery and her stick-to-itiveness in terms of her own philosophy. A lot of people would say, ‘Why aren’t you acting like everybody else?’ I’m really in awe that she doesn’t.
“My son, who is 23, is very different from my daughter, but he is someone who has the most positive attitude. He’s had open heart surgery, his second one in four years, and when he came out of surgery and the anesthesia, the first thing he did was he looked at us and said: “Hey guys, how are you?” So he’s very other-oriented and very kind. She’s adventurous and fearless and he’s warm, kind, and positive.”

Name a location you’ve never been before that you would like to visit.
“Norway. My father went to college in Oslo so as a little girl my bedtime stories would start off like this: ‘Once upon a time in the land of the midnight sun…’ I’ve never been there but wouldn’t it be nice to see the place where all one’s fairy tales began?”

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