James Claffey

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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 in the review and trumping Harper's in the process.

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, Jeanne and me, 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 undergraduate workshops with her formula now.

I can't bear to tell the story of how I want Jeanne Leiby 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 about the GCACWT conference in Fairhope, 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 that'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 finished at LSU, bound for an avocado farm on the Californian coast, and Jeanne is no longer there either. I'll raise a Diet Coke to Jeanne's memory when I get home, and know that she'll always be with me wherever that may be.

James Claffey, Nonfiction Editor of The New Delta Review

[Read more of In Memoriam for Jeanne Leiby]   

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Jeanne changed my life as a writer by being one of the first major editors to publish my work, and perhaps one of the only to publish a poem about my grandfather and life in the Midwest. (Poems about foreign places always seemed an easier sell, but felt less at the heart of my work.)

She was warm and cordial to deal with and one of those rare writer/editors that made you want to keep going in those lean early years when clearly the most sensible thing to do would be to quit.

I was greatly saddened to hear of her death and hope her friends and family will be buoyed by the fact that even those she touched only briefly or tangentially were moved by her spirit.

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