Derek Chen (16) is currently a junior in high school. He spends his days eating, procrastinating, and sleeping.
My eyes open, and I’m aware that I’m awake again
My eyes open, and I’m aware that I’m awake again. The lights are still on from when I left them on an hour ago; I got used to leaving them on, and I’ve never stopped. I’m never asleep for long enough.
I can just barely see the hands of the clock, ticking dutifully along. It’s 3:06 AM. Four more hours until 7:30, when I will be going. Four more hours until I’m out of time.
I open my laptop. The bright screen hurts my eyes, but it’s a necessity. I’m vaguely aware of the essay I’ve been writing, broken by erratic naps and other distractions. Something about college, and preparing students for the future. The necessity of it. The alternatives.
Everything screams in stifled silence.
I need a doctor, I tell myself. But I don’t want one.
I look up, and it’s 3:47. There is time again, fractured but alive, suspended in all of its shattered glory. I feel myself wading through the endless sea of all of its half-truths, a sluggish mass reaching desperately for air.
I’m not sure when time broke, but it was sometime among these hours, these hours when the pop song about love became a yearning for home, when my words became thoughts in a distant fantasy and the artificial lighting mixed with dreamless sleep to become a united awareness of the world.
I’m cold. My fingers are cold. I curl them up in the sleeves of my sweater and curl the rest of my body around them. I lie down and close my eyes again. I set my alarm for 5:00; I’ll do whatever else I have left in whatever time I have left.
One of these days, I will open my eyes, and I will be out of time.
A Conversation between Derek Chen and Courtney Felle
1. Thanks for talking with us, Derek! Like your other pieces “Excerpts from Several Romanticized Tragedies” and “A Sense of Place,” this story has a simple, cyclical tone that draws the reader in. It ends with imagery similar to its beginning—eyes open, challenging time—but now the meaning has shifted for the reader, grown over the course of the story. How do you balance repetition and narrative arc?
Thank you for publishing my pieces!
I like the idea of cycles. In daily life, I often find myself relating current events (big or small) to previous events, repeating a lot of the same conflicts, but almost always with something new. I tried to balance the repetition and narrative arc similarly in this piece—the conflict at the end is the same, but repetition leads into what I imagine is another conflict—one in which there is no more time left. It repeats the same idea, but with a slight revision that makes it feel as if something has advanced, for better or for worse. The repetition introduces and advances the conflict; the narrative arc explains it and bridges the gap between them. Repeating this structure throughout (light, time, eyes, etc.) allows multiple paths to be built this way.
2. Maheen noted that this piece has a “dystopian level urgency and desperation,” a feeling of intense focus on both a college essay and the act of focusing on the essay itself. How do you draw from the more mundane, usual elements of the world and spin them into larger problems, creating a story like this?
I like to think in terms of bigger pictures; that is, I like to think of the world as a generalization of mundane elements. When I put my mind to something such as an essay, I often find myself wondering about how the subject and the occasion (my own current circumstances) fit and work into an overarching theme; I find that whatever I am doing makes more sense and becomes more alive, more like something that reaches beyond me rather than something that just doesn’t matter. Even something like eating a bag of chips can make me think about how grateful I am for how blessed my life is. When I write, I just aim to connect the mundane element with the bigger picture. This piece is one result of this.
3. You use highly specific time markers here: 3:06 and 3:47 especially caught my eye. These particular details allow us into the speaker’s story instead of simply any narrative of teenage insomnia, developing an atmosphere unique to this piece. How do you balance the general and the personal in your writing? How do you link them?
As I discussed previously, I like general ideas, so I usually start with the general idea and work inwards. My stories are inspired by personal events (hence the specific time markers), but they aren’t centered around them; most of the time, I start by thinking about the most general “case” of my experience. I find it hard to imagine my experiences as totally unique; I usually imagine them as subsets of general experiences, and then finish by layering my own experience (the time markers here) on top. I hope that this piece is very similar to many other people's experiences, and if so, then I think I’ve succeeded in grasping it.
4. When do you know a story has run its course?
This is difficult to answer because I always get the feeling that there’s more to tell even after I finish a piece. My pieces tend to run their course when I end up rambling and repeating myself too many times. More generally, I think that a piece has run its course when the piece begins to lose focus. I sometimes find myself adding too much detail, breaking the concision and grace of a piece; when this happens, I stop.