Pain Woman Takes Your Keys

Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System

American Lives Series, University of Nebraska Press, March 1,2017
Paperback, 204 p., ISBN: 0803299915
Available from University of Nebraska Press
and other outlets including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Target; Buy at IndieBound


  • Firecracker Award Finalist 2018, Council of Literary Magazines and Publishers
  • Foreword Review Award Indie Next Finalist in “Health” and “Essay” Categories
  • Connecticut Federation of Press Women Award
  • Amazon #1 New Release in “Chronic Pain,” March 2017
  • Bitch Media “Spring Reads,” March 2017
  • The Book We Are All Buying Now, Books are Not a Luxury, April 2017
  • Summer Reading List, Kenyon Review, June 2017
  • Best Books of 2017 from The Coil

Shelf Talker for booksellers created by Books Are Not a Luxury

Advance Praise

“Sonya Huber works magic by articulating the indescribable. With her lyrically written and witty account, she better describes her own pain experience than a patient rating scale of 1 to 10 ever could.”—Paula Kamen, author of All in My Head

“This is an important book, a necessary book, a book that, in the right hands, could change how our medical establishment deals with pain. These essays are at once vulnerable and fierce, funny and smart, unflinching and dappled with stunning metaphor.”—Gayle Brandeis, author of Fruitflesh

“Huber has captured what it is to be a woman who lives with chronic pain in all its nuanced complexity.”—Sarah Einstein, author of Mot: A Memoir

Rate your pain on a scale of 1 to 10. What about on a scale of spicy to citrus? Is it more like a lava lamp or a mosaic? Pain, though a universal element of human experience, is dimly understood and sometimes barely managed. Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System is a collection of literary and experimental essays about living with chronic pain. Sonya Huber moves away from a linear narrative to step through the doorway into pain itself, into that strange, unbounded reality. Although the essays are personal in nature, this collection is not a record of the author’s specific condition but an exploration that transcends pain’s airless and constraining world and focuses on its edges from wild and widely ranging angles.

Huber addresses the nature and experience of invisible disability, including the challenges of gender bias in our health care system, the search for effective treatment options, and the difficulty of articulating chronic pain. She makes pain a lens of inquiry and lyricism, finds its humor and complexity, describes its irascible character, and explores its temperature, taste, and even its beauty.

Praise for Pain Woman Takes Your Keys

“Meditative, intimate essays consider the experience of suffering….Frank, thoughtful reflections that should resonate with the 47 percent of Americans reported to be living with chronic pain.” Kirkus, Nov. 21, 2016

“Huber uses pain as a lens through which she examines disability, gender bias, motherhood, and the very basic condition of living in a body….The lyricism and poetry-prose hybrid continues throughout the book, interspersed with narrative reported pieces, humorous anecdotes, and sharp social commentary. [An] honest, wise, and droll book.”-Gila Lyons, Bitch Media, Jan. 25, 2017

“Material handled in a manner like these essays contains impressive universality, worthy of a large readership. Those with depression, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, or myriad other types of pain from diseases and conditions—even romantic breakups or family deaths—will find it relatable. However, before this University of Nebraska Press book has a chance to become whimsical or superficial, its author controls the prose with grace and elegance, and some humor.”–Nichole Reber, Ploughshares Blog, Feb. 28, 2017

“Please Read Sonya Huber’s Book, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, for me or not for me and because it’s brilliant and good and while she is a woman and the world mostly publishes men and hears them as spectacular rock star stellar daring voices I promise you hers is so good so put your damn prejudice aside that she’s a woman being daring and make her rock star and make her go viral and give her millions and make her cult movie and make a plush toy in her honor that makes you feel better when you see it and even because you’ve named that plush toy Pain. And honor it as the pain every woman who is in pain almost all the time feels. Almost 99 percent of the time but manages to make art.” — Katherine McCord, Compulsive Reader, March 29, 2017

“As someone who hasn’t yet experienced chronic pain, I relied on Huber to draw me into her world, to show me what it feels like, to allow me to begin to understand an experience that many of us will, eventually, know first-hand. And she takes on this project masterfully, introducing her readers to pain just as she might introduce a family member. By the end of the book, I’d begun to see my current pain-free state as an aberration, as a temporary fiction, and I was grateful that she’d facilitated my entry into a world that is, in many ways, more real than the one I inhabit.”–Vivian Wagner, Brevity, March 21, 2017

“Pain Woman wrote this book. It is through the voice of Pain Woman that Huber tells her stories. She tries on metaphors; she makes pain a character with actions and personality traits. She tends to it, cares for it, listens to it, lets it speak.” Elizabeth Dark, “The Kingdom of the Sick,” River Teeth blog, April 7, 2017

“Humor and offhand brilliance meet testimony and literary art. All crafted from hard experience and a fierce struggle.” Richard Gilbert, “Pain’s Parallel Kingdom” (Author Q&A and Review), April 12, 2017; this review also featured at Woven Tail Press

“Sonya Huber’s essays are more than essays. They flow naturally like water. They breathe on their own and pulsate themselves into poetic spasms of self-love and self-loathing all at once as if love and hate were one—as if learning to speak the word pain with love could make pain less painful. And I suppose in some ways it does.” Maria R. Palacios, “Pain Woman Becomes Poem,” Books Are Not a Luxury, April 26, 2017

“Her thoughtful and well-researched personal essays play counterpoint to her experimental, poetic prose. Huber explores the place of metaphor in understanding pain. She weaves in tangential but poignant research on, for example, cloud nomenclature. You might laugh in recognition, at the frustrations of life with illness as a mother, at work, on social media, and in a relationship. She even discusses, against some initial hesitation, her sex-life (“A Pain-Sex Anti-Manifesto”).” — Estella Ramirez, “They’d Know I Was Sick When I Died at Their Feet,” Books Are Not a Luxury, April 19, 2017

“There’s no triumph of recovery in these pages, only the beautiful words of a woman who represents a growing chunk of the population, a voice for those of us who pretend we don’t feel lousy most days.” — Laura Roberts, Literary Mama, March 31, 2017

“The theorist Elaine Scarry, in her magnum opus The Body in Pain, writes, ‘The utter rigidity of pain itself is that its resistance to language is not simply one of its incidental or accidental tributes but is essential to what it is.” One can see Sonya Huber’s Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Other Essays from a Nervous System as a glorious refusal of what Scarry puts forth. With ardor and valor, Huber renders the lived experience of chronic pain and all that attends it in a language all her own, written—as she so wonderfully phrases it—using ‘pain’s alphabet.’ These essays make imprecision their enemy as they comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Pain Woman further establishes Sonya Huber as one of the most exciting voices writing creative nonfiction today.” —Vincent Scarpa, Electric Literature 

“Her plainspoken vulnerability illuminates the conditioning of pain, the athleticism of it, and the renovation of a life as its outcome. But she doesn’t want your pity….The bout between pain and person with pain is vivified, destigmatized.” Cheyenne Black, The Collagist, June 10, 2017

“Recommend a book of collected essays about one woman’s pain and you might receive an incredulous look. Spending several hours reading about someone else’s pain might seem like a masochistic endeavor; however, Sonya Huber’s poetic descriptions and self-deprecating humor about her rheumatoid arthritis keep Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System from being a painful experience. In the Preface, Huber clearly states her intention in collecting these essays… a goal that she successfully achieves.” —Rhonda Lancaster, June 2017, Los Angeles Review

“Huber wechselt zwischen unterschiedlichen Schreibstylen, mal sehr poetisch, häufig humorvoll, klar analysierend, mäandernd, Alltagsbeschreibungen, öffentliche Briefe, Listen. Viele der einzelnen Texte sind relativ kurz (was gerade, wenn man selbst beispielsweise Schmerzen erlebt, super ist). Insgesamt hat das Buch nur knap 180 Seiten, doch schafft es Huber diese prall zu füllen und viele unterschiedliche Ebenen anzureißen, von Kritiken am Gesundheitssystem (hier natürlich mit besonderem Fokus auf die USA), zu Annäherungen, was Schmerz eigentlich ist/ bedeutet/ macht, Blicke auf Diskurse rund um Krankheit/Gesundheit (zB zum Thema Dankbarkeit) und Analysen alltäglicher Situationen. Huber gibt Einblicke, was es für sie bedeutet mit chronischen Schmerzen/ Krankheiten lohnzuarbeiten und Mutter zu sein. Sie spricht offen über Versagensängste und Gedankenspiralen zu Produktivität, aus denen nur schwer ein Entkommen möglich ist.”–Charlott Schönwetter, “Schmerzensfrau. Von Leben mit chronische Schmerzen.” Mädchenmannschaft, July 18, 2017

“This collection does important work to lead a nondisabled audience to the water of revelation, illuminating the barriers of systemic ableism and a health care system designed to lessen time and money spent on patients. Equally, this collection does not pander to ableism. It is not always for its nondisabled readers. Pain Woman contains moments of fantastically dark humor … moments of tightly-controlled rage …and moments of straightforward declaration. In the age of Trump, an age when the Affordable Care Act (which the speaker mentions as the reason she can access healthcare) is threatened, this book is even more important, luminous, and necessary than it was when it was published a few months ago.”– Cade Leebron, The Journal, August 30, 2017

“If this isn’t the book that we in the pain community need in 2017, I don’t know what is.”—Matt Mendenhall, Pain-Free Living Magazine


“It becomes apparent in this collection that Pain Woman’s and Huber’s voices intertwine, mingle, and dance on the page to the tune of inquisitive and poetic prose, empathy for self and others, and gumption. Pain Woman Takes Your Keys is a necessary and important book for the current health care system and political times, with a projected longevity that will endure, much as Huber herself has endured.”–Melissa Grunow, The Coil, Sept. 17, 2017

“The greatest strength in Huber’s collection… is the way in which she allows you to witness her struggle; I was emotionally floored and touched most deeply by Huber’s lyric essays in which she reveals vulnerability and desperation. Her poetry and lyrical prose flutters from thought to thought, seeking for something to call this way of living, somewhere to contain it in an expression. Anyone can understand this form of seeking, and in sharing her story, Huber allows us—those living with illness and disability, women, girls, mothers—to be brought into the fold of the current human narrative. You are not alone, she tells her audience. For that, I am deeply thankful.” — Leslie Contreras Schwartz, Literary Mama, Dec. 2017


I did a Facebook Live reading for all of my chronic pain and non-pain friends in May 2017.

And then I wrote a post for Brevity, “Staging an (Accessible) Online Reading: A Step-by-Step Guide,” about the process of transferring the video to YouTube and adding captions, and the importance of doing this to make our readings truly accessible.

Finally, I’m keeping a resource page of links to exercises for writing pain, chronic illness, and disability, including video of courses I have taught that are available online and off.

Author Q&As

Devon Bohm, “Sonya Huber Takes the Keys and Other Questions about Chronic Pain,” Town Crier, May 4, 2018

Richard Gilbert, “Pain’s Parallel Kingdom” (Author Q&A and Review), April 12, 2017

Kelly Davio, “Author Q&A with Sonya Huber,” Books Are Not a Luxury, April 21, 2017

Lisa Romeo, “A Conversation with Sonya Huber,” Cleaver Magazine, June 6, 2017

Media & Mentions

Featured on Amy Hassinger’s Podcast “The Literary Life” with audio recording of “In the Grip of the Sky,” March 29, 2017

Featured on the Quivering Pen blog, March 16, 2017

“Ah, Sonya Huber is one of my muses and simply being with her for ten seconds makes me want to stop everything and begin writing something. She has that Tinkerbell, Punky Brewster, Hermione, Katniss thing going on, so I never quite know if she is real or a figment of my imagination. Last night, Sonya was real. So was her collection. So is the Pain.” Bryan Crandall, March 3, 2017

Interview with Katie Hollister on her Study Storytelling blog for a podcast on the question, “What Role Can Creative Writing Play in Changing a Person’s Understanding of a Political Issue?

Mention on Book Riot’s “Get Booked” Podcast Episode 107, “Get Out of This Galaxy.