Friday, October 1, 2010

First Friday Author Feature: Lowell Cohn

Lowell Cohn, author and sports columnist for over three decades, broke into journalism while he was still in his twenties. The son of a lawyer and a teacher, he remembers sitting in his parents' kitchen to write about playing punch ball ("like a tennis ball without the fuzz") at Avenue L  -- "one of x number of Brooklyn playgrounds that looked alike: a cyclone fence, wading pool and three to four trees around a concrete slab." His mother questioned what he was doing and his father offered to put him through law school. But when he sold the story to Sports Illustrated for $500, his writing career was launched.

Though he never took a writing class, Cohn has been teaching writing part-time at USF for over twenty years. As the guest speaker in my Research for Writing class this week, Cohn shared his expertise on interviewing. He urged us to approach our subjects with professionalism, despite sometimes feeling "like a fraud." He modeled how to be persistent, establish authority and lead an interview without being too accommodating or abrasive. Then the tables turned, and we practiced interviewing him.

Growing up as a small Jewish kid in New York's "verbal culture," Cohn learned quickly how to stand his ground. With a preference for the blunt expressions of the east coast over California's "secret codes," posturing is a skill that still comes in handy when faced with aggressive athletes who sometimes challenge his request for interviews. Turning them into characters that are "readable and interesting" is his job.

After earning a PhD in English Literature, Cohn turned away from academia to pursue writing. Now he loves helping students examine how something is written, veering from his initial training to analyze literature's themes. Figuring out how Mark Twain uses dialogue, he says, is "much more fun than asking 'What's the meaning of the river?' " Cohn currently writes a sports column and a blog at the Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, CA, but he draws the line at tweeting: "140 characters. That's not writing."

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