By April Sopkin
A few months before the pandemic, I wrote the following for a graduate workshop, prompted by Didion’s “Why I Write”:
I write to shape my world, and my thinking about the world, into a recognizable form. I write because I always have, yes, and because I can’t not, but it is only in the past few years that I realize my baseline motivation to write is about discovery. Discovery of the way narrative can reveal emotional significance. Discovery of the ecstatic or riotous in the everyday. Discovery of what I don’t understand about unseen or too easily accepted social assumptions. I write to further understand where I’ve been. I write to clear my mind—though, first, I clutter it, then I clear it. You know, drafting and revision.
I stumbled across these words again, a month after our lives became largely virtual and remote, and made this note at the top: Is there a way to frame this around the question of why/how I/others can/should keep writing at this moment?
I don’t write as a quest toward “saying something.” I write to answer the question: What if? What if, for example, a well-liked woman in a small town claimed alien abduction? Would her friends believe her? Is there something there about the way another person’s claim of the miraculous makes the rest of us feel less than? Why them and not you? Does your disbelief of her alien abduction preclude you from believing that her pain is real? Do you have to entirely believe or understand someone else’s trauma in order to feel moved enough to witness it?
I wrote that story, the one about a woman claiming alien abduction, barely three weeks after Trump’s inauguration. The story won a contest and was published and I felt buoyed by the acknowledgement. The magazine interviewed me as well, a first in my career, but I found that every question prompted within me a self-conscious incoherence, and so I bounded ahead with long, prattling, circuitous answers, so fearing that if I stopped talking my silence would thus imply that I didn’t fully understand my own work.
And, truthfully, I did and I didn’t. I understood part of something, but not enough yet.
Mid-March of this year, the same week our world started to shut down, I sat on the floor of my apartment, six short stories laid out before me: my graduate thesis. (Half of my thesis, actually, as the other half was a series of essays.) In considering how to organize the collection, I walked myself back through the beginnings and endings, the themes and conflicts. It was then I realized that I’d been writing the same story over and over. Each time the “what if” was its own thing, and I could see that each story was reaching for different depths, but the questions still circled around how we see each other, whether we believe each other, and the ways in which we impose our differing versions of a moral binary.
It’s said that we do this as writers. We return to the same stories. Until we’ve finally worked our way through the obsession, the need, until we’ve posed enough questions, enough times, in enough ways, to free us. To give us over to new questions. I wonder if that will really happen. Or if it ever does.
Recently, I finished a draft of a new story, after months of struggling to focus or sleep or take a walk. It is the weirdest story I’ve ever written, part-fantasy, set in an alternate medieval England, narrated in a stream-of-consciousness style by a teenage princess dealing with boredom and powerlessness. I write strange things but this story felt far outside the bounds of my norm. After reading it, a friend said, “I’ve thought this before regarding some of your other writing, but it seems like the 2016 election had a profound impact on you and the subjects you explore.” Again, I’d been chasing the same questions, and had not even realized.
Maybe we pursue the same questions for life.
Or, maybe, as writers, it’s not even in our control; rather, we follow the questions that are being presented to us by the condition of the world. We won’t always know what we’re doing in a conscious sense.
Right as the larger world shifted into our new normal, my personal life also underwent an overhaul. I was newly married, finally giving up my apartment in the city and moving to the suburbs, and now stepmother to four teenage boys. In addition, I was finishing my MFA program, the culmination of a seven-year stretch after entering undergrad as a twenty-nine-year-old freshman; before that, years of day jobs and trying to write on the side.
We’re told as writers to write for ourselves first. To write the thing we want to read.
Have I ever truly done this? I have written for workshop deadlines, for writing groups, for money and acknowledgement. Way back when I was a teenage columnist in my small Midwestern hometown, I wrote for the feeling of my own maturity, of having an audience, of seeing my words in print. And I thought, once I finished my MFA program, that I would be writing toward the presumed next stage—getting a draft together of something that looks like a book, getting that book into the right hands.
But we did not anticipate the void. The unmooring and open-ended void of a global pandemic, of our lives shrinking down, cloistered and edgy, while the rest of the world lives right next door, and so much psychic space is put into holding it at bay, into reminding ourselves to keep holding it at bay.
Is there a way to frame this around the question of why/how I/others can/should keep writing at this moment?
This summer, post-grad, I was out in the real world again—though not really, considering. I had a story collection that I was, theoretically, revising. The dailiness of my new life with four teenagers shuttling between two households was a hard shift; all of us together in our frustration, our aimlessness, around the fire pit roasting marshmallows and hot dogs, conversation alternately stilted or agitated, none of us capable of describing our days without some resentment toward the inquiry. My husband and I took longer and longer walks, until one day we hit five miles, then stopped altogether. I tried to get back to my early morning writing routine, but I couldn’t fall asleep. Insomnia gripped me until it dropped me, fatigue eventually stronger; this pattern would restart every couple of weeks. Sometimes I parked at the local Food Lion, in the back of the lot, and wrote longhand, setting a timer to keep me focused. Sometimes I parked at the fishing turn-off near my house, let the warm wind come off the reservoir and sweep through my open windows. I sat there, sweating, dull and lethargic, and wrote as much as I could, which was very little compared to what I wanted to be capable of, compared to what I used to be capable of.
There are things, every single day, more important than writing. This feels truer than ever right now.
Recently, I taught an online writing class and a student expressed frustration about her inability to finish stories. She got in her own head, she said, about what changes to make, whether she’d make the wrong ones and ruin the story. I could relate, since every time I lately approached story revisions it was with a falsely decisive manner, as if I could predetermine which draft would be the final one. I wanted to be done. Wanted to move forward in a larger, more definite way, as if I could free myself. As if freeing myself in this one area would make up for being unable to free myself from the close, unyielding reality of fear and doubt and rage, at our leaders, at my neighbors, at myself, at all of us, even the best of us, because, on my worst days, I have nothing left except the sour, boiled-down, cynical parts of me. It is hard to be our better selves, in all of this. It is hard to start again with the blank page.
Let each draft be its own experiment, I told my student, and myself, really. You won’t ruin it. Each attempt teaches you more about the story.
In an MFA program, so much emphasis is put on production. You don’t focus on process. There isn’t time for it. Now, though, it seems that everything is about time and our relation to its wide-openness and ongoing-ness—uncertain times, is what we’ve all been calling it. How long will our lives last like this? There is no presumed next phase. No foresight.
These days, I write to achieve a semblance of stability against the backdrop of our greater instability. And I write because I tell myself that there is no one waiting, not anymore, no workshop deadlines or built-in audience, and my whole life is different now, and even my ego is tired; that’s not enlightenment I’m describing, but surrender. There is only the interim, for as long as it lasts, and the work, for as long as it takes. And the questions. Closer than ever now, I listen to the questions within myself, and hope for the turn, into the new.
April Sopkin lives outside of Richmond, Virginia. Her work appears in Carve Magazine, Southern Indiana Review, The Southampton Review, failbetter, SAND Journal, and elsewhere. She currently teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University and the Visual Arts Center of Richmond. More info can be found at aprilsopkin.com.