GW English Alums on the Move: Esther Cohen (BA ’69)

GW English Alum
Esther Cohen (BA ’69)

New York writer, teacher, and activist Esther Cohen reflects on her time as an English major, and on the remarkably varied writing life she’s led since she graduated:

When did you graduate from GW?

I graduated from GW in 1969.  The year (and the years that followed, and came before) were a crazy time in the universe. Washington was alive with change, with demonstrations, with exciting possibilities of what the world might look like. Some of that had to do with the fact that we were  young then (and you don’t understand what young means when you are.)

What do you remember most from your GW years?  Were there professors who had a particularly strong influence?

My GW experience was wonderful in so many ways. I met friends for life, learned more than I could have expected, and had a few terrific English teachers who helped shape my writing life. Louis Schaefer (I still write to him) is an unusual, learned, funny man, an original thinker who taught a few of my creative writing classes. So did AE Claeyssens, another gifted teacher who criticized and encouraged with an equal amount of grace.

Did you know when you graduated that you wanted to be a writer?  If so, did you assume you’d be a particular sort of writer (poet, novelist, etc.)?  Are you surprised at how varied your writing has turned out to be?

I’ve wanted to be a writer forever, since my first sentence (This Is A Book!) and words have always been central to my life. It was wonderful to be with inspired teachers who could help me shape those words. I wanted to use words in as many ways as I could imagine, in poems, in stories, in novels, in creative non-fiction, and in some journalism and criticism. I’ve written everything more or less. Stories are my strength. Facts are my weakness.

I have also been a book doctor for many years now, helping people write their books. And  I teach many writing workshops, often about Good Stories.

Some of your writing projects seem to have a strong element of social justice in them.  Can you talk about your sense of the connection between writing and politics?

When I first moved to New York City (after time in the Israeli Peace Corps) I worked in book publishing with an old American publishing house (they claim to be the first) called Pilgrim Press.  The press was owned by a progressive denomination of the Protestant church, the United Church of Christ. My boss introduced me to many social justice leaders, and one of them, a union head from an illustrious family, a man named Moe Foner who was one of the architects of the hospital workers union, 1199SEIU, was one of the principal mentors of my life. I left publishing to work with him. He’d created a cultural organization for workers called Bread and Roses, which I ran when he retired. The union, and Bread and Roses, taught me about the importance of workers, and about how we all need roses alongside our bread. Of course all words are political (look at Bread and Roses as two words that belong together in every possible way). My personal work, my stories and poems and novels, aren’t political in the usual sense. But the one connecting thread of all I have done and continue to do is to find the voice, the words, the stories, of as many people as I can. Not only mine, but the stories of everyone around me too.

I’m assuming you’re a native New Yorker.  If I’m right, could you say something about your adjustment, as a GW student, to DC culture as opposed to New York City culture?  Did you enjoy living in DC as a student?

I am not a native New Yorker but I have lived in the city most of my life, and New York is where I belong. I was born in a small factory town in Southern Connecticut called Ansonia, but moved to New York as soon as I could.  I loved Washington, the parks and the art and the Southern charm of the city, and spent much of my four years exploring the city as fully as I could. I am a city person, and am happiest when I can wander through streets I don’t know.

Do you have any advice for our current English majors, or for students reading this who are thinking about becoming English majors?

Being an English major is a fantastic luxury: spending four years of your life reading with people who guide your path, who know things you don’t, and who can help you understand what some of the greatest writers in literature wrote, and intended. I am grateful to have spent four years reading, meeting friends, and living in Washington, D.C.

Students often ask for advice. To be a writer is to be open to life, to experience as much as you can, to be curious, and not to be afraid of life, or your own words.

What writing project(s) are you working on right now?

I’m writing a new book of poems, called I’m Getting Older. I’ve got a blog,, and am in the middle of a new novel about people with different lives and different values who live side by side. 

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