The Writing Life

As a child, she straddled two worlds. As an acclaimed author, she helps her characters bridge fragile life experiences. The New York Times Book Review calls her “one of our foremost chroniclers of the unexpected tendernesses of human connections.” In Holy Cross classrooms, critically acclaimed author Leah Hager Cohen engages students in questions that are integral to her teaching and work: the value of creativity and the abundant gifts that come from making art.

By Julie Wittes Schlack
Photos by Louis Despres

 

 

Author Leah Hager Cohen speaks with a voice that is soft but incisive, and, in the words of her former student Jimmy Roach ’11, “always knows the right kind of question to ask, so that in your answer, you find yourself figuring something out you couldn’t have gotten to any other way.” 

Cohen, the former W.H. Jenks Chair in Contemporary American Letters who recently accepted a three-year appointment as Distinguished Writer in Residence in the College’s English department, is by any measure a gifted writer. Her 10 books (including her latest novel, No Book but the World), have earned positive reviews and numerous awards, among them a New York Times Notable Book and a Best Book of the Year in the San Francisco Chronicle, Kirkus Reviews, The Washington Post and The (Toronto) Globe and Mail. And with a forthcoming film based on her 2011 novel, The Grief of Others, you might assume that Cohen is one of those commercially driven writers who has created a mini-industry around herself. 

You’d be wrong. In Cohen’s ethos, art is less about churning out product and more about sharing attentive and empathetic energy.

Settling into a chair alongside the week’s collection of recyclables on the back porch of the apartment outside Boston that she shares with her partner, Mike Konig and three children, she talks about how inspired she is by Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. Indeed, in a recent New York Times Book Review interview, she cited it as the last truly great book she’d read.  

“Whether creating art or responding to it, people experience creativity as a gift. In academia—and probably outside of it, too—we may become so terribly conscious of what’s ‘marketable’ that we fall into what Hyde refers to as a scarcity model in which ideas and art gain value by being accumulated, concentrated, even hoarded.”  Cohen speaks with quiet animation—bursts of ideas punctuated by pauses as she gives her thoughts time and space in which to take shape. “But the essential property that he ascribes to a gift is that whatever we have been given increases in the act of being given away again. So what I love in his book is the idea that we could and should operate on an abundance model, where these creative and intellectual gifts gain value by being passed on.” 

It’s that spirit that students and faculty alike mention in talking about Cohen. 

“The special thing about Professor Cohen is that she has a presence on and off paper,” says Sandra van den Heuvel ’14. “There’s this quality of being present with whomever she’s with, and maybe that’s what makes her such a spectacular writer. But it doesn’t just make her writing better, it makes her better. When you’re with her, you’re heard. When you’re with her, you’re seen.”

Her colleagues—many of them participants in the faculty seminars she taught as the Jenks Chair—are equally admiring. “If I were that good and that skilled, I would be so much more obnoxious,” deadpans Matthew Koss, professor of physics. 

Unprompted, they all gently land on the term “generosity.” 

Uncoupling Process from Product

Cohen’s commitment to abundant giving isn’t just theoretical. Working in multiple formats and genres, her output is considerable. Author of five novels and five nonfiction books, she also writes reviews for The New York Times Book Review, essays for Cognoscenti (an online publication sponsored by National Public Radio affiliate WBUR) and maintains a blog. She uses the latter, Love as a Found Object, as an outlet for a wide-ranging set of reflections on topics as searing as her mother’s death and as goofy as a celebration of her first-ever vaudevillian spit-take.  (“I swigged a mouthful of water from the bottle next to me, placed both hands on the wheel, imagined something had caused me great surprise, and with as much suddenness and force as I could muster, blasted the liquid forth …”) 

  But across all of these venues, Cohen embodies Hyde’s perspective. “I’m not sure I care very much about authorship,” she said in an interview on the literary news site Serpent’s Tail earlier this year. “When I care about it is during the act of making the book; then it seems absolutely vital. But once the book is done, and passes out of my hands into the world, it seems its own entity, and I don’t exactly relate to it with a sense of ownership. Consider this: before the book existed as a draft or even an idea in my mind, where was it and who owned it then? Not I. I feel a bit the same way about post-creation.”

Some authors find that kind of disengagement put to the test when their work is adapted for the movies. But Cohen’s longstanding friendship with The Grief of Others adapter and director, Patrick Wang, has helped her to observe the process avidly without feeling proprietary about the product. She met Wang about 15 years ago, when he was starring in a production of the controversial play, M. Butterfly, which she was chronicling for her behind-the-scenes portrait of a community theatre, The Stuff of Dreams. 

Theatre plays a role in several of her novels as well. In fact, Cohen started out her academic life as a drama student at New York University’s Tisch School. But her career as an actor was short-lived. “I was 16 years old and not nearly ready for it. All of this introspection …” she recalls with wry amusement. “I didn’t know anything about the world, or myself. I just knew that I had the desire and the obligation to look outward.” 

That sense of obligation fuels her affinity with Holy Cross. “Two years ago, I had a graduating student who came to me seeking advice,” she recounts. “She was thinking about applying to an MFA in creative writing program. But she was hesitant. A lot of people in her situation might hesitate out of uncertainty about whether they were ‘good enough’ writers, or whether it was too impractical, too financially insecure a choice. But the reason for her hesitance was that she worried it was too selfish a choice. She’d be pursuing something she loved, but would she be contributing to others and to the world? I love that for many Holy Cross students, being of service to humanity is so central and natural a concern—I love especially how it informs the work we do in the classroom, the way it is an integral part of the conversations we have about writing and making art.”

So what does she say in these student conversations about writing? “I don’t teach people how to come up with ideas,” she responds, “but I try to teach them to be attentive to their own responses as readers. As writers, we have to approach literature not as an academic exercise, but in terms of affect. ‘How do I feel when I’m reading? Why do I feel that way?’” 

As she says this, Cohen lightly touches her chest, demonstrating the kind of visceral attentiveness she’s describing. Having spent her early childhood living at New York’s Lexington School for the Deaf (where her father was superintendent) and later working as an American Sign Language interpreter, Cohen speaks not just with a lyrical voice, but with dancing hands. 

Her efforts are yielding fruit. “I used to think that writing was about being lavish, about creating a world that was better than reality,” says van den Heuvel, “but from Professor Cohen, I learned how to find the magic in reality, how to take the simple moments in life and see them as more.”

Cohen urges students to be curious, to apply the disciplines of questioning and research that she learned at the Columbia School of Journalism to all forms of writing. “I do exhort students to be constantly moving into the world. At the same time, I encourage them to look inward, to find their own breath length, the rhythm that often supports flights of excellence.”

 “Breath length,” “rhythm”—the language and methods of theatre still inform her work as a writer and teacher, most recently in a course that she team taught with Lynn Kremer, professor of theatre and the Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J., Chair in the Humanities. 

“Leah’s writing and my scene studies students collaborated,” Kremer explains, “with each having to learn and apply the methods of both disciplines—finding the beats in a phrase, the objectives of a character, imagining back story, learning how to be in the moment.” 

 

Arts Transcending Borders

Theirs was a happy partnership. (“Teaching with Leah was bliss,” Kremer says. “Our demeanors are very different. Leah is soft-spoken and thoughtful. She nudges rather than pushes. I’m trying to be more like that.”) And it will continue this fall, in the first of a three-year pilot of a new program funded by the Mellon Foundation called Arts Transcending Borders (ATB). As the new program’s director, Kremer will again team up with Cohen and faculty from seven different disciplines (including sociology, visual arts, entrepreneurial studies, English, psychology and music) to develop and teach a new course to about 75 students representing different majors.

“Artists bring a different perspective to problems,” Kremer explains. “The goal of the program is to instill that outlook into multiple disciplines, to transform how we look at our environment. My hope is that we’ll not only transcend the borders of our disciplines, but of our campus as well, and really integrate with the broader community.” 

ATB’s mission is music to Cohen’s ears. 

“‘Creativity,’ ‘play,’ ‘imagining’ and ‘irreverence’ could all be next to each other in a thesaurus,” she declares. “I’m so excited about the program because I think meta-cogitating about creativity is essential to understanding where we are in our arc of learning, regardless of discipline.” 

Kremer, Cohen and their colleagues are still working on the design of the course, but know that they want an element of it to be affording small cross-disciplinary teams the chance to come up with creative solutions to a series of challenges. 

“But how do you evaluate creativity?” Cohen muses with delighted perplexity. “Perhaps that will be one of the challenges we present to students.”

 

"Thinking with Her Heart"

Joe Lawrence, professor of philosophy, took two of Cohen’s faculty seminars. “I’ve always been pretty insistent on thinking with my heart as well as my head,” he says, “and Leah is a master of thinking with her heart. Through her gift of empathy, she represents the outsider perspective in a way that people can hear what she has to say.”

Cohen has led a somewhat unconventional life—living at the Lexington School, growing up with a biological white sister and an adopted African-American brother, attending a progressive “free” middle school with no required classes or grades—and made some uncommon choices, such as sending her “neurotypical” children to a preschool serving primarily children with autism spectrum disorders.  “The experience taught them to look beyond the reductive thinking that labels tend to foster.”

At the same time, she is conscious of her own privilege. “Look, I’m a white, middle class heterosexual. I’ve never really lived on the outside. But in many respects, I grew up straddling two worlds. My family was black and white; my parents were Jewish and Christian; I was a hearing person living in a deaf community. So I suppose I’ve learned to be an interpreter, a bridge of sorts.”

Bridging differences without negating them—that may be Cohen’s gift as a teacher and a writer. 

 “We are none of us free,” she writes in the powerful ending to her new novel, No Book but the World, in which a woman tries to come to terms with the possibility that her brother—a man who is “difficult to love … but not unlovable”—has murdered a young boy. “We are tethered by our connections to other people, those we know as well as those we will never meet. What tethers us is our ability—our responsibility—to imagine them, to fathom their lives, their circumstances, what we have in common, what sets us apart.”  ■

 

Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, short stories and articles for the business press. She won a Hopwood Award for Fiction, and her work regularly appears in Cognoscenti, an online journal of ideas and opinions published by National Public Radio affiliate, WBUR.

 

Leah Hager Cohen: A Bibliography

 

No Book but the World
(Riverhead Hardcover, 2014)

“A piercing novel.”
—The New Yorker

 

I Don’t Know: In Praise of Admitting Ignorance (Except When You Shouldn’t)
(Riverhead Hardcover, 2013)

“Cohen spins an elegant web … in the end, she’s arguing for an almost spiritual abstention from absolutism: ‘The opposite of fundamentalism is the willingness to say I don’t know.’” —The Boston Globe

 

The Grief of Others 
(Riverhead Trade, 2012)

“Cohen’s stunning writing … mesmerizes, wounds, and possibly even heals her readers. Her courageous novel is to be savored.”
—Library Journal

 

House Lights: A Novel 
(W.W. Norton & Company, 2008)

“Simply gorgeous.”
The Los Angeles Times

 

Without Apology: Girls, Women and the Desire to Fight
(Random House, 2005)

“This is a terrific book: sharp, surprising, at times devastating, like a punch that comes out of nowhere.” Ken Burns

 

Heart, You Bully, You Punk
(Penguin Books, 2004)

“Cohen’s wistful novel evokes the intense vulnerability of love and the shattering pain of loss.”
Entertainment Weekly

 

The Stuff of Dreams: Behind the Scenes of an American Community Theater
(Viking Adult, 2001)

“Richly presented in page-turning form … Cohen’s narrative has a fascinating cast of characters … you’ll have to read it. It’s a must.”
—The Boston Globe

 

Glass, Paper, Beans: Revelations on the Nature and Value of Ordinary Things
(Crown Business, 1998)

“A minor miracle … after you read it, nothing—not even a sheet of newsprint—will seem ordinary again.”
The New York Times
Book Review

 

Heat Lightning 
(Harper Perennial, 1998)

Joyous and poetic … like a wondrous childhood treasure rediscovered beneath the front porch steps.” —San Antonio Express-News

 

Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World
(Vintage, 1995)

“A breakthrough book—a learned, loving look at the present and future of the deaf universe … a must read.” —Chicago
Sun-Times