As our country moves clunkily, inequitably—how else?—toward an approximate end to this acute phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, our work will by all accounts just be getting started. While our whole society confronts the lasting physical and psychological effects of the illness and the ways we’ve responded to it, we’ll eventually begin to sort out if and how we want to write toward or away from “pandemic stuff.”
First, I think it’s important to pause briefly in awe of the fact that we saw a vaccine developed in under twelve months, shattering the long-standing record of four years; the fact that I even get to sit here thinking about in-person workshops and social gatherings owes to all that thankless work occurring around the world.
I guess this is all obvious enough—but I tried a few times to write a blog post that didn’t mention the pandemic and here we are.
In 1892, Anton Chekhov, the Russian writer and doctor (and now MFA darling), had very recently moved from Moscow to the country when a terrible cholera epidemic broke out. Appointed to care for “twenty-six villages, seven factories, and a monastery,” the 32-year-old Chekhov understandably mentionedthat he was exhausted. In one letter to his publisher, Chekhov put it bluntly: “I have no time to write.” The epidemic would claim an estimated 300,000 Russian lives, but according to Chekhov real medical advancements were made along the way. Only two weeks after lamenting his onerous schedule, he wrote: “It is a pity you are not a doctor and cannot share my delight—that is, fully feel and recognize and appreciate all that is being done.”
Although I’ve always liked Chekhov’s stories when I’ve come across them, I returned to him this winter specifically in search of anything that might look like a response to his epidemic experience. This wasn’t because I want to write The Great COVID-19 Novel or have had anywhere near as direct an experience with the coronavirus as Chekhov had with cholera, but because I’m curious where writers go next having visited that type of extreme. In a compelling course I’m taking on Moby-Dick along with so many other MFA students, part of what we’re seeing is Herman Melville’s response to an insanity he’d participated in—the American whaling trade (he did not respond with a short story). Already in workshop and in each rendition of the MFA Reading Series we’re beginning to see glimpses of our own movement toward or away from COVID-19 on topical, emotional, and symbolic levels. We all know people are going to be writing plenty about the pandemic, and in a way I’m preparing myself to take it all in.
Long story short, Chekhov never really wrote about it. His stories happen in villages, a few of them feature doctors. But the model he provides is one of even-tempered accumulation, over the course of more than five hundred published stories. Chekhov’s method was always to forbear, and this didn’t leave enough room for a whole epidemic. The pieces are all there, and if we really wanted we could draw his many characters together into a sweeping statement on the health of rural Russia. But the writer himself doesn’t seem to think it’s a great idea.
In, Chekhov gave his older brother some writing advice: “1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature; 2. Total objectivity; 3. Truthful descriptions of persons and objects; 4. Extreme brevity; 5. Audacity and originality: flee the stereotype; 6. Compassion.”
This might or might not seem like useful advice in a week, a month, or even a year. Besides time to write, one of the best things about these strange, surprisingly brief first two semesters in the MFA program has been the opportunity to spend time looking into opposite processes like Chekhov’s and Melville’s. Then the time comes to bring them along to workshop and figure out why they might not be exactly what we need any longer.
March 31, 2021
Patrick Carey is a first-year MFA candidate in fiction | firstname.lastname@example.org