April 28, 2013

Professor writes about new language of love


---- — PLATTSBURGH — Elizabeth Cohen first attempted fiction when she was 12, but it didn’t turn out quite right. 

At 53, she tried again with “The Hypothetical Girl,” a collection of stories about online dating and what technology has done to love.

As an assistant professor of English at SUNY Plattsburgh, Cohen’s teaching focuses on poetry and writing memoirs, but her imagination took over when she began encountering people through online-dating sites.

“These stories came to me and asked to be written. I know that sounds crazy and silly,” Cohen said.

Cohen turned to the Internet to find love after her marriage ended, and she began to piece together stories about the people she met online. Although none of the stories are entirely true or follow her life, the core of the book is something that is real to her, she said.

“The ideas and seeds of (the stories) come from experience,” Cohen said. “Writers are spies in the world. We really are thieves; we can’t help it.”

To Cohen, fiction is a search for a deeper truth.

“The word ‘fiction’ is fiction to me. The kernel and soul of every story is something you think is eternally true,” Cohen said.

Stories in “The Hypothetical Girl” reflect various issues that Cohen came across while meeting people in a virtual world.

“You’re meeting someone’s mind before you meet them physically. In a way, you’re removing the chemistry factor and going to the chemistry of the soul,” Cohen said of online dating.

A few of the stories are humorous and whimsical, while others are darker and even scary. Cohen is interested in experimental fiction, so she included a story that allows the reader to choose from three different endings. The final option, section C, is a scary ending that Cohen said is the least tasteful part of the book.

“The seed of this one is that we all make choices all the time about how we want to see the world,” she said.

The same story incorporates a quiz that the reader can take. 

“That’s the weird story in the book,” Cohen said.

Three other stories are magical realist, a genre that incorporates magical elements with realistic experiences. 

“Stupid Humans” is about a deer and a polar bear that fall in love. It examines how the inability to show emotions while communicating through text messages leads to misunderstanding.

“I really wanted to address that (issue),” Cohen said. “Even people who aren’t looking for love … we communicate love through texts.”

A woman turns invisible in another magical-realist story entitled “The Hypothetical Girl.” The disappearing women has a husband who is openly having an affair, while a man she talks with online tells her she isn’t real. 

“Nobody in her life is dealing with her,” Cohen said. “She can’t really reach any of the important people in her life.”

Other stories touch on the meaning of beauty and the search for truth.

Cohen’s background in poetry reflects in her writing style, especially in one tale about two characters who share limericks with each other through the Internet and text messaging. A love poem sent by the protagonist is a true poem that Cohen had written.

“That is a real love poem that I wrote. My friends and I had a contest on who could write the most beautiful love poem. And I won,” Cohen said.

“I may write like a fiction writer, but I think like a poet. I care about language in a root way … so that affects how I write.”

The book launches Aug. 6 and will be available in paperback and e-book versions at and for $14.95. Cohen will be reading the stories in Plattsburgh and New York City; place and time is to be determined.