The Hippo


Jun 6, 2020








Good Naked, by Joni B. Cole
(University Press of New England, 191 pages)

By Jennifer Graham

 So you’ve got this idea. 

It could be an idea for a short story, a novel or a screenplay, but if you’re like most people, you’ve never done anything more with the idea than think of it once in a while. Early on, this thinking was done with excitement; more recently, the excitement has been replaced by guilt. 
Or, as Vermont writing coach Joni B. Cole memorably puts it, “Your once beautiful Great Idea now seems to bear the features of a feral pig.”
In her provocatively titled book Good Naked, Cole proposes to unstick the stuck and domesticate the pig, liberating the gasping ideas that never get oxygen because their captor (that would be you) cannot answer one question: Where to begin?
The Book of Genesis aside, the answer is not always “in the beginning.” The answer, Cole explains, is wherever you can find a way in.  For the paralyzed artist, getting started sometimes means writing chapter 16 or stanza 20 or even the finale, then going back to the beginning once you’re in motion. It’s advice that’s been given before, but Cole, who teaches at the New Hampshire Institute of Art, is the rare writer whose technique and imagery remain with you forever, like straw stuck on fleece.
Example: the Bone Pointer.
A bone pointer, Cole writes, is a shaman in aboriginal Australia who delivers karmic justice with a 9-inch kangaroo femur. “The victim has no idea when the Bone Pointer will come for him, until this great spiritual power sneaks up and makes his presence known. He points the bone in the victim’s direction, but never touches him directly. Regardless, the condemned man knows he has been cursed and will surely die. Then he does.”
The paralyzed writer in Peterborough or Portsmouth has his own personal bone pointer that thwarts creation with fear, Cole says. Using the game rock-paper-scissors as an analogy, she says fear always wins over craft and talent. (Often talent, glamorous as it may be, “has no real interest in working a desk job,” she says.)
In another memorable anecdote, Cole writes about a friend who wanted to build an airplane from a kit but became overwhelmed by the project once she started. An advisor visited, looked at the soul-killing clutter, and offered advice that proved life-changing and airplane-finishing: “Don’t think about all the things you have left to do. Just touch the airplane three times a week.”
“Just touch the plane” is the sort of gentle encouragement that the writer Anne Lamott offered in her instructional book Bird by Bird. Lamott may be better known outside of New England, but Cole is Lamott’s equal in writing about the craft with intelligence and wit, and she’s better than Elizabeth Gilbert, who similarly endeavored to inspire with her 2016 book Big Magic
Cole’s gift, beyond a remarkable ability to anthropomorphize concepts like fear and ideas, is a winsome voice made buoyant with what some people consider excessive good cheer. A “friend” — air quotes are mine — once accused Cole of encouraging mediocrity because the coaching she does at writers’ workshops in Vermont and conventions across the country is irrepressibly sunny, as evidenced by her upbeat belief that “Just because you cannot write doesn’t mean you are not a writer.”
Plus, Cole shuns Lamott’s justification of a bad first draft.
“Though a first draft may be miles from polished prose or poetry, it is also far from crap, and calling it ugly names only makes it that much harder for the writer to recognize its merits,” she writes.
Even if a writer does wind up pitching much of a first draft, it usually serves a noble purpose, identifying “hot spots” of value that the writer can extract and develop later. “How do we access our muse? A first draft can show us, if we aren’t too distracted by calling it names.”
The title of Good Naked comes from Cole’s explanation of “good naked” and “bad naked” and the need for writers to share first drafts in a forum that offers the comfort and safety of a poorly lit bathroom. Here, as at her Writer’s Center in White River Junction, Cole primarily addresses wordsmiths; the book’s subtitle is “reflections on how to write more, write better & be happier.”
But Good Naked fits nicely into the category of self-help books that flog artists of all stripes into doing the creative work to which they feel called (but not so called that they will actually do the work without getting a shove). Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and Gilbert’s Big Magic share space on this shelf, and Good Naked is a worthy addition. If Cole doesn’t motivate you to finish that novel, watercolor or sonata, she’ll at least get you started. Alas, the bone pointer you’ll have to slay on your own. A
— Jennifer Graham 

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