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A 'Boulevard' of writing dreams

Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer Lauren Cobb, a BSU professor, has earned several awards for her collection of short stories, “Boulevard Women.”

BEMIDJI -- Lauren Cobb has broken through the veil imposed on short story fiction by recently winning the G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize for short fiction from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Although she has written many short stories for scholarly journals, including the Beloit Fiction Journal, Arts and Letters, Eclipse and Green Mountain Review, her collection of short stories -- "Boulevard Women" -- is her first published book. Cobb also received awards from "Another Chicago Magazine" and placed second in the Southern California Review Fiction competition.

The goal of the short story writer is to overcome the lack of available printed outlets for the medium, such as what were formerly known as "women's magazines" like "The Saturday Evening Post," "Atlantic Monthly," "Red Book" and "Good Housekeeping," to name a few.

"Up until the last 50-years or so, people didn't go to school to learn how to write fiction or creative writing they just read great works and maybe had a mentor or two," said Cobb, a professor of creative writing at BSU. "Hemmingway learned how to write from Gertrude Stein. My life-long favorites are Herman Melville, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Toni Morrison and Flannery O'Connor."

Cobb started writing poetry as an undergraduate because she loved writing images, she said. She kept trying to write narratives within the body of a poem but they started breaking out further and further. Cobb had a gradual realization that she wanted stories rather than lyricism and emotions, although she still enjoys reading poetry, she said.

"I really didn't know if I had the talent for it," she said, "but I have been a lifelong day dreamer. I always loved fiction. In the beginning, I wrote some really bad fiction. A few years later, I started taking writing classes and really learned how to write fiction instead of poetry."

Cobb has a few hints for aspiring writers: poetry is the best boot camp a fiction writer can attend; the "what if's" of life will lead you to self realization and your place in the world; learn how to write dialogue and develop a plot right from the beginning, after awhile you start to think in plots. All of her stories begin with conversations — those she had or those she overheard.

Imagination is the most important tool a writer can have. For example, watching an older woman and a young teen have lunch at a local diner can spark ideas of why they are together, their relationship, do they seem to be enjoying each other, is the teen anxious to get away, is the teen more interested in the food than the conversation?

Cobb's characters in "Boulevard Women" are much like that. There's the 70-something spinster, Miss Thalia, who has lived in the family house all her life and is a true southern lady, and there's Layla, a young teen who recently moved into the neighborhood, lonely for companionship and craving acceptance. They are two of the three main characters; the other is Leona, a 40ish waitress widow whose home collapsed one day because termites have been chewing busily for years. She is now living in Miss Thalia's carriage house. Leona is stuck in the grieving process for her husband who has been gone for 10 years.

Kelly Cherry of Book Mark Press wrote in the forward of Cobb's book: "Each of the stories is a complete whole and yet they are linked in a sequence. Or maybe braided would be a more accurate term, because Cobb's characters interact throughout and in between the stories. With this debut collection Lauren Cobb proves herself to be a writer who can create suspense, humor and aesthetic shapeliness out of ordinary materials."

Perhaps Cobb, who has been teaching creative writing for about 20 years, has gained much from her students, a diverse population that ranges in talent from the aspiring writer who already has a novel tucked away in a desk drawer to someone who thought that writing might be fun. She makes it very clear to her students that the class is really a workshop where everything is a work in process. Her classes are a safe place for her and her students to play and experiment and not feel badly about themselves or what they wrote. And they must learn the tool box they need to start the journey.

"I welcome students who are trying to do something new, there are easier paths to follow than learning how to write fiction," she said. "There are lots of other useful things to do in the world and if we are not getting pleasure out of it and it does not bring us joy, what's the point? I encourage my students to write everyday when possible but I do not due to course load, responsibilities and personal life."

One of the realities of living in the 21st century America is that very few writers will make a living as a writer, Cobb believes. The other reality is that we all have human relationships; family, friends, students, children that take time away from writing.

"I don't get to write every day and but when I do sit down I am thrilled, I am happy," she said.

"Boulevard Women" is published by Book Mark Press and is available now at Kat's Book Nook and shortly at Book World in downtown Bemidji.