Playing with words

Student Spotlight: Leyna Bohning

By Nick Hawks

A&E Editor

Rows upon rows of books sit on the shelves on the fourth floor of Rhodes Tower, some of them you have to imagine haven’t been touched in years, if not since the day they were placed there. There’s just too many. The tables are mostly empty, albeit for the occasional student sitting there, studying quietly.

This is where Cleveland State University grad student Leyna Bohning has agreed to meet, on a chilly November day where we can discuss writing, creativity and apparently, how French is just too easy of a language to learn to be considered a challenge (debatable). 

Bohning was in the Poetry Center, where she works one of her three jobs. Officially, our interview is part of a student spotlight for The Cauldron, but unofficially, it’s a ruse; disguised as a way to try and pry inside her brain, to figure out just how she is able to write with so much vivid detail that makes simple tasks like sitting in an office feel more interesting than a murder mystery. 

“Kaeli sat in the guidance counselor’s office, twirling the string of her hoodie around her finger while the counselor clacked away on the computer,” Bohning wrote in a draft of one of her short stories, titled “4109 Croan Court.” “Mrs. Borden’s thin, round glasses slid down her nose, revealing red marks where the nose pads rested. Kaeli remembered when she was younger and her father’s glasses did the same thing. She felt a twist in her gut and pulled tightly on the hoodie string, causing the hood to constrict lopsidedly.”

We walked around for a moment, searching for a place to talk where our voices wouldn’t echo throughout the entire floor and disrupt students. It’s quiet, almost too quiet for an interview, like the stereotype of an old librarian, with gray hair in a tight bun and tiny glasses resting on the middle of her nose, would come up and “SHH!” us, but, fortunately, that didn’t happen. It’s in this setting where Bohning feels comfortable, surrounded by books and peace. 

“I’m always writing in my head,” she said. “If I don’t have to focus on something, my mind’s gonna be somewhere else. It’s kind of a bad thing though, when people wave at me on the street, I’m not there.”

One place she even sees herself is as a librarian when she graduates, something you might find surprising, being that she’s a year away from her Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing. 

She dreams of one day opening up her own independent press. In addition to her bread-and-butter, fiction, she is an avid writer of poetry and is expanding her horizons to write in the non-fiction category as well. 

Writing is simply in Bohning’s bones, as much a part of her DNA as phosphate or sugar groups (thanks, Google search). Even simple sentences are described in a way that might make you think F. Scott Fitzgerald was reincarnated in the form of a 23-year-old grad student with delicate, fair skin and vibrant red lips. 

“I feel possessed when I start writing fiction,” she said. “I’ll get into it, and it sort of takes control of me. I’m not in control anymore. It’s 100% a whole different world.” 

Procrastination is a foreign concept to her. She’s a busy bee, the type of person who considers four hours of nightly sleep more than enough. When asked what her process is for conceptualizing these new ideas, she lit up like a Christmas tree.

“This is my favorite question to ask writers,” she said. “When something is very, very new, I start on paper because I feel like with paper I don’t spend so much time on details. I just get the story out as soon as I can.”

In the middle of writing a novel for her grad thesis, Bohning finds the challenge new and exciting. She is accustomed to writing short stories in the 8-page range, so the challenge of expanding past that is attractive to her. Although she describes the novel as being in its “barebones,” having just came up with it a month ago, she got giddy when describing it, as if she were an 6-year-old detailing an experience at Disney World.

“I’m not even sure how it came to me, I just remember getting really excited about this idea,” she said. “This idea of playing with a new idea, playing with these characters, playing with this whole world. That’s something more exciting to me than anything I’ve been working on for a while.” 

The novel is about a set of twin brothers, who are “absolute disasters,” and a girl with severe ADHD. The girl accidentally steals a $50 million necklace that had belonged to the twin brothers’ uncle, and the twins are forced to track it down, as the girl has no memory of where she lost it. Bohning described it as a “road trip” book, with the chapters alternating between the point of view of one of the twins and the girl. 

Writing a novel is much different than the short stories Bohning is accustomed to, calling herself “a very minimalistic writer.” If a detail is not vital to a story, she will typically not include it, which is something her professors are trying to break her out of. 

“Now I’m writing novels, and my professors are telling me I need to add more, I need to spend more time with these characters,” she said. “So it’s different for me to switch that mindset so quickly and so drastically.” 

Part of her process is observing people and using her observations to create more three dimensional characters. 

“I go to hockey games a lot,” she said. “Whenever I’m at a hockey game and they’re cleaning the snow off the ice, I look around and stare at people. It’s completely subconscious. I’m not thinking about it, but I do get ideas from it. I notice ticks that people have.”

She detailed a time that stood out to her at one of those hockey games. 

“One person, I remember, and this actually made it into one of my stories, he kept consistently patting the top of his shirt pocket,” she said. “He’d pat it and put his hand down like he was disappointed, and he’d keep going to it. It was subconscious; I could tell he didn’t mean to keep doing it. I don’t know why he was doing it, but in my mind, he was probably a smoker and he kept reaching for his lighter that he didn’t have.”

She may speak about the challenge of tackling this new style of writing, but if it isn’t challenging her, it’s not worth her time. She nonchalantly brings up the fact that she’s in the process of teaching herself Korean, just for fun.

Korean, she said, is surprisingly easy (it’s not), as she pronounced the Korean word for “Hello,” syllable for syllable, “an-nyeong-ha-se-yo,” slowly rounding her lips as if trying to teach a toddler how to speak. She sees it’s not registering, so she writes the word on a sheet of paper; a series of symbols that resemble nothing close to the English language. She attempted to describe the function of each symbol, but out of fear for butchering the meaning completely, you’re better off using a translating app. 

“I’m interested in being challenged, intellectually,” she explained. “Creatively, I’m challenged enough with my program, but really needing to learn the breakdown of language and culture is something that really excites me.”

Why not something a little less complicated, like French?

“French is too easy,” she said, feeling no need to be modest. “I tried to learn French, and I just got bored, I’m not gonna lie.”