The Engines of Nonfiction: Kindling Surprise

This thing is a large plastic container I bought in the duty free section of a German airport on the way home from my aunt’s funeral a few years ago. My mom was with me, shaking her head and laughing at this most irrational purchase. It was FILLED with my most favorite candy, called in German a Kinder Überraschungs-Ei, or surprise egg.

A plastic container of a smiling red and white egg wearing tennis shoes and a baseball cap, with “Kinder surprise” on its belly and holding aloft a plastic banner that says, “Full of Surprises!”

You unwrap the chocolate egg and crack it open, and inside each egg is a toy that is usually a million times better than a Cracker-Jack surprise, though I think you technically can’t buy these in the US because they have tiny parts that someone might swallow (if they were to SOMEHOW UNHINGE THEIR JAWS and swallow something that is the size of a real egg. Anyway. I am still able to buy them in the US but I won’t reveal my source.)

I am bringing this to class today to talk about that piece of advice attributed to Robert Front that comes up often in writing classes: “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” We read to discover, and the creation of that feeling of discovery is kindled best when it happens first for the writer, when the writer puts something together on the page that they didn’t expect to encounter.

But, as I am a writing teacher, I need to say more than this. So how do we go about surprising ourselves?

Then… because I never studied geography, I feel free to use three layers of the earths crust as a metaphor.

  1. Juxtaposition: This is the “top layer” of surprise in an essay, the stuff we can see on the surface. Anytime we can put two seemingly unrelated things next to each other, that creates the energy and tension that can surprise the reader. I’m teaching Lidia Yuknavitch’s beautiful essay “Woven” today in class, and I think her movement back and forth between this vivid myth and her own life story provides the energy to move the piece forward and also to make the reader never really sure where the author will go next. And I’m betting that Yuknavitch felt the same way when she was writing it, full of surprise herself as the myth in all its details illuminated elements of her own experience.
  2. Association: But how do you find something to juxtapose with a story from your life or something that happened? This is where the poetry muscle of association comes in, going one level deeper in excavating how surprise works. Rather than using logical connections, you have to sometimes settle down and really watch your mind. What seemingly bizarre images or memories are triggered when you write about a certain topic? What do you feel in your body and mind when you are confronting a topic? Why, when I smell crayons, do I think of road trips, and what does that mean? Why does a print of a painting I have in my office remind me of my dad’s face? In each case, you take the leap into a feeling of not being exactly sure where you are going. Rather than controlling the narrative and making a logical case, you are leaping into the way your mind really works, and there are things to discover if you take that risk. If I then sit down to write about all the connections that might come up between crayons and the time in the car during my childhood, I am definitely going to surprise myself because I don’t know at all what those connections mean.
  3. Self-Interrogation: Ultimately, the deep layer of nonfiction that creates surprise every day in writing is to always have a voice in the background that asks, “But what does that mean? Why do you think that way? Is it really true all the time? Where does that belief come from? Why do you remember it like that? How would someone else feel in your shoes? Why do you like or dislike that? What does this connect to? What is invisible here?….” And on and on. And all those questions are bound to take us somewhere that was never apparent at the beginning of an essay.
Rings of Saturn with colors enhanced to show their differences; bands of blue, then red, then greenish, then tan. Thank you, NASA.

Your Trumplandia Horoscope

for the week of November 6


Aries: Ok, so you  may have burned through almost all of your Facebook friends with fits of blocking and unfriending. It’s been a rough few years: yes, this past one, but also the campaign. The thing is, some of those people you unfriended were bots, but others were misguided souls who might–who knows?–have come to their senses. Make this refriending week, or just visit their walls to see whether they’re still coated with hate memes. Continue speaking up in “mixed” audiences where political backgrounds are unclear: somebody’s got to speak the truth. Try a new flavor of Doritos, but don’t worry about that “Biscuits and Gravy” flavored potato chip; it’s trash.

Taurus: There is no tunnel in the bottom of Netflix that leads to a different presidency. You are going to have to open your mind’s eye for, like, one minute a day and really see and feel what is happening. Give $20 to an organization that can use it. That is a gift to yourself to help you get unstuck. Do something this week that involves getting your hands dirty, whether it’s repotting a plant, changing the litterbox, or … whatever.

Gemini: Are you convinced yet that you might actually have to vote next time? You have one year until midterms. Meditate on the potential in the universe by looking into your own eyes in a mirror and chanting, “It’s bigger than me, but I am a part of it.” Look at it this way: you don’t have to admit you’re wrong, but you can evolve. Wear more blue.

Cancer: You’re doing beautifully even though you berate yourself. Paint a picture or go for a walk. See the good you put into the world. Take a day to do nothing. During this day, burn something to symbolize letting go of that 45-supporter in your life; that person’s destiny is their own, and it undoubtedly involves a reckoning that you do not need to deliver. Free yourself. Create a secret ritual in your yard directed at your Trump-loving neighbor to draw a zone of safety, and then make cookies and deliver them. That will fuck with their minds so badly.

Leo: Welp, having a king really sucks, right? Consider this week what else you have wrongfully enthroned, which fake royalty you should depose, what old central ruling ideas need to go. You don’t need to rip them out of their gilded chairs yet, but begin plotting and finding like-minded friends to help you. Have you considered running for office? Of course you have. Well… why not? Consider letting your hair grow.

Virgo: I know. Sometimes you still wake up in a panic, and it feels as if you have been trying to think through Nate Silver’s numbers all night. We are all going to have permanent 2016 shakiness, but you need to find a new ground to stand on. Even when the ground appears to be shaking. What will be your new base? What can you believe in? Whatever it is–modeling clay, your local immigrant rights organization, nice pens–go all in. Love the things and the people who need your love.

Libra: In some cases there is no decision to be made. It feels the same as a decision now, this nagging uncertainty, and this has thrown you into decision-funk. But the glorious truth is that you’re free from deciding right now. Act in the ways that you always do, showing the self-care skills you have accumulated, and just follow. Follow the lead of those email blasts, write your representative without wondering whether it will do any good, and peel the backing off that bumper sticker. It’s the little things that make the big things. I applaud your resolve in not sleeping with gun nuts and people who “aren’t into politics.”

Sagittarius: I know, I know: it’s the shittiest time ever to have finally come into your own. But you are doing it. You are speaking your truth, slaying with memes on social media, finding new friends, and finally feeling what it means to connect the personal with the political. Your realizations might feel draining to you, but keep on doing it: you are a moral compass for others. Go ahead, eat more cheese. These are tough times.

Capricorn: Before you can rebuild, you have to admit that you’re at a kind of bottom. And this is where you are, exhausted with TWO YEARS SOLID of over-reading, over-researching. You were talking about Cambridge Analytica before the story broke, you saw it coming and your brother in law just laughed at you. It takes a toll to be a Cassandra. Stop talking to your brother-in-law and start a blog.

Aquarius: Stop hate-reading Fox News on your phone. Stop hate-reading ultra-left insider snark publications with hyperbolic language that call out everyone but themselves as sell outs and neo-liberals. Snark is going to extinguish your will to act. You know that’s not movement building, but you can’t change them. You have accumulated enough political experience to make anyone cynical, so just return to what you know: getting to know someone and suggesting they come with you to a meeting. Don’t worry about “The Left.” Get a subscription to In These Times or Labor Notes and try to understand your cat’s multi-layered personality.

Pisces: Every action desperately needs pinatas and puppets. Stop trashing on yourself for not being able to make a “real contribution.” Color and laughter are as essential as food and water. If the 1960s were the Age of Aquarius, this is your age. Even if your crafts and skills are old-school. Take a picture of that painting or drawing and post it on Instagram. Well, start an Instagram account first.

Scorpio: We are waiting. Get out your lasers of hate and revenge and coordinate; direct them toward our capitol city and GO. Use the power you have waited your entire lifetime to use. Also please consider leading classes at your local community center on such topics as “Ways to Sustain the Fire–and Stoke the Necessary Rage.” We need this. I never thought I’d say that, but we do.

*I have no astrological training, though I like horoscopes.





Trauma Anniversary, Nov. 8

Some anniversaries of loss come, for me, in a kind of anxious restlessness, where I’m churning far above my body, wondering why I feel so disconnected. Others come with the feeling of being pulled into a pit. In many cases, I’m not self-aware enough to really understand what motions my body and psyche are going through until I look at the calendar. The body remembers.

I’ve been feeling an uptick of anxiety lately, and the easiest reason is always to look at the headlines. We have nonsense for a leader. We have people valiantly struggling to maintain some semblance of safety or reliability, and another crew working hard to set on fire or neglect the very bottom of the barrel in terms of the social contract. And North Korea and the EPA and CHIP… you know. You probably know it all and can recite ten additional completely alarming developments in the last 24 hours.

But the body remembers, and it occurred to me recently that we are approaching what was, for many of us last year, a supremely anxious time. Then, on the evening of Nov. 8, anxiety and hope turned to a feeling of “I knew it” or maybe shock mixed with additional possible layers of complete fear. The bottom had dropped out. November sucked, and he wasn’t even president yet.

I did a lot of crying in those days, and a lot of waking up crying. Like, coming to consciousness and finding myself already crying. I’m doing that less these days, and that’s not because I’m used to this as the “New Normal.” It’s because one simply must function, as one does in times of war and protracted national emergency. I’m feeling tides move in and out, tides of despair and overwhelm and then the completely functional instinct to do the next right thing. We are doing this as best we can, and people are doing amazing activist work.

I’m very interested in memorialization, in remembering. In looking at hard things and marking them so that we can integrate them, as hard as they are. I offer this because it has helped. Once I said to myself, “Some bad shit exploded last year at this time,” then I was able to settle down, to see it and say, “Yep. That was some serious floor-falling-out bad shit.” It’s continued to be bad, but that was a rough transition in those weeks.

The body remembers. So here we are. One foot in front of the other.

How will you mark it? How will you see it for yourself, nod to it and say, “I see you. And yet here I am”?

Writing about Disability and Illness… in Pittsburgh and online!

On August 12, I will be leading a one-day workshop, with Creative Nonfiction on “Extraordinary Embodiment: writing disability and chronic illness” in Pittsburgh. Yay! If you (or yinz) are in the area, I hope you’ll consider joining me.

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.

In this day-long workshop, we will discuss the expected frameworks for “writing the body” and how we can write into and against those expectations. We’ll talk about what works of illness and disability we need to read and then write toward those needs. Attendees will have opportunities to respond to several writing prompts and share new work. We will also discuss the role of research and voice in writing these narratives. Participants will be provided with book lists of recommended creative nonfiction on writing disability and will have time to share their own recommendations.

Here’s the link to register, and the cost is $79 before July 24:

Teaching about writing chronic illness and disability isn’t an easy “how to” for me, nor do I think there’s one way to do it. Instead I am learning to watch and analyze my own writing to try to understand what I actually think about this topic. I think the ways of writing this broad human experience are completely open for discussion. What I’m interested in right now are the ways in which I initially focused on explaining my illness to non-afflicted people, and how in some ways that attempt to “bridge the gap” shut down my writing on the topic. Only when I freed myself from that “explaining” role did I feel free to describe the experience and write what I needed to read. I imagine that my own thinking on the topic will continue to evolve, but there’s some connection for me between writing the world as I experience it (not as a human interest piece) and the idea of dignity in illness and the “normal” of extraordinary embodiment.

Book cover of Thomson's book Extraordinary Bodies, with image of a Frida Kahlo painting in which Kahlo is in a wheelchair and wearing an artist's smock, holding a painting palette and painting a portrait. 

The phrase “extraordinary embodiment” was first brought to my attention by the writer Sarah Einstein, and the phrase grew from the concept of “extraordinary bodies,” as described in the title of Rosemary Garland Thomson’s 1996 book from Columbia University Press that launched the field of disability studies in literature, Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature.


And… if you can’t make it to Pittsburgh but are interested in the kinds of things I’ll be teaching, I have some resources for you!


Metaphoring Into Pain” is an hour-long video of a writing workshop with exercises on writing about chronic pain and other physical experiences, presented as part of the 2017 Survive and Thrive online summit on April 28, 2017 I read a short piece from Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and then participants have an opportunity to do writing exercises related to health and illness with a focus on finding metaphors for physical experience.

URL to watch recording:


Michael Noll put together a great exercise related to “Metaphoring” as an analysis of the essay “The Lava Lamp of Pain” (originally published on The Rumpus and now included in Pain Woman) on his blog Read to Write Stories.

He writes, “When people (and you still hear this sometimes) say that writing can’t be taught, what they really mean is that raw imaginative power can’t be taught. Either your mind can come up with something as great as “lava lamp of pain” or it can’t (or it will come up with something in between can’t and great). But what can be taught is the creative process that creates the opportunity for an imagination to be as great as it can be. This is what Huber does again and again in this essay.”

He analyzes the progression of metaphors in the essay and then gives neat writing prompts.



One of my son's plastic soccer trophies, a gold plastic cup with a soccer ball on a stone base.

Post-Publication Book Awards

After my first book, Opa Nobody, was published, I suddenly realized there was a thing called post-publication book awards. I was in the flurry of trying to promote the book and therefore getting used to this foreign book-promotion world. I was also working full time, and, to make things complicated, I the mom of a pre-schooler and was just about to get divorced. So I was overwhelmed and had no money. I found a few of these awards, and the fees shocked me–some run around $100 or more. I understand the reasons for those fees (sort of) but at the time, even though I was very concerned about my career, my attitude was: I’m overwhelmed, and anything that expensive has to be a scam. I also didn’t understand which awards were taken seriously and which weren’t. And what would it get you, anyway, to win those awards?

One of my son's plastic soccer trophies, a gold plastic cup with a soccer ball on a stone base.
One of my son’s plastic soccer trophies, a gold plastic cup with a soccer ball on a stone base.

It turns out that those awards–almost no matter what they are–stay in your bio and people love them. It’s a short-hand way to attest to your perceived “quality” as a writer. By the time I realized this, I had just started to research these awards, and at that point, most of the “year after” deadlines had past. My second book came out in 2010, during a grueling period of legal crap and other stuff, and I once again was treading water and did not have the cash to plunk down for all of these. So I entered two.

Do I wish I’d entered more? Yes. I thought those were pretty good books, though I wake up sometimes in the middle of the night realizing I am having a dream about editing them. (Let it go!) And I wish they had had a chance to get that little sticker and get considered among their peers.

Do they matter, and why? If you’re on the academic job market, hiring committees with people outside your genre use them as some rough handle on whether you’re a “good writer.” Reviews are sometimes hard to parse for people not immersed in the writing world. And those awards are good for your bios and make you sound impressive. Even if the award itself is something they’ve never heard of, being selected the winner is good. But I can also see why people don’t enter them, and this is something important to know about all these awards: they are chosen not among the broad field of books published for the year but among writers who were able to buy a ticket to enter. That invisible difference means a lot.

The sad thing is that I cannot go back from the present day and give the writer I was a few years ago some more cash to shift from the categories of “food” or “daycare” and toward “self-promotion.” And I can’t give myself the awareness of the calendar of these awards; some pass before you know it and others are kind of hard to find and don’t advertise much. Some are focused on the region you live, the region you grew up in, or other qualifications, so my list is skewed Midwestern.
One thing I can do is share my calendar of awards with their deadlines for your future reference, should you need them. And am I entering Pain Woman Takes Your Keys in everything I can, now that I have money? Yes. Finally. Eight years after publishing my first book. And to allay my guilt for the un-evenness and confusion of this mysterious opportunity, here’s my list. If you add other awards in the comments, I will add them to the blog entry.
  1. MIDWEST: Society of Midland Authors.  Deadline Jan 7 for previous year, $10
  2. Foreward Indies, Jan. 18 for books published in the previous year, $99
  3. CONNECTICUT (award newly revived): Connecticut Book Awards: January
  4. Independent Publisher Book Awards, Feb. 25 for previous year’s book, $95
  5. Devil’s Kitchen: February for previous year’s book, $20
  6. Women’s National Book Awards, deadline in March,
  7. Housatonic Book Awards:  March 15-Jun 15 for previous two years’ books, $25
  8. Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards for works that contribute to understanding of racism and appreciate for cultural diversity. Deadline Dec. 31 for the current year’s books. No fee and prize is $10,000!
  9. Lambda Literary Awards: For books with LGBTQ themes, Deadline Dec. 31 for current year’s books.
  10. MIDWEST: Friends of American Writers Chicago Literature Awards: August-December : award for prior year’s books, Deadline Dec. 10
  11. Readers’ Choice Awards, Dec. 10
  12. American Book Award by Dec. for the following year’s award, no fee
  13. Great Lakes Colleges Association: first books only, should be nominated by the publisher. July deadline for previous two years’ books.
  14. Nautilus Book Awards: Awards on social justice content, Feb. 10 for previous year’s books.
  15. PEN: There are a ton of awards that are very important with staggered deadlines. For most of these, the publisher has to nominate, so familiarize yourself with the page and mark down the deadlines, then ask your publisher. Most come with large cash awards.
  16. Pulitzer: Did you know you can nominate yourself? Who knew?
  17. Book awards you can’t enter: National Book Critic’s Circle Award, National Book Award
Other good lists of book awards include Wikipedia‘s page. Poets and Writers’ database is also good, but as far as I can see you can’t sort by post-publication book awards, so when I am not on top of reading these listings in the various magazines I miss stuff.
Rings of Saturn with colors enhanced to show their differences; bands of blue, then red, then greenish, then tan. Thank you, NASA.

Letter to Myself, as a Depressed Person in These Times

Dear Sonya,
I wanted to remind you that given the state of the nation and government, it’s totally normal to be super-depressed. The daily assaults on reason, fact, morality, and the future itself all seem to require a candle lit in the house of mourning. And you—while making your calls and going to rallies—have lit quite a few of those candles.
I mean, really, how could you not? You are technically a clinically depressed person—which always shocks those who see you as super-happy. They don’t see that happiness and joy-seeking can be athletically honed and deployed in a systematic way over years and decades until the act of enthusiasm itself—especially in public—is like an outer ear, stretched to collect and amplify joy.
So you have your public enthusiasm, which exists around you like the rings of Saturn, as much to keep people away and keep yourself hidden as anything else. You have your meds (glory be). And you’d upped them even before the election. You already know all the things: exercise, going to meetings and rallies and seeing people, taking breaks. I am not telling you anything you don’t already know. So ignore that.
Rings of Saturn with colors enhanced to show their differences; bands of blue, then red, then greenish, then tan. Thank you, NASA.
Rings of Saturn with colors enhanced to show their differences; bands of blue, then red, then greenish, then tan. Thank you, NASA.

What I want to say is that every few days, you dip into bleakness. And while the bleakness has taken various forms throughout your life, I want to applaud your ability to function. First, you have remained stunningly functional, still making lists and getting things done. We have to air out your vices in order to examine them, too. We need to be honest about your penchant, this time around, for stockpiling in small but noticeable amounts, items you think might be necessary after a societal collapse: canned goods (but not enough to actually keep a family alive for an extended period); the crank-operated radio and cell-phone charger (good, but you’re assuming there would still be a signal); cash (and as your husband wisely noted, $200 will not get you far). These are nods in the right direction and also candles of mourning.

You have noted that these actions, as ridiculous as they are, improve your mood and overall functioning, so you do them for that very reason if nothing else. And that itself is wise. Keep making gestures toward an apocalypse you would probably not be very comfortable in because the meds would also run out. And then.
Let’s draw back from the apocalypse, even though it’s there in your mind’s eye. The other object in your house of mourning is shame over the sadness itself and a sense that if you admit it—not your general depression but the monolithic orange obelisk of this specific mourning—you would be draining the movement of energy it needs to continue. You are putting yourself in a 1960s-era Maoist self-criticism circle of one, decrying your lack of revolutionary commitment because you sometimes get sad. And that, my dear, is the wrong view.
Occasionally like a bottle cap on the ground you run into your own sense, which glints in the light of the candles of mourning. Your sense says: you have to feel the feelings, and then behind the feeling is in the intelligence and the insight. You can’t go around them.
And if you go into the pockets of dread, you see how familiar they are. In fact you laugh because the furniture is all the same furniture you remember, and you remember hanging those curtains. What is scary about the dread is that it brings up the dread-eras of your life. Yes, this little pocket of dread still has your old mix-tapes in a shoe-box near the tape player. Yes, it has your journals in it, and it has wisps of your long hair the last time you grew it as a curtain to hide behind. The apartment of dread smells like cold, but it’s the cold you know, almost metallic, and you know where the thermostat is, and you are comforted by the baseboard heaters as they tick and work.
What you find in the apartment of dread with all of your old selves is that the decades you’ve been alive, with the ear of enthusiasm and the conscious construction of days, have build a sturdier sub-floor while you’ve been away. You don’t even feel like crying much in this apartment. You’re scared to be back here, but then is not now.
What’s more—and pay attention to this—is that you know very well how to operate in this apartment, from this home base. It’s nothing surprising. You can very quickly shove a few new books onto the shelves and set up a command center. You can send out an email—yes, email exists now, though the apartment of dread pre-dates it—that says, oops, I’ll be a few days late with this reply.
In fact, you can demand that everyone give everyone else a few days’ more leeway with things. Where was that report for work? I must have left it in my dread apartment. We must all be a little more forgiving now.
Your work—and it is good work indeed—is to know that you function well in this universe. And functioning well can sometimes look like crying, and it can sometimes look like needing a night to recover. And it can sometimes look like foggy-head-What?, but you know this place.
Being sad is not a mark of radical insufficiency.
Being sad won’t bring other people down.
Being sad is one rational response to our situation.
Being sad needs to take the space it needs or it will take all the space.
Being sad is the work we need to do to get to the other work.
Around the sad is only the cold dark of space. There, behind the sad, is the next good idea.
A collection of nine stickers of the cover of Pain Woman in three rows of three on a table. The cover itself is a series of colorful triangles reaching toward the center on a red background.

Reaching other Pain People

The happy thing for me this month is that I am celebrating the release of my essay collection, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. University of Nebraska Press continues to be a fantastic home for books, and I’m so glad to get to work with them. And I am glad to get these essays out into the world because they are so strange, and departing from a larger coherent narrative nonfiction structure is such a welcome respite–especially on the topic of pain.

A collection of nine stickers of the cover of Pain Woman in three rows of three on a table. The cover itself is a series of colorful triangles reaching toward the center on a red background.
A collection of nine stickers of the cover of Pain Woman in three rows of three on a table. The cover itself is a series of colorful triangles reaching toward the center on a red background.

I gave a talk last week at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference on the reasons why writing about pain made me run screaming from a linear narrative. I have told the story of my onset and symptoms of rheumatoid disease and other conditions to so many doctors, and it’s a mystery story that doesn’t have a convenient resolution. The narrative gives me no answers. It tells of my ability to adapt, to contain pain, but that is not what doctors want to hear. I once went into doctors’ offices furiously and desperately hoping for a cure, but I have slowly adapted to the idea that that is not in the cards for me. I have become a non-narrative, non-linear creature when it comes to pain. For that reason, I have let in all the weirdness, which was fantastic and fun.

Sonya smiling, wearing red glasses, next to Tayler Lord, awesome Nebraska Press publicist, with books in the booth and a banner visible in the background.
Sonya smiling, wearing red glasses, next to Tayler Lord, awesome Nebraska Press publicist, with books in the booth and a banner visible in the background.

Normally with a new book I would do a book tour, and I do have some dates scheduled over the next few months. However, with this topic–and with my body in general the way it is–I am thinking about how to reach people who don’t travel much or for whom getting out of the house in the evening and out to a bookstore is either an ordeal or impossible.

The question is: how can I do a reading for other people like me? Maybe I could do a reading in a mattress store where everyone could lie down. (That probably won’t happen but it sounds amazing). Or maybe–and this I’m considering more seriously–I could do a reading on YouTube live so people could tune in?

One cool thing I am participating in in April is an online workshop on Writing Chronic Pain through the “Survive and Thrive” conference on narrative medicine. I am excited to learn more about this as it seems like an awesome model for accessibility.

Let me know what you think–especially if you are a Pain Person. I am also open to Skype or FaceTime meetings with chronic pain support groups. I know there has to be a way to use technology to connect and do a form of reading that is accessible to people like me.