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Joshua Cohen at the "History, Prophecy and Art" Conference of the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar Ilan University

In lieu of doing a one-off fiction workshop at the "History, Prophecy and Art" Conference of the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar Ilan University last week, Joshua Cohen and Evan Fallenberg held a conversation about writing. I took copious notes and decided to write it up...

Evan started off the conversation by asking Josh why he writes fiction and he responded by saying that he writes fiction because he views it as the hardest genre to write. "It demands the most out of me as a writer." Fiction, he said, is a way of depersonalizing while making something more personal. A way of anonymizing or "smuggling in something about yourself."

EF: "Here I am, but I get to live another life, a different life…"

Josh quoted Heinrich Heine, German Jewish writer who referred to the concept of "maskenfreiheit…" in his 1822 Letters from Berlin, that is "the most beautiful equality and the most beautiful freedom – the freedom conferred by masks." (Yes, I looked this up afterwards. Josh continued: That's [maskenfreiheit] – to my mind- very much about what fiction is…there are ways to play out possible fates and fantasies."

Evan then quoted a book review from the New York Times which said, "biography is the art of concealment and fiction is the art of revelation." (I found the review here, by Peter Ackroyd, reviewing Larry McMurty's Crazy Horse and a Marcel Proust biography by Edmund White in 1999.)

Josh said that fiction is made up of three major elements, each of which allow you to constantly submerge yourself: story (the anecdote that won't go away), plot (the order that the story is being told), and narrative (who's telling the plot, the story unfolding over time). He is constantly working on plot and narrative.

On The Netanyahus:

Josh said the book started when the noted literary critic Harold Bloom told him a two-sentence anecdote about something that had happened in the late 1950s. A visit by Benzion Netanyahu, father of Bibi, who was then interviewing for an academic job, and as the only other Jew in an adjacent department, Bloom was asked to host them. "And he was an asshole," the second sentence Bloom related to Josh. Bloom's wife then added, "But the wife was worse."

Josh said that he wrote the book not because he wanted to make a statement about the Netanyahu family, or Israeli politics, or Israeli-American relations, but because it had everything to do with "my problems with Harold." He went onto explain some of Harold Bloom's theories, in particular the anxiety of influence, which begins with a concept of belatedness. "You feel like you were born too late for the history of ideas …the weight of what came before you will crush you." There is a weak writer, and a strong writer. The weak writer is crushed by his belatedness…how can I possible add something to this? "The weak writer will become an apprentice to some voice or group of voices from the past. I will adopt their viewpoints/styles and I will produce work that is updated for the modern time… Whereas the strong writer looks at all of history that comes before and says, that's wrong. But only I can see that it is wrong and only I can solve it."

Josh said he wanted to write something to prove Bloom wrong. (Earlier in the conference, Josh said he wanted to write something in the style of Phillip Roth).

Thus, Evan pointed out, this anecdote plus Josh's relationship with the teller of the anecdote (Bloom), led to the novel.

On finding a subject:

Josh spoke about that when one is "tonging that weird tooth" in the back of your mouth (in other words, something strange that you find yourself paying undue attention to), it is the writer's job to pay attention. Like an iceberg – what is the body of the problem below the surface? "If something is constantly recurring and coming back to me, the question is why? What is this thing arresting my attention?" 

On October 7th and the aftermath:

"With the rise of identity politics, I always knew the Jews were next," Josh said. "It's hard for me to be kind to my family and to the people I grew up around…Now I guess I'm fully grown up, because [of what happened] I have to be kind to them. Hamas has forced me to be empathetic." See Gal Beckerman's essay - "Two Jewish Writers, a Bottle of Whiskey, and a Post–October 7 Reality" in The Atlantic.

Josh was asked to contribute to a post October 7th volume, called Shelter/Miklat מקלט . He translated a few of the works but they wanted him to contribute some writing as well. He turned to his journal entries and created – what I would call – a hybrid essay.

On writing practices:

Josh writes first drafts by longhand. "It makes punctuation closer to the human breath." On the left-side of the notebook, he writes what he'd like this scene/section to be about, and then on the right side, he writes the scene. The left side – his "mental trash" – gives him the confidence to write the right side, and then so on for every other page.

He might spend two weeks to a month in writing a first draft. During this time, he doesn't sleep or do anything else. Only afterwards, when he is in the revision phase, can he emerge from the frenzy and go back to engaging with the world. He's revising all the time. His current novel (not sure if he is referring to a new novel in the works or The Netanyahus), took one month to write a first draft of 400-600 pages, and the next two years to turn it into a 230-page book.

(Since hearing Josh speak, I too, have been trying this left-side, right-side practice in a notebook).

The novel is the final arrival at fluency, Josh said. It begins very disfluent, as dozens/hundreds of chards. "My pages are stuttering and saying 'um' and 'like' for a very long time."

Evan's process has some similarities. Whenever he would think he was finished for the day (he used to write only between 4 am and 6 am), he'd trick himself by writing another couple sentences from where to start from on the next day. I think both Evan and Josh said they did not read what they wrote the previous day. That is for the revision process.

Josh spoke about not being afraid to make trash (ie shitty first drafts) early on in the process. He said he has thrown out several full drafts of novels because the frame or the voice is wrong. Sometimes he's written things just to get them out of his system.

"Just make sure that your problem is the prose," he said. "There are many problems in this life, but I need to make my problems the smallest things I can deal with: how the sentences flow."

He encouraged writers to protect their time and commit themselves to a writing practice. "I became a writer in order to not have to deal with people…if I can protect my time, I can protect my attention. If you honor that protection to time and sit in the same place every day, after a few days of staring at the dot on the wall, you'll feel so ashamed [of not having written anything] that you'll start writing."

On writing characters and endings:

Josh mentioned projecting a character into one's absence. In other words, when he's written about things that he's experienced, he tends to take himself out of them. "I am very interested in putting other people in my shoes or erasing myself completely. When I take myself out of it, I can better understand my place in it."

"Endings for me are almost like a phantom. An ending is both a final line and final scene and also the fate of the characters. I usually have at least one of them in mind, but there are others of them…and I let them surprise me… how does the character change?"

Final thoughts:

"I can't think without writing. I need to write in order to think. When I'm not writing, I'm not thinking. I'm absorbing, but not thinking. I'm too susceptible to my sensory environment."

This is how I feel about writing as well. At the Literary Modiin June event the other day, Joan Leegant said the same thing, so I suppose many of us writers are similar in that way. We write in order to understand what we think.


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