Lisa Cohen, assistant professor of English. (Photo by Vanessa Haney)
In this issue of The Wesleyan Connection, we ask “5 Questions” of Lisa Cohen, assistant professor of English and faculty fellow in the Center for the Humanities. Cohen is the author of All We Know: Three Lives, an engrossing biographical triptych about three complicated, glamorous, independent, and influential women of the last century (published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in July 2012).
In a review of her new book in Businessweek, Craig Seligman writes:
“ ‘All We Know’ is really much more about reflecting on lives … than about chronicling them. Experimental biography, if such a genre can be said to exist, is a high-wire act. Cohen never loses her balance.”
Q: What courses have you taught at Wesleyan and which have you enjoyed teaching the most?
A: I teach the sequence of nonfiction workshops in the English Department: Techniques of Nonfiction, Intermediate Nonfiction Workshop, and Advanced Nonfiction Workshop. I also teach a Special Topics course on biographical writing, and courses such as Stein and Woolf, and Fictions of Consumption. This fall at the Center for the Humanities, I will offer a course that engages with the semester’s theme of “Temporality.”
It’s impossible for me to say which I’ve enjoyed teaching the most. I love teaching Wesleyan students—and partly because of them, every time I teach “the same” course it’s a new experience. But the workshops also vary every year because I assign different texts and because every semester we bring different, exciting writers to campus. Alison Bechdel, Lisa Jarnot, and Bernard Cooper are three of the several who will be giving readings and meeting with students this fall.
Q: What do you believe about writing that you have shared with your students?
Read writing that inspires and challenges you.
Write about what really matters to you and do it so well that it is compelling to others.
Keep editing your work.
Be strict with yourself, but patient with your own process.
Q: How did you decide to write about the lives of these three separate women—Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland—in your new book?
A: I started writing a book about Madge Garland and spent several years doing archival research and conducting interviews about her life. But at a certain point it became clear to me that while I could write a whole book about her, such a book would, ironically, not quite do her justice. Her life was one of accomplishment, but a lot of what she had done was hard to pin down. The same was true for my other subjects. I wanted to say something bigger about the milieu in which Madge had moved, to show what certain women’s lives looked like in the 20th century, and to emphasize previously unseen connections—and the often intangible work of making connections among people, which was work they had all done. In the meantime, I had written a magazine profile of Mercedes de Acosta and was hearing about Esther Murphy from the writer Sybille Bedford (whom I had first met because I interviewed her about Madge Garland).
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