Four years ago we lost Jeanne Leiby in a horrible accident, on the road from Baton Rouge towards Lafayette. I think of her often, writing in my journal, or reading Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy in class the other day. How she loved that book, and her notes in the copy I own, her copy, the formation of her ideas for teaching the book to us, and now I cherish the book, rereading it almost yearly. It is cold almost, today, here in Carpinteria. The day she died was a blazingly sunny day in Louisiana, one of those harbingers of summer, and now seems so far ago as to be a dream.
Jeanne Leiby changed me as a writer because she told me the unvarnished truth, always. I met with Jeanne frequently in her office at the Old President’s House where she edited the Southern Review, and more often than not we’d step outside so she could smoke a cigarette and kvetch about the latest political issue, or the amazing excerpt from Mark Richard’s House of Prayer No.2 that she was so proud of publishing. Jeanne loved writers. She loved Bonnie Jo Campbell. She loved William Gay. She loved Philip Levine. She loved Janice Eidus.
Jeanne hated my metaphors. I hated my metaphors, too. With her guidance I wrote my MFA thesis, a novel. The pages she marked with her strange diagrams about structure, and the terse comments that read, “slow down,” “why is this here,” “slow down,” “too sentimental,” “slow down,” “write into the scene,” sit on my desk, festooned with her colored Post-It notes, her fingerprints all over those pages. I hear her voice when I sit at the computer to edit the manuscript and try to slow down and write through the scenes.
We were a year apart in age, and that’s part of why we got each other. We shared those cultural references that sailed over the heads of the younger writers in class. Jeanne made me believe in myself as a writer, by holding my feet to the fire, forcing me to look, to really look at my words. That first class with Jeanne, she said the most obvious thing about a story: “Every story is about someone, who wants something, and does or doesn’t get it because of something.” Jeanne applied that formula to our stories and drummed into us the importance of simplicity in storytelling. I start my workshops with her formula and now I can’t bear to tell the story of how I want Jeanne to be alive, and I can’t have that because of a terrible twist of fate. See, the formula applies to life, too.
That Jeanne is gone is terrible. I can’t believe I won’t hear her rave about Sanibel Island anymore, nor will we have dinner at AWP and complain about the slow service. Instead, I will continue to write, because that’s what mattered to Jeanne, and it’s what matters to me. We arrived at LSU about the same time, the first graduate class she taught was my first class, too. Now, I am four years removed from LSU, teaching high school, writing my truth as often as I can. I’ll raise a glass to Jeanne’s memory tonight, and know that she’ll always be with me.