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Interview with Sophia Joan: Q3 2021 CNF Essay Contest Third Place Winner


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Sophia’s Bio:
Soph lives and works as a teacher in the mountains, where she writes at dawn and dusk. She gravitates towards nonlinear and genre-bending writing styles to help make sense of the messy, grey world around her. When she is not writing or teaching, she can be found reading too many books at once and making mint tea. Her favorite life lessons often come from queer cartoons. Her recent work can be found in Anti-Heroin Chic, Entropy Magazine, and Phoebe Journal. To follow more of her writing journey, check out her brand new twitter account @sophiajoan2

If you haven't done so already, check out Sophia's award-winning story "(Some of) what he gave you:" and then return here for a chat with the author. 

WOW: Congratulations on placing third in the Q3 2021 Creative Nonfiction Contest! How did you begin writing your essay and how did it and your writing processes evolve as you wrote? 

Sophia: I started writing my essay during my junior year of college in 2016 as a way to process an emotionally abusive relationship I had just left. The beginning drafts were really messy because my emotional state was pretty messy. At first, I only had six things listed. Then I ended up with over 50. Most of the writing process included dumping every thought, emotion, and memory that came to me about the relationship, categorizing the items into different sections, and then editing out the items I didn’t care about as much. After my junior year of college, I walked away from the essay for a few years. I wanted to give it some distance because I couldn’t stop obsessing over each individual line. The essay was a lifeline of healing for me, and I needed the space for it to become just a piece of writing instead. In that place, I could edit it for style and cadence and rhythm only, and that is when I saw it elevate to where it is now. 

WOW: Thank you for sharing this. It sounds like it was quite an experiential learning process. What else did you learn about yourself or your writing by creating this essay? 

Sophia: As I mentioned, the essay became a way to make sense of this really toxic relationship I had lost myself in right at the start of college. I had all these physical items I wasn’t ready to get rid of, but I didn’t want to look at every day. The memories that played on a loop in my head were a mix of the best moments, the ones where I knew I was in love and felt it to my core, and then the others that left me sobbing, the manipulation and abusive language. I didn’t know how to make sense of all the different emotions and how some of the memories and physical items were at odds with each other. It was like I was learning how to detangle myself from this person I had spent at that point, my entire adult life wrapped up in. The writing of my essay was a huge part of that detangling. It helped me make sense of all the different ghosts I was left with at the end. It helped me come to terms with the messy grey aspect of the ending because I wasn’t just left with these negative things and all this anger; I also had real love and positive moments I had to come to terms with. I couldn’t understand at the time how someone so awful could give me a mix of good and bad. The writing helped me make sense of that. 

I also learned a lot about my editing process. When I started, I was obsessed with the essay. I spent day after day hyper-focused on the same lines and sections. I didn’t give myself any space from it. I thought when I finished the essay, I would be healed from all the toxicity. A professor at the time told me, three drafts in, that I needed to walk away from it, so the essay had the chance to become just a piece of writing instead of my form of therapy. She kept telling me, “This essay is only your beginning and you will go further than it once you let it go.” Of course, I didn’t listen right away because I didn’t believe her. But after about a year of obsessing over it, I did walk away. I kept it in my writing folder and moved onto new essays. By the time I returned to it two years later, that relationship didn’t mean much to me anymore. I could analyze the work for the words and how they sounded together, rather than just how each section felt like a piece of my pain. Those final edits brought the essay to where it is now, and I learned how important it is to give a piece of writing, especially one attached to so much emotion, the space and time to become just a piece of writing. 

WOW: What a wonderful, useful lesson to learn, both in writing and in life. I love the fragmented style of your essay. How did you become interested in nonlinear and genre-bending writing styles? 

Sophia: My love of nonlinear writing definitely emerged during college. It started kind of by accident. I felt like I had all these grey moments in life I couldn’t process in a linear way. So, when I wrote about them, they weren’t coming out in a linear way. Professors and other writing students started suggesting nonlinear essays and books, and I was hooked. Life doesn’t always happen in a linear fashion and genre-bending writing helps me make sense of and process the messy, grey areas of life. 

WOW: Which creative nonfiction essays or writers have inspired you most, and in what ways did they inspire you? 

Sophia: Maggie Nelson inspired me the most. My ex who I was trying to move past was obsessed with the color blue, and it became a bonding point for the two of us. We would argue about what the color blue represented and who embodied the color the most. It was silly, but we were also 18 at the time. I remember presenting the first draft of this essay to a writing workshop and someone I barely knew approached me afterwards and told me I had to read Bluets by Maggie Nelson. 

When I bought my copy, I ended up spending all weekend reading and rereading it. My original copy still is full of all my sticky notes and annotations from that weekend. I love the rest of her work as well, but there was something about Bluets that I just needed at that time, particularly because of how the color blue had played a role in my past relationship. I loved how she weaved three different narratives together in such a seamless way. She wrote the list exactly how I was trying to write mine. Reading her book made my essay stronger. 

Jo Ann Beard’s essay “Fourth State of Matter” also revolutionized my understanding of essay writing. I still remember how it felt to read it for the first time, and the way the ending rocked me. Her essay is such a great example of the power behind writing. I thought I was reading one story and when she made the shift into what the essay was really about, I was blown away. I don’t want to give too many details because it is a reading journey everyone should experience for themselves. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. 

WOW: Great! Thanks for the recommendation of Jo Ann Beard’s essay. I’m a big fan of Maggie Nelson’s writing, too, because it makes me think differently about style and genre. If you could tell your younger self anything about writing, what would it be? 

Sophia: Just keep writing and putting yourself out there. I think I put a lot of pressure on myself to make everything I wrote perfect. Because of that, I felt too afraid to submit to publications. I didn’t want something “imperfect” out in the world with my name on it. Now, I understand that each piece of writing is just a step on my journey. They each represent where I was at that time in my life. I am producing a lot of writing now because I took the pressure of perfectionism off my shoulders, and it has been very freeing. 

WOW: Wonderful advice! I love to hear about the writing process as a journey, and so glad to hear your writing is productive right now. Anything else you’d like to add? 

Sophia: I am just grateful WOW exists and presents a space for female writers to come together and celebrate our work. Thank you so much for welcoming me into the WOW publication!! 

WOW: You are very welcome! Thank you for your thoughtful responses. Happy writing! 

Interviewed by Anne Greenawalt, who keeps a blog of journal entries, memoir snippets, interviews, training logs, book reviews, and profiles of writers and competitive sportswomen. Tweets @dr_greenawalt.

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