A Conversation with Sonya Huber
Author of PAIN WOMAN TAKES YOUR KEYS AND OTHER ESSAYS FROM A NERVOUS SYSTEM
by Lisa Romeo
I was first introduced to Sonya Huber’s writing through her prescient 2010 book, Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, about the elusive hunt for affordable care, which I was assigned to review. This writer stayed on my radar, and her newest nonfiction book is a satisfying reward. In Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System (University of Nebraska Press 2017), Huber takes her readers inside for a multifaceted view of her experiences with chronic pain, and how that changes a 30-something woman.
LR: I’ll ask the chicken-or-egg question first: what came first, writing and publishing several essays on the topic, then realizing it might make a collection? Or did you set out to produce an essay collection about pain?
SH: I started writing these essays as a kind of journaling, and for a long time I was not optimistic about even making one essay out of my phrases and sentences. The opportunity to publish one essay on the topic gradually emboldened me to try another, and then whenever I was in particularly bad pain, I would shift from my other writing project into writing pain. It was sort of like an escape hatch or relief, a way to use my bad present experience as research.
When I was starting to accumulate essays, I noticed that the finished essays were much easier to place than anything else I’d written. That was a singular experience, and then the comments from readers and editors was another clue that I needed to continue, and emboldened me to go further. Only then did I think about shaping a book. I saw what topics I had covered and asked myself, “What other hard things are missing?” and then gave myself assignments to start gradually shaping those missing essays. So this book feels very crowd-sourced and shaped with the help of a writing, reading, and disability/illness community.
LR: What about ordering the pieces? Writing bridge pieces? That whole process of turning individual essays into a book flummoxes many nonfiction writers.
SH: It is interesting that a few readers have commented that this reads like a memoir, because I didn’t arrange the essays that way on a conscious level. I can see how it would read that way, though. My most important concern in was variation in tone, style, and subject matter.
Since the topic is pain—often an entrapping and suffocating experience—I did not want to make readers experience that element of pain. Other writers have done that work very well, but I didn’t think I could do it. My priority was to allow for as many breaths and entry and exit points as possible. It’s an intense subject, so I wanted readers to feel they could pick it up and put it down, and some pieces are definitely meant as lighter “breathers.”
I chose an experimental piece for the beginning to let people know that some weird stuff would follow in the book, and that the rule for reading was that there would be few rules, and as a signal to be open-minded. Then came two “overview” pieces as a kind of introduction. Then I grouped the pieces by theme, another layer of internal organization.
After grouping by theme, I had the question of how to order these thematic chunks. There’s some warmer or easier stuff—about love and cooking and sex and relationships—and I decided that should go at the heart of the book, because that’s a reward, I think, to continue reading. (Also I would simply not get through this without my husband, my family, and friends.) Pain is a community problem that has social solutions. I wanted to push back against the stereotype of illness as being an isolated and self-centered subject, because I don’t think it ever is. Finally, because the ending pieces are a point of stress, a lens through which a reader looks back and sees the whole work, I wanted pieces in that spot that I saw as strong and complicated, with the final note as the possibility of seeing and understanding pain, as a kind of hope.
As far as advice, I think I would say that form follows function. I know there are many principles for putting together an essay collection, but I think your subject matter, voice, and tone have to inform the ordering. Ultimately the ordering is a kind of story itself.
LR: You write that you are “…not going to talk about the physical sensation” of pain. I thought, yes, because it’s too easy to go on about what it feels like. I also wondered if you were demanding of yourself—and readers—to think of what’s happening to our bodies as starting point rather than the end. Am I in the ballpark?
SH: Yes, you are so exactly in the ballpark! My own physical experiences meant things to me emotionally and intellectually and socially. I wanted to trace the nerves and implications outward. I think this insight comes partly from the pain community I am a part of; we feel pain on a collective level because some of the pain is influenced by weather. That led me to think of us as embedded in many systems and experiences and common challenges.
Like many people in the United States, I’ve been on a collective healthcare horror show for my entire adult life. Very few people (most of them in Congress) have found respite from the terrible anxiety of finding care; the rest of us have severe healthcare access anxiety. All of the social inequalities are also embedded in our bodies through uneven access to healthcare. African-Americans, for example, die much earlier as a group, and that’s due to individual health conditions but also due to the collective strain of poverty on bodies in all its detailed and sometimes invisible impacts. Healthcare and all its parts really are collective and social issues.
LR: In “The Alphabet of Pain” you write, “Pain has hardened me into a different version of myself—me as if I were a desert, as if I were a house built by Frank Lloyd Wright.” I love the visual and tactile images conjuring an uncompromising landscape and harsh taskmaster, and yet—both can be beautiful. What was it like to write about something that has so many variations, degrees, and can feel different at different times?
SH: I loved writing about pain! It was a huge release for me to see pain as not the enemy or real cause of my suffering. That might sound terrible or delusional, but the cause of my particular pain is a disease, the inner workings and causes of which are still unknown. Pain is the effect; it’s my response. In a weird way I wanted to honor and humanize myself and everyone else who has pain. We are not aberrations; pain is a universal for humankind. I let myself find any conceivable metaphor for pain, to explore it, to honor the pain experience as normal, as structured according to logical cause and effect, and as intimately human as a thumbprint.
There is massive and crushing stigma about chronic pain and chronic illness, and it is very easy with our judgmental Puritan backgrounds to see aberrant bodies as wrong, as evil. But we are as beautiful, intrinsic, and fantastic as any other manifestation of life in the world. I wanted to proliferate those images because pain experience is not simple. Pain is a mystery, multifaceted and holy as any other element of life; stressing the infinite and proliferating manifestations of it helped me underline the fact that it is complex and that people in pain are worth listening to. We assume we know pain, but I don’t think we do.
LR: I have (less severe) chronic pain problems too, and like you get sincere but ill-informed advice. In “The Cough Drop and the Puzzle of Modernity,” you consider how challenging it is to be “…someone who will not get well, an unsolvable puzzle,” and that “We must chart new understanding based upon the body’s lived experience, yet we still long for neat, easy solutions.” I admire how you made this essay not about misinformed advice-givers, but about a larger phenomenon—the goal of every essayist: begin with the personal, find the universal. Can you talk about the process of getting to that point, of considering a personal experience, and writing through to what makes it not-only-about-you?
SH: Getting beyond my own resentment was therapeutic for me. I needed to find larger meaning and research to understand my own experience. So I was driven by self-interest to find those universals. I’m pretty much a ranter inside my own head. Every single essay—or many of them—start in rant mode. That’s great for a paragraph, or for fuel to begin writing, but then I would come back to those paragraphs and see how dull they were to read.
On revision I knew I had to unfold those strong emotions to make them real for the reader. I have learned to do that mainly by reading essays by other writers; doing a lot of that gets the “essay mode” inside one’s head. Every time I’m at a dead end of frustration with a personal experience, the essayist voice—which is developed through that repetition and training—asks, “But what else might that mean?” and then takes the topic at hand from a 46 degree angle.
Lee Martin, who I was lucky to study with in graduate school at Ohio State, has a great blog post about the “Felt Sense” of revision, that gut feeling that something might be missing. As Lee advises, I read drafts and then check with my gut, asking whether there’s an emotional range in each piece. Often when I’ve gone on for too long in one vein, something else in me gets agitated and wants to explore the flipside. So it’s a lot of gut-checking and turning things around, and I think that naturally leads one outward.
LR: The essay, “From Inside the Egg” looks like poetry on the page, reads like a lyric essay, and morphs back to prose at the end in appearance and form. Can you take us through how you arrived at the final structure? What went on as this piece began and evolved?
SH: That was one of the last I wrote, and it came from a persistent dilemma. Many disability activists stress that they do not need to be fixed; they are perfectly whole and fine human beings who should be accepted as they are. We are all fighting against this strange idea of “normal,” which easily becomes an ideal, with outliers to be shunned or put to death or, in our present era, to be merely denied care so that they die quietly. Finding the disability activism community was central to my survival, my adaptation, and learning to not be at war with my life. I learn from the writing of disability activists every day.
At the same time, my chronic illness is progressive and not understood, and the talk within my treatment community is the dream of a cure. Other portions of the disability community have wrestled with this, such as the d/Deaf community and the supposed “cure” of deafness in the form of cochlear implants, which many saw as the potential destruction of Deaf culture. This raises the question of how rheumatoid disease is an illness and a disability; but many activists fight to have disabilities not be seen as illnesses in need of cures. It’s complicated.
Although I am getting comfortable with pain, I would also happily have it completely extracted from my life. The medications I take are an attempt to quiet down the disease process and the symptoms. So I was trying to explore these two frameworks—cure versus acceptance—and to make them both true. I can’t pick one framework. Trying to express the two opposing goals was challenging for me, so I reverted to typography and layout to express how disjointed these two frameworks are for me.
LR: Some of your essays are styled after existing forms. I loved the the list essay “Vital Sign 5” where you cite empirical statistics about pain and pain treatments, comingled with your personal pain stats. What do you like about these borrowed (or so-called “hermit crab”) forms?
SH: I loved using these forms as essay containers because each form asks a different kind of question and allowed me to interrogate pain in a different way. “Vital Sign 5” allowed me to wedge in some research that wasn’t fitting in elsewhere but that I felt was important to have as part of the book. Also, numbers are the realm of science and empiricism, and it was satisfying to write a form that looked like a lab test. (Ahhhh, a lab test! I should have done one of those as an essay!! Pain Woman returns for more). Also, I think each form has a different voice, and seeing an issue through a new voice and question always unlocks something hidden for me.
LR: What are you working on now?
SH: I have a memoir finished and am in the early stages of shopping around; that was the book I was writing when the pain essays came together. I would take “recess” when I was stuck on that book and write pain essays. I’m also in the middle of a book about socioeconomic inequality in Fairfield County, Connecticut, where I live, and that feels like it’s going to take a decade.
LR: Might sound like a dumb question given the topic, but: did you enjoy/ have fun writing these essays, assembling them into the book? Was it satisfying in ways beyond creative impulses?
SH: Oh gosh, yes! As I mentioned, writing this book felt like play. It was a joy to bust out of one narrative voice and try on several different voices like a costume party—and to know there were more and more voices that would help explore a hard topic. I think it will take me a while to understand all the reasons why this book was so fun. I have spent a good part of my life treating myself as a mind that produces things, so it was fun to come back to my own body and ask it questions. And the book comes out of love for the pain and disability communities, which have provided so much support.
Also—this is a tangent but connects: this was my most fun book because a lot changed in my life and I could relax. My material life conditions changed, and even though it’s about pain, the book clearly comes from a position of privilege, as pain can destroy one’s ability to work or function to varying degrees, and I am not in that place now. I have health insurance. I got out of a stressful situation and re-married. I got tenure at the institution where I teach, after a long period of precarious finances, which meant I no longer felt like I had to prove my intelligence or my seriousness. Tenure and other forms of economic security make a huge difference for writers and artists and everyone, and we need to expand those protections and other safety nets. People make amazing things without that security, but I can see the difference in my own work when things got easier for me personally. I guess I have always been wound really tight. The rule I set for myself with this book was to be as weird as possible, and a little bit of life security allowed me to loosen up.
Sonya Huber is an associate professor at Fairfield University, teaching in the English department and in the Fairfield Low-Residency MFA Program. She’s the author of five nonfiction books, and many essays and articles that have appeared in The New York Times, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Fourth Genre, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Washington Post Magazine, and other places. Her work has been listed under Notables in Best American Essays 2014 and 2015. Connect at her blog, or on Twitter. You can order Pain Woman Takes Your Keys on Indiebound.
Lisa Romeo is on the faculty of the Bay Path University MFA Program, and works as an independent editor. Her work has been published in the New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine, Brevity, Hippocampus, Under the Sun, and is listed in Notables in Best American Essays 2016. Her memoir, about reconnecting with her deceased father during the grief journey, is due out in 2018 from University of Nevada Press. Connect via her blog and on Twitter.