Elizabeth Cox was sitting on a ping-pong table. She was three years old –– the daughter of the headmaster of a private boys school in Tennessee –– listening to the English teacher and Latin teacher argue about The Iliad. She had no idea what the discussion was about, but she knew it was important. “All my life I remember hearing that good literature teaches you how to live. Reading was always more than about reading — it was about life.”
Cox has transmuted that understanding into a passion and a career — in writing, reading, and living the life of the imagination. A teacher of creative writing at MIT since 2001 and author of five books — including The Ragged Way People Fall Out of Love (1991), The Slow Moon (forthcoming, Spring 2006), and the short story collection Bargains in the Real World (2001) — Cox has garnered an armful of honors: an O’Henry Award for her short story ‘Third of July’, the Pushcart Prize for “Land of Goshen’, which also was a selection in Best American Short Stories (1980), and the Lillian Smith Book Award for her novel Night Talk (1998).
The emotional terrain she excavates deals with the intertwining of loss and hope, the fragility and complexity of love and life, and moments that cause pivotal shifts in relations and attitudes. “Great literature,” she says, “makes us uncomfortable and disturbs us. If we’re unconscious of our flaws, our tendencies, our neuroses, they rule us. Every now and then, we are awakened to the destruction we’re doing, and only when we’re awakened can we decide not to do it.”
Writing, too, engenders a kind of awakening for Cox. In Night Talk she explores race relations through the friendship of two women, one white, the other black, who grew up together in 1950s Georgia. There’s a moment in the story when Janey Louise, the black woman, says to Eve, the white woman, “You will never understand [the impact of racism.]” At that moment, Eve knows she can never understand the experience of a black woman, though they were close childhood friends. “When I wrote that,” Cox relays, “I foolishly believed I might understand the black experience a little better. Not only did my character awake, but I awoke. I realized I can never understand it.”
IMMERSED IN FICTION
When in the throes of writing, Cox is totally immersed in her fictional world. She’ll write for 12 hours a day, and even if she gets up for a cup of coffee or goes for a walk, her fabricated universe holds sway. “I, the author, learn to erase myself and become each of the characters. I love that. It’s a kind of forgetting that helps me discover some small truth about life.”
To produce 200 pages she’s satisfied with, Cox will write about 3,000, and she doesn’t know what the book is about until towards the end of the writing process — usually two and a half years after she began it. “I discover what it’s about as I write it. If I discover what it’s about close to the beginning, I’m almost always wrong.”
Cultivating awakenings are also at the core of her passion for teaching. After being a writing professor at Duke University for 18 years, Cox moved in 1993 to Littleton, Massachusetts with her husband, Michael Curtis, senior fiction editor of The Atlantic Monthly. With pastures and sheep forming home base, Cox has been teaching writing to graduate students at Bennington College in Vermont since 1995, and to undergraduates at MIT since 2001. “I adore teaching science and engineering students. Their mind is bent on the logical and I enjoy disturbing that logical bastion. I enjoy watching them awaken to the nuances of human behavior and meaning they didn’t even know they had written,” she says, adding, “I like to awaken in them something that’s foolish and playful.” Her MIT students, she notes, have a fear of emotions slightly more pronounced than students from other schools, as well as “a vulnerability and a sweetness and lack of arrogance that I adore.” This past fall was Cox’s last semester teaching at MIT; she and her husband are moving to Spartanburg, South Carolina to share an endowed chair at Wofford College.
WRITING TWO BOOKS
Cox is now writing two books simultaneously, something she’s never done before. “They’re set in different centuries and there’s no similarity in characters. I write one, and then the other. Whichever character comes out . . .” she says laughing. Her overriding wish, she says, is to have time to create work of the imagination. As she tells her students, “‘If you can harness your imagination and pay attention to everything in the way you have to when you’re writing a story, you’ll never be bored.’” This kind of attention goes beyond observation for Cox. “It’s more than noticing,” she explains. “It’s learning about what you’re noticing, and as you learn it, you love it, no matter what it is. Looking at everything with great affection. . . that’s the way I want to live.”