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Life lines: By word and example, UMass Lowell writer-in-residence encourages students to tell stories of the world around them

By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online. By KATHLEEN DEELY, Sun Staff

Lowell A flock of black birds flew over a frozen Merrimack River last week, interrupting a writing class at UMass Lowell.

"Look at that. Isn't it beautiful? Write about that," Elizabeth Cox told her students, as she sprung to the window for a better view.

While most teachers would have ignored the distraction, that's the kind of teacher Cox is. She doesn't just tell her students to capture life in their writing. She shows them. "Say the truth of how things are," is her motto.

Unlike some accomplished writers who swoop onto college campuses and dispense writing tips with a flinty air of pretension, Cox, this year's Jack Kerouac Writer in Residence at UMass, is as real as they come.

With a Southern lilt in her voice, she freely admits it takes her five years to write a novel; she's missed a deadline set by Random House on her latest book by a year and, after a few weeks on campus, she doesn't remember the name of the building where she teaches.

It's that realness that attracts people to Cox's stories and compelled the English Department to bring her on board this spring.

John Sampas, executor of the Kerouac Estate, started the program to keep the beat writer's memory alive in his hometown. "Jack was a writer who wrote to be published and we try to honor him by putting funds out to help young writers," he said.

Cox has lived in Littleton with her husband Michael Curtis, who is fiction editor for Atlantic Monthly magazine, for 10 years. But since she taught at Duke University in North Carolina for nine of those years, this is her first winter in New England.

"This is some winter. I'm impressed," she says, bundling up for a chilly walk across campus last week.

The Tennessee native has won an armful of prestigious awards and has three novels and a collection of short stories under her belt, but she was not a born writer she's more of a born listener. She didn't start writing until sometime in her 30s, but when she did it felt as natural as going for a walk.

"Growing up in the South, very often much of our information came through the telling of a story. In the Northeast, people give information straight out. They just give the information. In the South, there will be a lot of embroidery to it," she said.

Her stories are honest tales that depict some pretty extraordinary moments. The Third of July, a short story from Bargains in the Real World, is about a woman who decides to leave her husband and is driving away when she witnesses a fatal car crash that changes her mind.

Her 1997 novel Night Talk tells of a friendships between a white and black girl formed in the racially divided South in the 1950s. In simple, clear prose she paints a picture of what it was like to live in the South at that time.

These days, most of her writing is done in a converted barn in Littleton and she's currently working on a book about the violence children inflict on each other. "It's looking at the world that we live in and asking, what are we doing as adults to create a world where children become violent to each other? Not that I will have any answers," she said.

Like most of her plots, that one nagged at her for a long time. "I've been shocked at the amount of violence made by young people and I'm wondering what that rage is about."

The book starts with a rape in the first chapter. The rapist doesn't get caught for a long time and has to live with the guilt, which nearly does him in.

As UMass Lowell's in-house author this spring, Cox will give some readings on campus and teaches a creative writing class once a week. The 24 English majors in her class are prompted with Cox-isms, such as: "Does it matter to you the way the light comes in the room? The way the day looks? It should. Write down that."

There is a buzz in the air on Wednesday afternoons when students file into the room to talk about the nuances of fiction writing.

"Watching their faces come alive and seeing them begin to awaken," is what she likes about teaching.

And at a break last week during class, students exchanged excited looks. "She is so enthusiastic. She really makes you want to write," said Michelle Goodwin, a junior.

At the next desk, Amoah Yaboah-Korang smiled from ear to ear and gave Cox an enthusiastic two thumbs-up, displaying the genuine emotion you would find in one of her books.