A Conversation with Greg Sestero Author of THE DISASTER ARTIST: MY LIFE INSIDE THE ROOM, THE GREATEST BAD MOVIE EVER MADE
Simon & Schuster, 288 pages
Interview by Brian Burmeister
Perhaps no other film has so improbably risen from obscurity to cultural significance than 2003’s The Room. Grossing just $1800 in its original theatrical run, the film now famously dubbed “the Citizen Kane of bad movies” went on to connect with audiences through years of midnight screenings and an insightful, entertaining, and sometimes heartbreaking book about its making.
Greg Sestero, star of The Room, wrote this book in 2013, titling it The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made. The memoir was hailed by Patton Oswalt as “A surprising, hilarious, and compelling account of the making of the modern Plan 9 from Outer Space” and by Rob Lowe as “Hilarious, delusional, and weirdly inspirational.” In 2017, Sestero’s book was adapted into the critically acclaimed film The Disaster Artist, starring James Franco, Alison Brie, and Dave Franco (who portrayed Sestero).
Through his twenty-year career, Sestero has acted in a wide range of movies, including the cult horror films Retro Puppet Master and Dude Bro Party Massacre III. More recently, he wrote and starred in the Best F(r)iends films alongside The Room’s enigmatic Tommy Wiseau.
In this interview, Brian Burmeister asks Sestero about his experiences on set, his current projects, and advice he has for fellow writers and actors.
Greg Sestero: Nooo. I thought it was just a movie that was going to be made by Tommy—and it was sort of his accomplishment, and that was going to be it.
BB: There are a lot of inherent challenges for any writer working on an autobiography or memoir. In writing such a personal story, were there parts of your life and your experience that were hard for you to write about? Or concerned you because of what people might think—including those you wrote about?
GS: Yeah, I mean, I made sure to interview everybody from the story. And I thought it was very important to be as honest as possible and as respectful as possible because the story doesn’t work unless you share what you’re also not proud of. I think that’s what sets a lot of the events in motion. And I wanted to make sure to tell as much of the story as needed—and just be honest. I wrote it from the heart, and I think when you do that, you’re probably going to be okay.
BB: There were 15 years between when you worked with Tommy Wiseau on The Room [which he wrote, directed, produced, and starred in] and when you worked together on the Best F(r)iendsfilms. In your book, you obviously wrote a lot about your experiences working on The Room. With Best F(r)iends, you took on different roles—this time you wrote the script, and Tommy was no longer in the director’s chair. By contrast to The Room, what was the experience of working on the two volumes of Best F(r)iends like?
GS: I definitely had more experience. I’d grown up a lot. And I knew Tommy could be very captivating in an acting role if it was composed properly. The goal was for us to try to make something new and have him be able to focus as an actor—and not have to burden all the pressure of producing. I really enjoyed making Best F(r)iends. I tried to take everything I’d learned and pour it into it.
BB: Earlier this year, a hilarious, jaw-dropping trailer for Big Shark was released. Any updates on the film’s progress?
GS: I know it’s something Tommy is really passionate to make. He’s on that, and hopefully it’s something special.
BB: What’s next for you? Are you planning to write more films? Focus on acting?
GS: I’m working on a horror film that I’m writing and putting together. So hopefully next year we’ll bring some interesting entertainment.
BB: Is the horror genre where you see yourself focused moving forward long-term?
GS: Yeah, it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I think The Room is great and everything that’s come from it has been fascinating. But I hope to go in a kind of different direction and make some new things.
BB: On behalf of everyone who has seen it, thank you for not passing it up. As of right now, you’re on a mini-tour of the country with live readings of The Room’s script. Having just attended one of these readings myself, I can definitively say these events are pure fun and a great opportunity to pick your brain in the Q&A. Can fans expect more opportunities like these to see you in person?
GS: Yeah, I’ve done it a couple times. I think it’s something that’s very interactive and gives people a chance to be part of the film. So, we’ll see. I’ve got these other projects to make, but it’s always fun to get out there, meet fans, and interact.
BB: Final question. One of the major themes in The Disaster Artist is Tommy Wiseau’s one-in-a-million, limitless belief in his own dreams. That’s one of the many qualities that really separates him from most of us. If you were to offer one piece of advice to all the struggling writers and actors out there, what would it be?
GS: Follow the fun. If you’re not having fun, you need to figure out why that is. Creating should be fun. We sometimes put pressure on ourselves—which can be a good thing—but at the end of the day, as creators in that process, there needs to be some enjoyment. So try to drown out the negative voices. Just focus on your story or your music and follow the fun.
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The author wishes to thank Mr. Sestero for generously taking the time to sit down for this interview following his live reading of The Room in Des Moines on 10/25/19.
Brian Burmeister is an author, cat cuddler, and educator living in Iowa. He can be followed on Twitter: @bdburmeister.
A Conversation with Elizabeth Mosier
Author of EXCAVATING MEMORY: ARCHAEOLOGY AND HOME
from New Rivers Press, 96 Pages Interview by Nathaniel Popkin
Elizabeth Mosier logged one thousand volunteer hours processing colonial-era artifacts at Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park Archeology Laboratory to write EXCAVATING MEMORY: ARCHAEOLOGY AND HOME, which uses archaeology as a framework to explore personal material, including her mother’s memory loss, the layering of shared experience in creating family or community narratives, and the role that artifacts play in historical memory. The essay titled “Believers”, a 2015 Best American Essays Notable pick, first appeared in Cleaver.
Novelist and essayist Elizabeth Mosier has twice been named a discipline winner/fellowship finalist by the Pew Fellowships in the Arts, and has received fellowships from Yaddo, The Millay Colony for the Arts, Vermont Studio Center, and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Her nonfiction has been selected as notable in Best American Essays, and appears most recently in Cleaver, Creative Nonfiction, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. She writes the “Intersections” column on alumnae lives for the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin. More information at www.ElizabethMosier.com.
Nathaniel Popkin: You write, early in the collection, in regard to your work processing objects from an archeological dig near Independence Hall in Philadelphia, that “digging and processing of primary sources creates a record of life that is both detailed and fragmented, much like memory.” Excavating Memory is a stirring exploration of this idea. Would you say then the book is less a search for truth (about your life) and more a complication, perhaps of what you had perceived to be real?
Elizabeth Mosier: I’m fascinated by how artifacts that form the archaeological record constitute and, in some cases, correct the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and how we live. Like archaeologists, writers are always looking for artifacts that support or subvert what we think is true.
As a volunteer technician at the Independence National Historical Park Archeology Laboratory, I got to practice looking closely at small things, and looking beneath the surface of the city I knew mostly by its buildings, monuments, and celebrated citizens. Washing, labeling, mending, and cataloguing a colonial neighborhood’s glass fragments and ceramic sherds trained me to see broken, discarded things as material evidence—of social class, consumer patterns, cultural practices, politics, and relationships. I became more conscious of how we construct reality, create history, from pieces we’ve saved by choice or accident.
The most important thing I learned from the archaeologists is that the real treasure isn’t the artifact, but the information gleaned from it. And after 1,000 hours in the lab, I viewed my own material through this new lens. I realized that writing is like repairing a broken bottle from the base up, then taking it apart again to fashion a story from what you’ve found.
NP: This book ought to have an analog map or maps—you’re tracing paths as you go. These are maps that extend from Philadelphia to Phoenix to Indiana. And there are maps within maps and some that only exist in your head or others’ (I’m thinking of your mother’s floor plan map of her farmhouse growing up and E.B. White’s, too). Maps, whether in our heads or on paper or computer, are objects. “I don’t question objects,” your mother says in the essay “Once More to the Barn.” What do you think of this—is there a way in which all the maps are right, even when they obscure, or get details wrong, or leave key things out?
EM: Maps that obscure, obliterate, distort, or falsify details aren’t accurate but, in their inaccuracies, they can reveal what the cartographer values or wants to hide or doesn’t (want to) acknowledge. Despite my mother’s protest, which she made not from a lack of curiosity but from midwestern pragmatism, drawing a floorplan of her childhood home in “Once More to the Barn,” mentally walking through that physical space, prompted a traumatic memory. In “From Scratch,” my father’s hand-drawn map of Lynn, Indiana, circa 1950, accurately depicts the location of the railroad tracks that no longer run through his hometown. But I am able to find him in that landscape because he keyed the map with personal details like his mother’s flower garden and the “X” that marks the spot where he found and pocketed a bat on his way to school.
I agree with memoirist Patricia Hampl, who says we write not about what we know, but to find out what we know. Writing is a way of mapping reality. But if we want to write truthfully, we have to “question objects” and fact-check the maps we’ve plotted against other evidence.
NP: I once was enamored of the idea of the “poetry of history” and I wrote about it in Song of the City—“I walk the same streets as Franklin, Capone, Whitman, and Baldwin…” But reading your essays makes me think this is the opposite of what is really interesting about a street, or a corner, or a building, or a life. Those other people are ghosts, after all, and we are real. What seems to matter to you about a place is the personal, the material (like the bark of the Big Tree), the tracings of your own life. The rest is accidental. Why do these personal tracings matter to you?
EM: The “poetry of history” is what drew me to The President’s House dig, after I heard the head archaeologist, Jed Levin, speak about its stone foundation being “a tangible link to the people who lived in this house, and a link between the enslaved and the free.” I wanted to help memorialize the nine enslaved Africans: Oney Judge, Moll, Austin, Hercules, Richmond, Giles, Paris, Christopher Sheels, and Joe Richardson. But the dig became meaningful to me in other ways, too.
My time at the archaeology lab coincided with my mother’s mental decline, due to Alzheimer’s disease. Her memory loss haunted me, warning me to make something tangible to account for my life. And yet I was too distracted and distraught to write. This book began to take shape as I recorded details and observations about the lab in my journal and in short blog posts. Four years in, I put these brief pieces together in a narrative essay, “The Pit and the Page.”
But also, during that seven-year period, I had to empty four houses full of objects collected by my declining parents and deceased parents-in-law, and so I thought a lot about why we keep what we keep while we let other things go. This “grief cleaning,” as I call it, is an emotional process. For me, the decision is guided by a familiar visceral feeling that serves me in writing, too: this is something I can use.
NP: You began writing these essays about ten years ago, I think, and they piled onto each other like markings on the map. How different is this collection in its final form from what you might have intended? At what point did you realize you were searching for fragments of your own life—or rather trying to piece them together? Is the composition of the fragments—that is, both the essay collection and the memories redrawn on a map—a satisfying picture or are you still searching and tracing lines?
EM: I actually didn’t intend to write about my volunteer work at the lab, but I’m a curious person and a compulsive notetaker. My supervisor, Deborah Miller, generously shared her expertise, teaching me lab procedures and answering my many questions. And as I took notes, I began to find connections between the work archaeologists do and the work writers do: digging, processing, and repairing the artifacts of experience in order to find meaning. This insight suggested a methodology I could adopt, a lens I could apply to a collection of personal artifacts in order to process my personal loss.
As I went on, my literary interest in archaeology expanded to include contemporary objects and their owners, including the college diaries of classical archaeologist Dorothy Burr Thompson, to explore a larger question: What do salvaged or sacrificed objects reveal about how people form identity, or how a community creates its history? That’s a vein I’m still pursuing.
NP: The chapter “From Scratch,” with its repeated invocation, “let there be…” reads and feels different from the rest of the collection. It is prayerful rather than observational, a search for moral courage of some sort. How important was that invocation to you as you set out to excavate these personal, sometimes beautiful and sometimes painful memories? Did you have to say, please, “let there be words for all of this…”?
EM: Mourning, like writing, is labor—putting severed parts together, restoring order from chaos—but its process is internal and its product often invisible. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve coped with sadness by making things. And so I “processed” my grief over my father’s death by making his favorite rhubarb pie, using a recipe from my grandmother’s 1927 Farmer’s Guide Cook Book that I had already studied as an artifact. I was curious: how much of my ancestors’ knowledge had passed down to me? The pie-making was part ritual, part writing prompt.
I’d read all these scholarly articles by anthropologists on recipes as a form of rhetoric—social narratives that encourage and enact dialogue between the giver and the receiver. Intellectually, I was interested in the idea of a recipe as an “unauthorized” text—communal, reproduced, improvised, revised—that requires creative interpretation including modifications, deletions, substitutions, and experiments that enable the cook to reproduce the text in her own way and thereby claim her creative authority.
But really, I just wanted my father back. And so I ditched the narrative essay I’d drafted, and wrote this raw expression of scorched-earth despair. I wanted the invocation to echo its source in Genesis 1:3, and to sound like a daughter naming and grasping for concrete detail, imagining altered pasts and alternative futures to reorient herself as she writes her way out of the void.
In other words, I honored the emotional component in archaeology. This book of essays is an artifact, forming the record of my midlife reconstitution in the wake of loss.
Cleaver reviews editor Nathaniel Popkin is the author of five books, including the 2018 novel Everything is Borrowed, and co-editor (with Stephanie Feldman) of the anthology Who Will Speak for America? His essays and works of criticism have appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Kenyon Review, LitHub, Tablet Magazine, and Public Books. If you are an author or publicist seeking reviews or a writer hoping to write reviews for Cleaver, query Nathaniel.
A Conversation with Ayelet Waldman
author of A REALLY GOOD DAY Interview by Chaya Bhuvaneswar
Over the past five years, rigorously-designed clinical research trials of the drug psilocybin, published in top tier journals such as Neuropsychopharmacology and elsewhere, have steadily pointed the way to the therapeutic potential of hallucinogens in psychiatry—along with National Institute for Mental Health-funded ketamine trials leading to standard outpatient clinics now offering “ketamine infusion” for patients whose depression has not responded to multiple other drugs, and in many cases, not responded to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) or even deep brain stimulation (DBS) where electrodes are placed into brain regions in an awake subject resulting in relief from crippling, often suicidal depression.
What could compel someone to be desperate enough to try such treatments? The alternative: the urge to commit suicide. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention estimates that nearly 45,000 Americans die from suicide each year; suicide is ranked as the tenth most common cause of death in the U.S. Yet relatively few popular and critically acclaimed novelists have been generous and brave enough to write about their personal struggles with suicidal ideation and ongoing contemplation of the act. Ayelet Waldman, a prolific and visible author whose novel Love and Other Impossible Pursuits was made into a searing film directed by Don Roos and starring Natalie Portman, and whose memoir Bad Mother was a New York Times bestseller, is one of these few. Notably, more male novelists (e.g., William Styron, Augusten Burroughs) have ventured into the territory, though Alice Sebold’s stark narrative of her psychological symptoms following her rape also made a significant step forward for disclosure and destigmatization. The particular courage of Waldman’s admission of intense suicidality, however, reflects the profound stigma attached to women with children disclosing any form of mental health issues. In support of the courage of her disclosure, I interviewed her one evening in January over the phone, with follow-ups by email. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.—CB
Chaya Bhuvaneswar: In many essays, as well as the recent memoir, A Really Good Day, in which you describe the symptoms that led to your exploration of micro-doses of LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), you are so frank and raw in your discussion of your bipolar II diagnosis. I’m interested in the connection between bipolarity and confidence in one’s own judgment—can you speak about having that confidence, any processes involved in building it? What can you say to people with mental health diagnoses who are seeking to build that confidence in themselves that is durable through episodes of being told their “judgment is off,” that they shouldn’t trust themselves?
Ayelet Waldman: That’s really, really—this applies to so many things. If you suffer from a mental illness, there are times when your judgment can be wrong, times when you are acting from a place of emotion mind rather than a place of wise mind, and you’re so emotionally dysregulating, that you’re not making choices that even you yourself would make under different circumstances. But it’s also true that nobody knows the inside of your head as well as you do. So, there are other times you are the best judge of what works for you. It’s all of life being dialectic. Balancing back and forth on that’s bipolarity. Somewhere in the middle between trusting your own intuition and the feeling that you are acting in wise mind and balancing emotional truth vs. hyperrational truth.
If you suffer from a mental illness, there are times when your judgment can be wrong, times when you are acting from a place of emotion mind rather than a place of wise mind, and you’re so emotionally dysregulating, that you’re not making choices that even you yourself would make under different circumstances. But it’s also true that nobody knows the inside of your head as well as you do. So, there are other times you are the best judge of what works for you. It’s all of life being dialectic.
CB: What was it like incorporating a kind of ‘mood diary’ into the book, where you had to in large part be judging whether the micro-dosing was helping you stay stable or not?
AW: What every single patient does—you have to have self-respect— everybody’s medication changes all the time. So it’s good to have a tool that you could use to evaluate the utility of the medication beyond the kind of retrospective necessity that doesn’t take into account all the things you forgot over the course of the month, i.e. there was an earthquake and I woke up, and I had a really shitty night, and understand and evaluate your reactions in a way you can’t if you’re not tracking. One of the ways I assessed whether [the micro-dosing] was working was how many words did I write—how productive was I. How many words I wrote every day. And that was a really effective tool for me. My feeling of mastery of my work life, productivity, sense of usefulness in the word. Was it 96 or 96,000? Flow—if I hadn’t been paying attention to one of the tools I wouldn’t have appreciated that I was in a place of flow so often, astonishing and wonderful place in there. The place of flow is the positive part of bipolarity.
Flow—if I hadn’t been paying attention to one of the tools I wouldn’t have appreciated that I was in a place of flow so often, astonishing and wonderful place in there. The place of flow is the positive part of bipolarity.
CB: Can you also speak to how Love and Other Impossible Pursuits addressed the stigma of postpartum depression, like the character of Emilia, a character I really loved, was suffering from?
AW: I really wrote it to give myself a search for a kind of community. [It illustrated how writing can be put to work] to find your friend, confessor, therapist, to work through issues.
CB: I also thought the character of William, Emilia’s foster son, is an equally important, incredible character. William’s precociousness and vulnerability really come through. When you were writing the book, how did you feel about William? Can you talk about how the character evolved?
AW: I kind of—I saw the book as a love story. Always. Always seemed to me to be a love story. A love story about maternal love. Think Katherine Hepburn—Spencer Tracy. They hate each other and love each other in the end. And I really saw the book in that way. About these two people, stepmother, and stepson and ultimately made for each other, beshert. I always knew that was happening.
CB: You synthesize scientific information so beautifully. Had you read and done that for postpartum depression scientific literature before writing the book? Did you do research for Emilia’s character?
AW: I think it was mostly from just myself and in my dead baby group, a support group for people who had terminated a pregnancy for genetic reasons like I did. It was terrific.
CB: The character of Carolyn is a revelation.
AW: It’s always you and not you. She was way more than an imaginary me. That was how I would react if my husband left me, but then I’m not like a caricature. I based her on a real person. That scene in the classroom where she tore up the picture? That really happened to a friend of mine with the mother of her stepson. But that isn’t the complete story. She is ultimately is a human being. She is also a physician has skills and the sense of a vocation.
CB: Did you worry about Emilia being likable vs. unlikable?
AW: They always say that. People say that she’s an unlikeable character. There was a narrative that she was an unlikable character but that was sort of the point. But I was sort of disappointed by it, it wasn’t that I was surprised by that reaction to her. Women’s characters are expected to be likable.
CB: Can you speak more about the concept of “destined”—beshert as this certainty.
AW: The only thing that matters is the work you do. It’s nice to have a narrative of beshert. It’s useful to have as a model in a long marriage. That kind of can float you through difficult times. Times when you could give in. It is irrelevant to the strengths of your marriage. The only thing that matters is how much you’re willing to prioritize your partner. That is what marriage—all the wonderful ties. Even when you don’t feel like it. The only thing that matters is the work.
The only thing that matters is the work you do. It’s nice to have a narrative of beshert. It’s useful to have as a model in a long marriage. That kind of can float you through difficult times.
CB: What are you working on next??
AW: I have another novel that I’m struggling with. And other television and film projects that haven’t been announced yet.
Ayelet Waldman is the author of A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life, the novels Love and Treasure, Red Hook Road, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, and Daughter’s Keeper, as well as of the essay collection Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace and the Mommy-Track Mystery series. She is the editor of Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons and of the forthcoming Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation. She was a Federal public defender and an adjunct professor at the UC Berkeley law school where she developed and taught a course on the legal implications of the War on Drugs. She lives in Berkeley, California, with her husband, Michael Chabon, and their four children.
Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s work is forthcoming or has appeared in Narrative Magazine, The Awl, Narrative Northeast, aaduna, Michigan Quarterly Review, Notre Dame Review, Asian American Literary Review, Compose, Redux, The Write Launch, Del Sol Review, Bangalore Review, Blue Lake Review, Nimrod, jellyfish review, and Santa Fe Writers Project. Her fiction has been anthologized in Her Mother’s Ashes 2: Stories by South Asian Women in the US and Canada, and she is a blog contributor to aaduna, as well as Michigan Quarterly Review. Follow her on Twitter @chayab77.
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.