This month’s guest is Sonya Huber.
When I asked Sonya to submit a blog entry, she sent me “ My Other Voice.” In my note back to her, I said something to the effect of
“What a magnificent personal essay. So, so, human. It’s transparent, reflective, interrogative, analytical, lyrical, speculative--everything that a good personal essay embodies. I could go on.”
In her piece Sonya allows us access to her thoughts (and feelings) on how and why writing helps her to cope, sometimes even to transcend, chronic pain. My guess is that the majority of people who’ll read “My Other Voice,” won’t be facing exactly the same obstacles (chronic pain) as the writer does. And yet, I think most of us will be able to identify with Sonya’s inner struggles, certainly as they relate to our own writing, but even more so as they bear on larger human problems, the kinds of which we all face. And when it comes to the personal essay, isn’t this what we’re all trying to teach to ourselves and to our students?
* PS: in her essay, Sonja’s mentions "Shadow Syllabus," a piece she posted on her own blog; a piece, by the way, that went “viral.” If you're a writing teacher, or, if you've ever taken a writing class, you'll see why.
I’ve included “Shadow Syllabus” below--at the end of “My Other Voice.”
# 43 My Other Voice By Sonya Huber
One of the things I have always loved about writing is the sheer absorption and physical confrontation with myself. I step into the cockpit, fueled by a beautiful morning bubble of caffeine. The glowing screen dares me and taunts me: Make something out of nothing. Make a sentence that sucks slightly less than what you see in front of you. Make it true, whatever true might me.
Writing has been a solace for most pain in my life, partly because of the focus it requires. The focus of writing leads me to a kind of trance, with the happy side effect of an almost-complete separation from this mortal coil. I forget my body and my surroundings. As I’ve lately confronted more physical chronic pain, the focus of writing often delivers an hour of two in which the aches in my bones are erased.
I’ve enjoyed this physical numbness, and there have been days when writing has been my only relief.
Then there are other days where I am simply not myself. Past that point I inhabit a strange altered consciousness brought on by the pain. Over the past few years I began to worry that the fogginess and ache of autoimmune disease would destroy my writing. This would be a triple loss: shutting out something I do for my job, something I do for joy, and something I do for escape.
As I have done for years, I sit down every weekday morning and aim for my hour-plus at the computer screen. Some days there’s nothing there, but I go to the page even when nothing feels promising, just for the relief of playing with words.
Some days in the last year, all I could make was a blog post. My writing voice on those days felt like it had far less energy, less scope. It seemed obvious: I was not a writer but a woman who in fact could barely string sentences together. Writing with the submerged pain-voice feels like using a pin-hole camera instead of a wide-angle lens.
Last year in such an altered pain state, I gave up on serious writing and wrote a blog post called the *Shadow Syllabus,” kind of a fugue-state reflection on what I think about as an essayist and human while I write syllabi for my classes. I put the piece up on my blog and walked away from the computer, feeling defeated. This was all I could muster for the day, but I was practicing being kind to myself by doing a little and then stopping.
To my shock, the post went viral, linked and shared by various educators around the world, cited and reblogged and so on. Then the next year when syllabi time rolled around again, it started up again.
This has been wonderful but strange, because the Pain Woman who wrote that post doesn’t feel like the woman I know who has been writing with my hands for twenty years, the woman who tries so hard to build essays with complex and multi-layered sentences. Pain Woman has a different voice. She has a kind of messianic confidence that I do not have in my normal writing or even in my normal living, and this is the most shocking thing. The “me” I know or have inhabited most of my life is so ready to apologize for my point of view. I come at my writing sidelong, Midwestern, nerd-female, post-bullying, still gun-shy of ever saying something directly.
Pain Woman gives no shits. Pain Woman has stuff to tell you and she has one minute to do so before she’s too tired. Pain Woman knows things.
My non-pain voice searches for metaphors to entertain you. She aims to fascinate with far-reaching pretty solar-system lava curlicues, hiding behind constructions that might allow you to forget for a second that you are even looking at a woman at all.
Pain Woman takes your car keys and drives away.
This emergence of a distinct second voice brought on my physical disability and medical issues raises several strange issues about writing. First, it confirms my long-held suspicion that the phrase “find your voice” is inaccurate and probably unhelpful. It implies that voice is a needle in a haystack—an elusive entity we have to catch and then put on. Actually we’re swimming in our multiple voices, and all we have to do is listen to ourselves. This is tougher than a game of capture the flag, hard and painful because to hear our voices, we have to grapple with what we hear, which might be different than our idealized or hyper-critical versions of ourselves. We all have multiple voices, I believe. What’s strange is that, at least in my case, some of the voices remain completely submerged until other voices are sloughed away.
I’m mystified by the pain voice for reasons having to do with craft. If her writing is sometimes very powerful, as judged by reader responses to my blog posts, I wonder if I have been trying too hard—or using the wrong muscles--with what I have known of my writing voice.
(And of that “voice,” as an aside: I know that collection of voices includes Academia Woman, the Editorial/Demonstration Pissed-Off Woman, Dreamy Essayist Fragment Girl, and Hayseed/Punk Rock Girl.)
Have I been trying too hard with all of them? Or have I not yet found the way to be direct, and only pain can strip away the artifice that is hiding me from myself on the page?
Or maybe I have had to learn writing first in order to unlearn it and strip it down to Pain Woman when she is required. Maybe I built skills with my sentence weight-lifting these past years so that I could thread this needle of pain with a different voice when I needed it.
Another lesson from this for me is the nagging idea that when I believe I am at my best as a writer, I may not actually be at my best in terms of meeting reader needs. Sometimes when I think I’m humming along making beautiful sentences, I might just be doing a schtick I have honed over time—using one old routine when I could try others. Pain Woman’s emergence and her strange rhythm, her simple plodding confidence, makes me wonder how each writer’s voices develop and morph and ferment and merge over time.
Many spiritual paths include texts that deal with the ever-present concern of physical and mental irritation in life. So much of spiritual practice addresses ways to cope with pain, and some teachers exalt pain as the path itself, a scourge that somehow purifies the soul.
I don’t think my pain is making me a better person in any way, but I think it is constantly destroying my concentration. And that, for a writer, is interesting. Ultimately, I think that the most interesting sentences come not where I think they will emerge. I find that revision is mostly about questioning my assumptions of whether something is working, or whether I’m “on a roll.”
So maybe the way Pain Woman works is that she is unable to access the routines and habits I’ve picked up, the automatic scripts, of what I see as my style. She can find the shadows and scraps of them, but she has to use them to make something else.
I don’t know what I would have to say about any of this, but Pain Woman would say: Take your own voice and destroy it. Shatter it and look at yourself in each of the glinting pieces. You have more options than the writerly self you think you should be writing through.
* Shadow Syllabus -by Sonya Huber
2. I’ll tell you exactly how to get an A, but you’ll have a hard time hearing me.
3. I could hardly hear my own professors when I was in college over the din and roar of my own fear.
4. Those who aim for A’s don’t get as many A’s as those who abandon the quest for A’s and seek knowledge or at least curiosity.
5. I had bookmarked a citation for that fact, and now I can’t find it anywhere.
6. The only way to seek knowledge is to open your hands and let your opinions drop, but that requires even more fear.
7. The goals and outcomes I am required to put on my syllabus make me depressed; they are the illusion of controlling what cannot be controlled.
8. I end up changing everything halfway through the semester anyway because the plan on paper is never what the living class ends up being about.
9. I desperately needed A’s when I was in college because I didn’t know what else I was besides an A.
10. Our flaws make us human; steer toward yours. I steer toward mine. That won’t always be rewarded in “the real world.”
11. “The real world” isn’t the real world.
12. I realize that I, as the authority figure in this room, might trigger all kinds of authority issues you have. Welcome to work and the rest of your life.
13. I have a problem with authority figures myself, but I’ve learned how to work with it. Watch my cues.
14. I think I have more to teach you about navigation than about commas, although I’m good at commas.
15. This is about commas, but it is also about pauses and breaths and ways to find moments of rest in the blur of life’s machinery.
16. I hope we can make eye contact.
17. One of you who is filled with hate for this class right now will end up loving it by the end.
18. One of you who I believe to be unteachable and filled with hate for me will end up being my favorite.
19. One of you will drive me to distraction and there’s nothing I can do about it.
20. Later I will examine the reason you drive me to distraction and be ashamed and then try to figure out my own limitations.
21. There will always be limitations, and without my students I wouldn’t see them as easily.
22. Sometimes I will be annoyed, sarcastic, rushed, or sad; often this is because you are not doing the readings or trying to bullshit me.
23. Students are surprised by this fact: I really really really want you to learn. Like, that’s my THING. Really really a lot.
24. I love teaching because it is hard.
25. Someone in this classroom will be responsible for annoying the hell out of you this semester, and it won’t be me.
26. Maybe it will be me. Sometimes it is, but often it is not.
27. I won’t hold it against you unless you treat me with disrespect.
28. You should rethink how you treat the people who bring you food at McDonald’s, if you are this person, as well as how you treat your teachers.
29. I hope you are able to drop the pose of being a professional person and just settle for being a person.
30. Everyone sees you texting. It’s awkward, every time, for everyone in the room.
31. Secret: I’ve texted in meetings when I shouldn’t have and I regret it.
32. Secret: I get nervous before each class because I want to do well.
33. Secret: when I over-plan my lessons, less learning happens.
34. Secret: I have to plan first and THEN abandon the plan while still remembering its outline.
35. Secret: It’s hard to figure out whether to be a cop or a third-grade teacher. I have to be both. I want to be Willie Wonka. That’s the ticket. Unpredictable, not always nice, high standards, and sometimes candy.
36. What looks like candy can be dangerous.
37. Secret: Every single one of your professors and teachers has been at a point of crisis in their lives where they had no idea what the fuck to do.
38. Come talk to me in my office hours, but not to spin some thin line of bullshit, because believe it or not, I can see through it like a windowpane.
39. Some of you will lose this piece of paper because you’ve had other people to smooth out your papers and empty your backpack for as long as you can remember, but that all ends here. There’s no one to empty your backpack. That’s why college is great and scary.
40. Maybe there’s never been anyone to empty your backpack. If there hasn’t been, you will have a harder time feeling entitled to come talk to me or ask for help.
41. I want you, especially, to come talk to me.
42. You can swear in my classroom.
43. Welcome. Welcome to this strange box with chairs in it. I hope you laugh and surprise yourself.
Sonya Huber is the author of Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir and Opa Nobody, both from University of Nebraska Press. She teaches at Fairfield University and directs the The Fairfield Low Residency MFA Program.
Shadow Syllabus is on her blog if you'd like to take a look, along with links to other essays and random other stuff.
Sonya Huber's website: Sonyahuber
Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction
This month’s guest is Sonya Huber.