‘Any common object is a sidelong window into other issues’: An Interview with Sonya Huber

Neil Swanson

Sonya Huber’s most recent essay collection, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Other Essays from a Nervous System (2017), focuses on the subject of chronic pain. Some her most popular essays pertain to her career as an English professor at Fairfield University, such as “Shadow Syllabus” (2014) and “Non-Standardized Testing” (2015). Others focus on the craft of writing, particularly creative nonfiction, such as “The Three Words that Almost Ruined Me as a Writer: ‘Show, Don’t Tell’” (which went viral in 2019), and “Try-Hard in Clown Shoes” (2017). In this interview over email, we discussed teaching techniques, writing about disability, and the significance of flannel shirts.

How are you holding up during the coronavirus pandemic and this period of social distancing? I know it has brought large and abrupt changes to the lives of everyone.

I’m doing pretty well today. I got sick about 16 days ago with what I think was a mild case, so I’m still recovering. But I think writers are very lucky in that we have somewhere to put all this energy and anxiety: on the page. 

I’m so glad to hear that you’re feeling better and that you’re using writing as a way to get through this challenging time. In a piece you’ve posted on your website, “Non-Standardized Testing,” you provide a numbered list of ways in which educators can help students to be creative. Out of the list of 41 ideas you provided, which prompt or prompts have yielded the most creativity from your students?

Most of my class is built around the prompt “I once… , I now…” because that central question—what has changed in your life or inside you?—prompts an open-ended reflection that leads to more questions. What caused that change? Do people really change? How did our experiences and other people shape those changes? When we understand that we can take multiple perspectives within one life, that’s the beginning of the ability to reflect.

In “The Three Words That Almost Ruined Me As a Writer: ‘Show, Don’t Tell,’” you say that secrecy is very common among writers. What is the biggest piece of advice you can give to writers who may experience difficulties with sharing their true stories?

I think the best advice I have is to try, first, to write small pieces of an experience or a time period. You can write about your favorite coffee shop during a difficult time in your life, or the books that got you through a hard time, or your car. Any common object or everyday experience is a sidelong window into other issues. 

I think writers can use research and general statements to write around specific stories that feel too vulnerable to share with readers. Another common piece of advice is to write as freely as you can about difficult topics, telling yourself that the private pieces never have to be published, or that they may not be ready to share for years. That can give many writers the freedom to explore on the page as well as the room to reflect. 

My mom loves some of the bands you mentioned in “Flying the Flannel” such as The Cure and Pet Shop Boys, and she mentioned to me how many people at the time of their popularity followed their lead when it came to fashion. As you mentioned, this clothing looked a little different than a flannel shirt. To me, it seems that even though the popularity of flannel shirts might not always remain consistent, they never truly go out of style. Can you talk a little more about flannel and how it has impacted you?

Awww I love this question! For me, flannel is an example of something that’s everyday and taken-for-granted, or at least it was where I grew up before it briefly became a fashion statement. It’s comfortable and ubiquitous, extremely useful, and yet because it is cheap, it’s underappreciated. It’s influenced me as an essayist because it gives me a reminder to pay attention to and analyze the everyday things in my life, the objects I care about. 

And as far as flannel goes, specifically, it’s a kind of utility fabric that means comfort and warmth, so it reminds me of home, even when I now live in an area of Connecticut where people tend to be a lot more upscale in their clothing. 

You say in “Shadow Syllabus” that you “love teaching because it is hard.” Based on your experiences, what has been the hardest aspect of teaching? What advice do you have for those who are pursuing education as a career?

For me, the most challenging element of teaching is that it’s open-ended. You can have a goal, and an idea of what you think might work in terms of a good activity to teach a skill or explore a reading together, but often, what you think will work turns out to look very different in practice. So for me, it’s the balancing act between having a clear idea for a topic or activity, and then being open enough to completely change or adapt that on the fly based on feedback from students. It’s an interplay between structure and flexibility.

In your essay “On Being a Woman Who Hates to Cook” you write that “…I can’t quite shake the feeling that domestic-goddessery is expected of me, and I’m failing miserably.” Personally, I don’t mind cooking, but it’s not an activity I enjoy as much as other activities. What inspired you to write this piece and share your feelings about cooking?

The underlying prompt in my writing is always to explore the weird and uncomfortable feelings and challenges I’m having. So that essay came out of a lifelong uneasiness. It’s not as though cooking is the biggest challenge in my life, but because I’ve learned to pay attention to slight blips on my radar, I followed that, and this essay is what resulted.

I think, too, that the personal essay about a domestic topic remains an important way that women explore how sexism and gender roles shape our identities. So in paying attention to that small struggle, I know that I’m joining a larger conversation about what a woman is expected to do, act like, or look like. 

In your book titled Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Other Essays from a Nervous System, you included an essay titled “What Pain Wants.” In this essay, the word “pain” is used at the beginning of every sentence. Was it challenging for you to come up with the format of this essay? What encouraged you to utilize this format?

That essay is an odd one, because it feels more like a poem or a chant. I wrote it one day while I was loopy with pain, and I think the rhythm, kind of a fugue, was part of my mindset in that moment, so I used that feeling as I wrote. I think the list kind of added a surreal signal that this wasn’t a “normal” essay, which I hope helped to cue the reader that the content might be as unexpected as the format. 

On a page located on your website that focuses on writing about disability, you write that “Illness and disability are universal human experiences. But too often written works about these experiences can be narrowly categorized by reader expectations, and these constraints can shut down our creative work and our inquiry. And they leave too many stories untold.” One day, I hope to teach students with disabilities. As a future educator, what can I do to encourage my students to make sure they tell their stories if they feel called to do so?

I think this is a really complex topic for writers living in the United States, where we can still be discriminated against with regard to accessing healthcare or insurance because of our illnesses and disabilities. So I definitely understand if people don’t feel safe telling stories like these from their lives. But I think for that reason, there’s a lot of stigma associated with illness and disability, so it’s important to tell those stories from our lives. 

I think the most important thing that students can encounter is models, a diverse range of essays and other forms of writing from people with disabilities and chronic illnesses, so that they can see that they are not alone. I think it’s also really important to engage in a critical examination of how those stories are told and what they’re used for. Are they used to “inspire” in a simplistic way, or is something more complex happening? So giving students an opportunity to analyze the rhetoric of disability stories is also very important. 

I think using the title “Try-Hard in Clown Shoes” for one of your essays is a great attention-grabber. I sometimes have difficulty coming up with titles that represent my writing well. What are your strategies for coming up with titles?

I really struggle with titles too! I often resort to the old trick of finding a phrase within a piece I’m working on and lifting that as the title. I tend to get too abstract, so I often have to also go concrete and find an image or a distilled phrase to counteract that. I think “Try-Hard in Clown Shoes” is an example of that second strategy of looking for the most vivid phrases from the piece and then stringing them together. 

Liana Frauenberger is a Childhood and Special Education major with a concentration in English. Growing up, English was her favorite subject in school so, she’s happy that she has the opportunity to work on Pine Hills Review. She believes that this experience will provide her with a stronger English foundation, which will help her when she begins teaching students in the areas of writing and literacy. 

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