Revising Leah

September 30, 2008

Leah’s Existential Crisis (Things I Like #5)

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 12:21 pm
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Late in the novel, Leah suffers her lowest emotional point. Crying in her bedroom, she ponders the deepest of questions:

Leah wished her shyness was something physical, something she could show a doctor and have amputated. It always seemed to get in the way; it always prevented her from doing what everyone in the world told her she ought to be doing: talking to people, making friends, falling in love. She couldn’t amputate it though. Her shyness was buried deep inside, and there was no way to take hold of it and get rid of it. All she could do was hate her shyness, hate what it had done to her life, and hate herself for being shy.

She rolled over onto her stomach, closing her eyes and burying her face in her pillow. So many questions filled her mind. Why did she have to be the only girl at school who was shy? No one else had any trouble talking to people or making friends. It didn’t seem fair. Why me? she asked herself. Was this what her life would always be like? Was this moment, alone in her bedroom, unhappy, not only her present and her past but her future as well? She had so many questions, but here in the isolation of her bedroom, there were no answers. Only silence surrounded her and offered itself-the same silence that had been her lone companion throughout her life. Only silence; always silence.

In the darkness of her pillow and in the silence of her room, she made a wish. She wished that she wouldn’t be shy anymore. She wished she could make friends. She wished that she knew what to say whenever someone spoke to her. She wished she could talk and laugh as easily as her classmates. She wished that her parents wouldn’t have to worry about her anymore. She wished she could belong to this noisy world. She wished she could be normal. She wished hard, as hard as she could, but when she lifted her head from her pillow, took a deep breath and looked around, she found that nothing had changed. The right words did not spring into her head, she still had no friends, and nobody was in love with her.

I was a student in college when I wrote the first draft of Leah. Back then, I was very interested in existential philosophy, reading all the Sartre and Camus I could get my hands on. I’ve outgrown that now, but at the time it influenced me quite a bit. I don’t think I ever realized, though, just how much of that philosophy was seeping into the novel that I was writing. I don’t think I ever made the conscious decision to put an existential slant to my story, but last April, when I read this novel for the first time in nearly a decade, I was struck by how much existentialism there is in the book. As I’ve revised, I’ve tried to preserve — if not enhance — that element of the story, and the passage above is probably the clearest example of its presence. The bleakness and emptiness of Leah’s life seems ripe for an existentialist’s treatment. I don’t think I’d call the book “an existential novel” — that might be taking it too far (and is there even such a thing as an “existential young adult” subgenre anyway?), but just as The Spring flirts and toys with both Christian and pagan imagery and motifs, so does Leah flirt with existentialism.

August 16, 2008

Forever Fourteen (Time, Part 2)

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 3:29 pm
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In the second chapter of Leah, I introduce the theme of time. Leah Nells is obsessed with the passage of time, and her obsession is manifested in the form of the books she reads and the bookcase in which she stores them:

. . . Against the fourth wall of the room was a bookcase that Mr. Nells bought for her a year and a half ago to store Leah’s ever-growing collection of books. It was made out of wood and had four shelves. Two of the shelves were filled completely, and a third was only partially filled.

The bookcase was Leah’s favorite part of her room. Sometimes, instead of reading, she would just sit on the floor and stare at the books. It might not have had much significance for anyone else who saw it, but for Leah the bookcase served as a kind of record of her life with each book representing a particular span of time. Leah kept the books arranged in the order in which she had read them so that they served as a sort of calendar, marking the passage of time for the last two or three years. Leah measured her life in pages instead of hours, in chapters instead of days, and in volumes instead of months. The empty space on the third and fourth shelves of her bookcase represented the future, the unknown, the unread books that were to come. The clock on Leah’s desk kept one form of time, and Leah’s books kept a different one.

For Leah, the future is something to be dreaded, something to fear and worry about. In the present, she’s safe: she can still hide from the world in her bedroom and indulge her introverted personality. But the beginning of high school also marks the beginning of the final stage of the long, slow climb towards adulthood, and the older she gets, the closer she will come to the moment when she will have to confront and overcome her shyness. It’s something she doesn’t want to face. For her, the idea of making friends, getting a part-time job, or going away to college seems like an impossible task. She just doesn’t know how to do it.

In the story, Leah’s dread for the future manifests itself in a very significant way when she joins David Parks’ group for the history project. Here, the future that she fears has been assigned a specific date: November 24 (by the novel’s calendar). On that day, two terrible things will happen: she’ll have to stand in front of her class and present her report on the Egyptian pharaohs, and the day will mark the end of her time with David, for whom she has a crush. She tries to embrace the present and savor every fleeting minute that she spends in David’s presence, but there is the constant pressure of the future racing towards her. She’s always aware that time is running out.

For Leah’s parents, the future represents everything that it represents for Leah: adulthood, responsibilities, an end to her shyness. But for them, it is the present which is miserable and the future contains all their hopes for their daughter. Tomorrow she’ll make a friend. Next month she’ll get over her shyness. A year from now she’ll finally be a normal teenager. They can’t wait for the future to arrive, and this difference in what the future means is a point of conflict between the girl and her parents.

In the 1996 draft of Leah, I constantly made note in the narrative of what time it was. I would write that it was 8:15 or noon or 2:57 or whatever. The reason for inserting these details really had almost nothing to do with the plot and everything to do with calling the reader’s attention to this theme of time. As I started revising, I decided to cut most of those little mentions of the time out of the text because most of them just seemed superfluous to me. I felt like I was bludgeoning the reader with the theme instead of trusting that the reader will be able to figure out what I’m doing. I was showing a lack of respect for the reader — never a good idea. Despite these deletions, there are still a few occasions in the text when I do focus on the clock. One example is in chapter 3, before Leah’s first day of high school. She’s nervous about the big day, and in her anxiety she has decided that she needs to leave her house at a specific time, so she’s constantly watching the clock and worrying about the passage of each minute. In a scene like that, I need to call attention to the minutes as they pass, but elsewhere, if it isn’t necessary for me to do that to help the story, then I don’t.

There’s a scene in my other novel, The Spring, in which one of the characters wishes that he could take the moment that he is experiencing and freeze it — in other words, make the moment last forever. In a sense, that is what happens when one tells a story. A story can be retold again and again (and when it is written down, the story can be retold exactly the same way) and so the characters relive their moments of existence every time someone reads them on the page. Sometimes this can seem like something terrible, as when Leah must relive an instant of public speaking again and again, but she also experiences the last page of the novel over and over too. The physical form of the book in which she exists is both her hell and her heaven.

I wonder if it is this ability to manipulate time that attracts me to writing. Like Leah, I’ve always been somewhat obsessed about time, and I’m haunted by the knowledge of my own mortality. Some of my earliest acts of creative writing involved retelling (and fictionalizing) stories from my own personal experience. I’ve always been eager to capture and hold the moments of my life in writing. I guess that urge isn’t uncommon: lots of people take photographs of themselves and loved ones, for instance. I’ve always been uncomfortable with photographs, but I don’t feel uncomfortable with recording my experiences in words. The difference between a photograph and a story, however, is that (despite the advantages of digital photography) a picture is grounded in reality, in what really happened, while a story can be rewritten — it can be revised. Events can be altered and changed at will; happy endings are always possible; heartbreak can be turned into love; dark can be made light; mistakes can be corrected.

And while I am not Leah Nells, and the story of her life is not the story of my own, there is enough of myself (my ideas, my interests, my fears, my misanthropism) in this novel and in The Spring that when my physical self perishes, I’ll leave something behind that was the essence of me. As I live my life and pass through time, the stories are capable of achieving something approaching permanence — something that would be otherwise unattainable to me. I’ll grow old and die, but Leah Nells will be forever fourteen. She’ll escape that future that she fears.

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