Sonya Huber's Blog
May 24, 2016
A long looonnng long time ago in a galaxy far far faaaar away, I was elected to serve on a committee at a workplace that discussed employee compensation and benefits. I deferred for a year because I didn’t think my health could withstand it. Then I said to myself, Ok, everyone should put in their time, so I went onto the committee. I put in two years of my time, and I thought I would learn something. I also thought I could contribute something, because I have written about health benefits and had enough trouble with them that I understand some of the pulleys and levers.
I knew it would be grueling. What I learned, however, was more than details. I learned that the conversations about health insurance in this country are not meant to be logical. They are often really about blatant control and submerged violence.
The first year was survivable. We negotiated some benefits changes that were difficult, but they were not draconian or arbitrary. We were reasonable, and we practiced the dance that people living in the United States are forced to do: “Yes, because of (Cruelty that Will Not Be Named), we will agree to cut into our own bottom lines for the sake of the well-being of those profiting from healthcare.”
In the second year, we tried to figure out reasonable responses to these escalating costs and to contain them; we asked for a little padding for the handcuffs. Those reasonable solutions were met with a stone wall which revealed a little bit too much of the underlying agenda: this was not even about accumulating money for the very rich and for the stockholders of the for-profit healthcare system. No, this was about power over bodies.
We bent over backwards and forwards (with all the implications intended) to propose ways these cuts might be made a little less painfully, and that was met with a rigid refusal. I do believe that some of the people who were sitting in the room did not necessarily think their orders were reasonable, but their own salaries and benefits and therefore the well-being of their very bodies depending on carrying out those orders.
I understand that healthcare costs are escalating. I am not an idiot, although the subtext of our outrage over cuts was always that shame: You are children. You do not understand the real world. They laughed at us, that bureaucratic head-shaking laugh.
There was a pretend-reasonableness to these discussions, but beneath the charts and the agendas was a violence, and that violence says: the people who are in charge—some of whom you might never actually see face to face, and some of whom loathe you because you oppose their agendas—can do what they want with your bodies.
The idea of employer-sponsored healthcare is the worst thing. The idea that employers who buy our labor and by and large set the terms for much of our waking lives also get control over how we might get access to treatment and pain relief and options for our bodies to function is tyranny.
Every week after the meetings I came away in a fog of depression and exhaustion that took the whole day to lift, and the substance of that depression was the non-reality of this imperative: You want too much. You are crazy as a group to want safety or even to want to do better than you did five years ago because 1) you are educators, and education is not a priority in this country and 2) health insurance has the nation in such an unquestionable stranglehold that it threatens every single person’s economic security except the rich and those with two stable middle-class incomes.
Our individual workplaces are not the source of healthcare madness in this country, of course. The CFOs and CEOs are enacting the cruelty of a privatized for-profit system in which insurance is necessary in order to protect a person’s body from the violence of denial of healthcare, and that violence threatens from every turn.
At one point during this extended adventure, the committee met with the board of trustees, and I contributed and played the game and was reasonable and made points. I took from that meeting a few notes and a fancy metal pen. Afterward I was in bed on and off for five days, emotionally exhausted, sore from chronic conditions that make the issue of healthcare a very serious issue, an issue I cannot turn away from for a second. You say “healthcare” and it is not abstract for me. I need it to function on a daily basis.
I am on a specific healthcare hair-trigger: in not having access to healthcare and having healthcare debt at various points in my life, I go into a rage at the inhumanity of having one’s physical and mental health used as a pawn of control. It makes my heart ache. I am also on a hair trigger regarding the general issue of men making decisions about my body, shaking their heads in condescension, laughing at me, implying that I am a foolish child, and telling me that what I see and know is not real. And then making me say how “lucky” I am to be in this situation when so many others have it worse, forcing me to acknowledge that this is the world we live in, a world where cruelty and denial of care sets the terms for how we live in our bodies.
We all live with this as if there were no other options. There are other options. When you shake your head at me and say, “Oh little girl, you don’t understand the market…” I say, “It’s amazing how many levels of condescension and control are going on here to get into my head and make me feel worthless so I don’t have the energy to fight you.”
And then I quote the Pope, who said on May 7, 2016: “Health is not a consumer good but a universal right, so access to health services cannot be a privilege.” This is the true thing, no matter what layers of shame are wrapped around our bodies. We are mortal and breakable, and that should not be a sin or a shame. That is the glorious fragile human condition.
Check out more of the Pope’s stuff here: http://thinkprogress.org/health/2016/05/19/3779838/pope-francis-health-care-leeches/
May 12, 2016
Available June 1, 2016 from Squint Books, an imprint of Eyewear Publishing: Order $14.49
Order from Small Press Distribution
Download press kit (pdf)
ISBN: 9781911335276 (paperback, pocket-sized, 188 pages)
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Who is Hillary Clinton, beyond the right-wing smear campaign and the reputation of her husband? Sonya Huber’s short, accessible book takes a balanced look at Hillary, delving into the evolution of her image, her detractors and their attacks, and her policy decisions, offering an overview of the forces that have shaped her. From her role as Secretary of State to her commitment to women’s rights, her changing positions and charges of unreliability on issues of trade and the environment, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s political agenda has changed over time. Do these changes make her a reptilian “shape-shifter” or just a politician? Will she be responsive to a changing Democratic Party in America, and how will she govern as President of the United States?
“Sonya Huber has achieved the near-impossible: she’s managed to contextualize Hillary Clinton’s long political career with precision, clarity, and wit. Examined herein are Hillary’s complicated relationships with her husband, the American public, Wall Street, feminism, Mother Theresa, and even the author herself…you’ll find no better primer on this fascinating, polarizing woman.” –Shannon Drury, author of The Radical Housewife: Redefining Family Values for the 21st Century
“Finally, a book for people who are unsure about how they think about Hillary Clinton. Cutting beyond the partisan attacks from the Right and the Left, Sonya Huber presents a politician who is flawed yet principled, willing to compromise yet also holding on to bedrock principles. In short, Huber has humanized Hillary Clinton in a way no one else has—or is willing to. An essential read for anyone on the Left.” –Robert Greene II, Book Review Editor, Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians
April 25, 2016
I get it. We have all just lost a guiding artistic light, and it might have something to do with a suspected overdose. Now we want to fix the problem, so “ban opioids” are starting to appear in my social media feeds. We can’t bring anyone back, but we can figure out the root of this problem.
My pills: a mix of prescriptions and supplements in a basket. None of these happen to be opioids,
I am in favor of what might help addicts, but in this case, fixing a problem is not as easy as banning something. There is a deeper problem, and opioid abuse is just one symptom. If you make opioids harder to obtain, you stigmatize my community, those with invisible illnesses and chronic pain. You make treatment and help even harder for us to obtain. We are so often seen as drug-seeking addicts.
People with chronic pain and severe health conditions often need opioids. The harmful myth is that everyone who pops painkillers is an addict. But many studies say that chronic pain patients are not the majority of those who become addicted; the pills often don’t give a “buzz” when you’re just trying to fight to function. Instead, they usually just help with sleep. In fact, there’s a huge difference between needing a pill to function and being addicted.
Dr. Howard Fields, professor of neurology at University of California, San Francisco, is quoted on “Here and Now” WBUR’s blog:
The greater problem is that there’s a huge reluctance in general of physicians to prescribe adequate medication for people who really are in pain and have a very low risk of becoming addicted. That’s the big problem. I think if you read the actual epidemiological data and the data from insurance companies and health organizations, it suggests that the vast majority of people are undertreated for their pain and I think that that’s in part due to the scare of overdosing and having the drugs diverted and making somebody who never was an addict and never had a drug abuse problem into an addict. My position on that is that’s very rare. I know people are being undertreated for pain. Opioids are the most effective pain relievers we now have. You want to use them optimally, but you want to use them when they’re necessary.
There are very few comprehensive pain clinics, especially for chronic pain.
Doctors may prescribe opioids too often for minor injuries that get in the wrong hands (this is called “diversion”), but the problem is not chronic pain patients, who manage their meds and know where they are. The problem is the 15-minute doctor visit, which is driven by a healthcare system more concerned with the bottom line that our health. “You hurt your shoulder? Here’s a scrip, I gotta go.” I believe there would be fewer unnecessary opioid prescriptions if we had a comprehensive healthcare system that was open to everyone.
If we had comprehensive healthcare reform, someone who did develop an addiction to opioids, they could get help—but right now rehab is also out of reach for many people without insurance. (It’s true, not genius singers. They could afford to go. Addiction is so hard and hearbreaking and stigmatized for so many reasons. And it often starts because people are in chronic pain and not medicated effectively, so they turn to a cocktail of their own creation.)
When someone dies of a drug overdose, don’t say that opioids are the problem, because in a country with a broken healthcare system, those drugs are one of the few tools for survival that people in chronic pain have to get through the day. Opioid abuse is a symptom of a deeper problem, and that is our healthcare system.
April 5, 2016
By Shelley Evans, Sonya Huber, and Bill Patrick
You’ve got a terrific idea. It would make a great short story or perhaps even a novel. You know it would. Or maybe you’ve just finished that once-in-a-lifetime immersion opportunity, following detectives or migrants or crusading doctors for a year, and you have notes and photos and hundreds of hours of audiotaped interviews. Some structure will emerge as you transcribe, right? Or maybe a specific scene has already presented itself to you – an amazing scene, with characters and action and dialogue, one that almost seemed to write itself, but now you’re stuck. You’re not sure what the central dramatic question of your story really is – or even which story you should tell.
Sooner or later in the writing process, the problem of structure arises. Even though it remains largely invisible, structure both supports and expresses the truth of the story. In spite of this, structure is not often discussed or taught in writing workshops. Structural principals, reduced to quick formulas by Hollywood studio executives, are borrowed and used by writers searching for better momentum or a stronger spine. The principals behind those formulas need to be better understood and more artfully employed. Bill Patrick and Shelley Evans, experienced writers in a number of different genres and faculty members in Fairfield University’s MFA in Writing Program, have created a story development workshop for the programs MFA students to give writers strategies for transforming good ideas and promising scenes into workable plans.
This “big picture” workshop grew out of creative collision and conversation in the classroom. Bill Patrick explains:
This workshop idea grew out of the Screenwriting for Prose Writers workshop that I developed a couple of years ago. When Shelley first came to Enders as a visiting screenwriter last summer, she co-taught this screenwriting workshop with me, and we realized pretty quickly that our focus could be expanded. We saw how helpful a workshop based on story development would be for all the students in the program, no matter what genre they were working in.
Well, I love handouts, so I put together what I thought was a minimal story development checklist, and that spurred Shelley to develop her own list of questions for the students.When we offered it for the first time last residency, in Winter 2015/16, we had a poet, a nonfiction writer, three novelists, and a screenwriter in the workshop. We presented both handouts, and then I added a list of strategies during the workshop itself, and we all jumped in with both feet. All the students experienced breakthroughs on their projects during the brainstorming sessions, and Shelley and I were floored by what we witnessed.
The workshop itself elucidates some guiding principles of structure, and then uses them to practice building more intentional and effective narratives. Instructors lay out time-tested principles of dramatic narrative development, offer pragmatic tools that de-mystify the process of constructing plot, and help brainstorm a viable plan for whatever you’re working on.
Before I came to Fairfield, I was developing a course called Story Development at Harvard Extension School, where I have taught screenwriting for many years. My feeling was that students in my screenwriting classes and many of my novelist friends weren’t taking enough time with story, sometimes getting jammed up in really big story problems as a result. I wanted to teach story as a creative and flexible element of writing, just like language. Then I met Bill, who was already teaching a version of that course at Fairfield, only calling it ‘Screenwriting for Prose Writers.’ After my guest stint at Fairfield, I said ‘Let’s call it Story Development, to make it clear that it’s for novelists as well as screenwriters.’ And Bill said, ‘Why limit ourselves to novelists? Every writer who works with narrative needs these skills.’ Since Bill has basically written something great in almost every genre, I took it on faith. And I have been amazed by how helpful these principles are, even in non-fiction and poetry.
I imagine students would be better able to speak to the progress they made with their writing. For my part, I found it really inspiring to watch so many different kinds of writers apply these story principles energetically and enthusiastically to their own work, and with each other. It seemed to me that they all became more skillful at thinking about structure in a very short period of time.
Samantha Keller, a novelist and a student in the workshop, writes:
In terms of my own work, the workshop broadened my perspective on my novel and enabled me to see it as a whole, unlike traditional workshops where you look at things in a quite detailed and specific way. I came out with a clearer vision of what my book is about, who the main character is, and even some ideas about themes or events I could include, and others I should exclude. I’d definitely recommend the workshop. In fact I would argue that everyone should take it at some point during their MFA, just to give you that birds-eye-view on what you’re trying to achieve. I felt like I had to come up with real answers to some quite hard questions, but I left feeling more confident about the direction my novel is taking.
Rah Gist, a poet, writes:
Coming into the workshop we prepared as usual, having read each other’s work and made notes of ideas for replacing words or reordering sentences, etc. What we did in workshop was light years beyond that—literally developing the story concept behind what made it to the page. It was like Bill and Shelley searched us, individually, for the creative pulse of our story and then we all tried tapping into it with a collective energy that at times produced pure synergy. I came into the workshop with poetry and stepped out with a clear vision for prose–a direction I welcomed and is still guiding my work. It was this flexibility that drew me to the workshop. I also gained a new appreciation for other genres (all were represented) and was supercharged by the energy of the group.
“Whatever the origin of the story idea, the writer has no story until (s)he has figured out a plot that will efficiently and elegantly express it. Though character is the emotional core of great fiction, and though action with no meaning beyond its own brute existence can have no lasting appeal, plot is—or must sooner or later become—the focus of every good writer’s plan.” –John Gardner
Image via Flickr here
March 10, 2016
I learned about the Quell device earlier this week through social media. It isn’t cheap at $250 but after I dove deeply into the online user comments, I decided I had to buy it. Why? Well, as you may have reason to know or not, when you’re in pain, you want to fix that pain.
First, what is this thing?
It’s a little box that’s lighter than an iPhone but scored in the middle so it flexes. It fits into a pocket and gets snapped to sticky electrodes that go on your leg below the knee. Then the pocket-brace gets Velcro’d around your leg and off you go. It’s a version of a TENS unit but it is wearable and somehow sciencey-special. JUST GIVE IT TO ME!
The Quell: Picture of a black brace strapped to a leg below the knee.
I can’t explain the science; if you scroll down here you’ll see a helpful video. Having watched way too many YouTube videos of professors explaining the latest research in pain, this all seemed reasonable. But I figured the comments would tell all so I started reading blogs and so on, as well as user comments on Amazon, where people generally spare no rage. And most of the comments were very positive. So I thought, ok, it is a quarter of a thousand dollars, but on the other hand, pain.
I ordered it and it arrived two days ago. I have been wearing it ever since then. It comes with an app and connects via Bluetooth, so it tells you how much time you have left in a therapy session and how long to wait until the next one. You can wear it also while you sleep, and I have been.
Screen of Quell app on iPhone showing a clock face with time left in therapy session and also that I really need to charge my phone.
What does it feel like?
It kind of almost feels like the leg that you’re wearing it on is a little asleep, which sounds annoying–but only if you aren’t in constant pain. You can adjust the strength of the therapy up and down so you don’t feel it as much. I’ve worn it while walking around running errands, walking the dog, walking on the treadmill, and for the most part I have forgotten it was there. The dog even got out this morning and I had to do a short sprint to catch her (ouch) and it didn’t come loose or impede my movements in any way.
Does it work?
This is why I am writing this blog, because I think it does help with pain. It might not help everyone, but here’s what it has felt like:
I notice a distinct difference in my pain levels when the therapy is “on” vs. when it is off. Today there were a few moments that my pain was at a 7 or 8 with it off (on a scale of 1-10) and then when I put the thing on again, the pain was down to a 4.5 or so. If you are in pain every day, you know that is significant and huge.
There’s an additional quality that’s hard to define but that I’ll call the pocket of my mind behind the pain. If you have had periods in your life without pain, you might remember a different version of your brain that was a little quicker, fresher, more alert. Pain is cognitively draining. I swear: I have felt more mentally alert, and I think it has to do with the drain of pain being eased enough that might concentration is slightly better. (Or all this is because I’m on spring break from teaching this week. If that’s the case, I’ll update with that sad news.)
I have autoimmune disease, so the other stuff that comes with that condition (fatigue, ups and downs due to weather, stiffness, and joint trouble) aren’t addressed by the device.
One thing about this device is that the goopy electrode patches seem like they’re going to attract dirt and get gross (like super gross) quickly. One electrode is supposed to last for 2 weeks, and I can already see that I’m going to be looking forward to that day. I don’t know if I’ll be able to make it that long. A 3-month supply of electrodes is $90, so this could add up. But then as I was sitting there this morning getting my leg zapped, I thought about how many times in the past 2 days already I would have paid $20 to feel slightly better, and I thought: 3. So that’s $60 already. (If you need rationalizations, I make them well).
You have to switch legs or give your skin a breather because users have said the goop irritates the skin under the electrodes. It’s recommended that you put lotion where the patches go. Fine by me.
The therapy is set to go an hour on, an hour off. So the off hour isn’t that good, because the pain comes back. But some people report that the effects of pain relief last up to an hour after a therapy session, and the effect may increase over time. So I’ll see how that goes. I have some weird thing against using it all the time. I don’t know why. Blame Catholicism or Puritanism, I don’t know.
Fashion backward? Maybe, but I do not care the slightest bit.
Another thing: and this might be just me, but today during a rough patch when the thing was off, I was wondering if maybe there was a rebound effect. Could I become dependent on this effect? Was my pain worse during the between-times? I don’t know.
To sum up: It’s not a drug, it won’t wreck your guts, it’s FDA-approved, so there you go. My two cents and two thumbs up.
March 8, 2016
Last week a wonderful woman in India, Gitanjali Venugopal, emailed me to see if we could do a blog collaboration for International Women’s Day.
Who is Gitanjali?
Gitanjali is a 20 year old amateur blogger who believes in making “OMG! So Relatable” cross her reader’s mind at least once.
She is an Indian Blogger (Snake charmer? Curry eater?) who’s based in Dubai (Rides a camel? Uses Arabic in an English conversation?) .
Her hobbies include cartooning, anagrams, Sudoku, swimming etc.
A firm believer in One Love and quotes Drake and Bob Marley on a regular basis.
To check out her blog and discover a few ‘Oh! So relatable’ posts, hop on to https://sleepywritertalk.wordpress.com/ and don’t forget to click “follow” as that makes her smile and chuckle in her happy place.
She sent me questions about women, feminism, and my own influences, and these made me think hard–so I appreciate the opportunity. I also love this model of writers interviewing each other. I answered the questions on her blog, so go check it out! I talk about Tillie Olsen, Maxine Hong Kingston, climate change as a feminist issue, and a bunch of other things
I then turned things around and asked her to answer the same questions, as the questions themselves were so wonderful.
Here are her answers:
Who is your biggest influence? (Barring family)
The company one keeps acts a major influence in his/her decisions. I also look up to various celebrated personalities such as Indira Gandhi, Elizabeth Stanton etc. and try to imbibe a few qualities from them.
What do you think is the single biggest issue currently facing women/ feminism?
As per my understanding, although feminism has gone a long way, sexism still seems an insurmountable obstacle. Although there are several issues currently facing feminism, the one I’m most passionate about is Media portrayal of women. The media does a lot to perpetuate unhelpful stereotypes, and culprits range from Weetabix (whose sexist ad implies your lad can be a superhero but your lass can’t), to Unilever (skinny women aren’t “real” women and/or dark-skinned women should get paler). Although organizations such as UK Feminista and AnyBody are campaigning hard against these issues, I still believe, we have a long, long way to go.
Since you’ve worked in different industries in different positions throughout the years, do you remember any personal incident where you were made to feel inferior/superior solely for being a woman?
Fortunately, I haven’t had such experiences. However I have heard of girls being advised against becoming a pilot or a police officer as “it’s not the right job for a woman” or “the timings will not be suitable for a woman once she has children to care for.”I have also heard of girls being advised against becoming a doctor but are supported if they want to be a nurse. Not that I’m averse to the idea of nursing, it just goes to show that “timing” and “children” are not the real reasons. Instead, “society” and “what will the neighbors think?” are more detrimental factors.
In your opinion, why are traits such as “innocent”, “sensitive”, “nurturing” etc. associated with women as compared to more aggressive, competitive terms for men. How can we best promote a more accepting, gender neutral society?
There have been a lot of instances wherein women have reversed these gender based structural barriers and vice versa. However, in most cases, women choose to emphasize their feminine attributes so as not overtly challenge traditional masculine assumptions and to prove their legitimacy in a domain that, for the most part, is dominated by men. I think that, in recent times, a lot of effort has been taken to gender neutralize and accept various orientations of diverse people, be it, gender neutral pronouns, or the efforts undertaken by the LGBT community. Although our society is evolving for the better, we still have a long way to go in terms of gender equality and gender neutrality.
How do you feel about how women are represented in the media, film and pop culture? Can you see yourself in any of them?
Speaking in terms of music videos, women are overly sexualized with a lot of emphasis drawn to their physical attributes. They are shown as sexual objects with little or no emphasis on their other talents. This is almost always the case in Hip Hop and Rap. However, Rock, R&B etc. show women in a comparatively positive light. In music videos, men are also often presented in a stereotypical same way; they are usually shown to be powerful, dominant and masculine with less focus on their physical appearance and more on their expectations as a male in society. Quoting Kanye West from “On Sight”
“A monster about to come alive again
Soon as I pull up and park the Benz
We get this b***h shaking like Parkinsons”
This man is a father as well, so I can’t wait for North West to get old enough to ask questions. Was that mommy??
What barriers did you face, as a woman, to becoming successful in the current blogging field? How did you overcome them?
I’m fairly new to Blogging, so I face the most basic problems that I’m sure all bloggers have faced at some point or the other. Fortunately, barring the occasional sexist and racist comments, I’ve been fortunate enough to receive nothing but love and support.
How do you feel about campaigns like “#ReadWomen” that encourage people to read more books by women?
Although it is universally acknowledged that women read more than men and women publish equal number of books as compared to men, it is unfortunate that there even exists a movement like this. However trends such as these doing rounds on social media are bound to do some good. Not only will it get people to read books by women authors, but will also give women authors confidence that they’re books will be given a chance even if they’re not girly, or related to romantic escapades with Barbie lookalike girls.
What main change would you like to see for young girls in the next generation?
I would like to be a little idealistic. I think women can expect not to be tied down and stopped from pursuing their dreams because of societal constraints. Also women can expect corporations to bridge the pay gap so that equal pay and recognition is given to a job well done instead of sexually discriminating between equally hardworking employees.
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would that be?
Failing is winning. This might sound funny to you now, but believe me when I tell you that all of your failures are laying out a path for you to succeed big-time. I would advise my younger self to enjoy the curve balls life throws at us, and, to quote Bob Marley, “Don’t worry about a thing, ’cause every little thing gonna be all right.”
Thank you so much, Gitanjali, and I hope we can stay connected through blogging. Happy International Women’s Day!
February 25, 2016
Shelley Evans began teaching for us as a guest faculty member in Summer 2015, and we are thrilled to welcome her to our regular faculty in the Fairfield Low-Residency MFA. She showed an amazing movie she wrote about the true story of a transgender teen’s murder, “A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Arajo Story,” and we were wowed. Shelley teaches screenwriting in our MFA program and has also launched an innovative multi-genre workshop on storytelling with our co-director Bill Patrick.
Shelley Evans has written teleplays for ABC, CBS, Showtime, USA Network and Lifetime Television. Her produced scripts have starred, among others, Anne Heche, Sam Shepard, Josh Brolin, James Caan, Jacqueline Bisset, Candice Bergen and Mercedes Ruehl. She has taught writing at Harvard Extension School, Boston University, New York University, and Boston College and is a member of the Writer’s Guild of America.
I asked Shelley a few questions about her writing process, and here are her thoughtful responses.
What part of your own writing process is essential to your teaching? What have you learned from writing that you feel is always important to share with students?
I was an extremely good student, which in many ways is terrible for writing. I spent my entire education learning how to follow rules– of conformity, punctuation, structure and rhetoric. Not surprisingly, my desire to write, which was strong in childhood, slowly waned. Some time after college I read Silences, by Tillie Olsen, which is about all the ways that we (especially women, and poor people, and people without resources) lose our voices. I was working as a secretary at the time, and I would sit in the stairwell during my lunch hour reading Silences and crying. It had never occurred to me that writers are made, not born, or that anybody with the dream of writing had a right to pursue it. Having had that revelation, I started writing and was almost immediately paralyzed. I was pretty adept at identifying bad writing, intimidated by good writing and completely without strategies for invention. My brother, who is an artist, once expressed amazement at that– the first thing he learned in art school was how to play. Many writers, perhaps with better imagination or more courage, develop those habits instinctively. I had to start from scratch, teaching myself how to brainstorm, to build and rebuild stories, to fail and to dream. Cultivating those habits has been time-consuming and often frustrating– how could I have spent so much time in school and learned so little? Much of my work as a teacher is devoted to exposing the gears and pulleys that drive the creative process: it really can be as simple as setting a timer for twenty minutes and writing without censoring yourself, or studying a great novel (or movie) to identify its major dramatic turning points. When I was young, there was a great silence around creativity, and a shared assumption that only certain people were creative. My mission is to open the trunk and share the toys, so that anybody who wants to play can join.
What have you been working on in the past few months, and what’s your current challenge as far as the writing goes?
Last spring, for the first time in my life, I took a writing job for the sole purpose of making money and I worked on that project until just before Christmas. The process was both strange and liberating. In the beginning I struggled to make the writing matter, pushing back against network demands that seemed unreasonable and sometimes misguided. I told myself that I was fighting for the good of the script, but at a certain point I realized I was actually fighting for my ego. I couldn’t bear to be involved in a project I didn’t feel proud of. At that point I finally let go and started thinking of myself as a story engineer, brought in to save a collapsing bridge, rather than an artist. As a result, the experience got much easier. But it left me unsettled– is it possible to write for hire without hurting our own work? Does our internal compass get too damaged in the process? In the world of streaming media, where the demand for content is growing, the answer to that question seems extremely important. We might be able to make a living as writers, but at what cost?
Can you share a story about sharing your work with readers/viewers that helps keep you going?
I started working in television because it’s a popular medium that reaches a large audience. I hoped I would have a chance to influence our collective cultural conversation. That turns out to be harder than I thought. But some time ago I worked on a script about a transgender teen named Gwen Araujo. It was a heartbreaking story with a surprisingly uplifting message about a family that supported a child against overwhelming external odds. I am constantly grateful for that project, both because it gave me the opportunity to meet Gwen’s amazing, courageous family and because so many people have told me they were moved by their story.
February 18, 2016
You might see someone limping with a cane down the halls, and then a few days later they’re fine. Or you know a co-worker has lupus and you are not sure what that means for their role in your project. Or you are just empathetic but unsure. I am not an authority on invisible disabilities, but I do have a few–two autoimmune conditions including Rheumatoid Disease, which affects my movement and produces pain–so I thought I’d take a stab at some imaginary questions. I’m not an HR professional. This might be incorrect! It’s just my thoughts. Feel free to leave other questions in the comments.
Is a person with these conditions (which I’m going to describe as invisible disabilities) less able to work?
My cane and my heating pad at my desk. Showing up like a rock star.
Unless they are a lumberjack—and maybe even if they are a lumberjack—each situation is unique. Jobs are a fit or not a fit for a wide range of reasons, and determining that fit is the right of the employee, the supervisor, and HR—not you. Instead, check your own thinking: are you assuming that when you see signs of physical impairment, there is cognitive or motivational difficulty? There might be those, there might be others–but it’s probably not something you are qualified to evaluate. I can ask that difficult question because I have a sometimes-visible disability and yet I too berate myself for being less capable. I’m not less capable. In fact, in some ways I’m more capable, for reasons I’ll get into below.
The truth is that a person with a chronic condition who is employed is actually a wonder of neuroplasticity and adaptation. People can adapt over time to conditions that would be unbearable if they emerged suddenly. They are forced to grow their lives around amazing challenges and yet make life work, to be functional.
If I have someone with a chronic condition or an invisible illness on my team, is that going to affect my due dates? What if they have to go into the hospital?
Not everyone who has one of these conditions needs time off of work, but every single person alive faces the unknown of illness and hospitalization. Cross that bridge when you come to it, but you do not need to expect any additional degree of unreliability from someone with a chronic condition. That’s a misconception about the nature of chronic illnesses. If there’s a serious issue, the person will make you aware of it.
In what ways is a person with an invisible disability or chronic illness a wonderful employee?
Hahaha—that’s a great question. (I might have planted that one). A person with these conditions can be a great liaison to other employees and to potential customers with these challenges. He or she can help you adapt your business, your website, your services, to the needs of this huge population. A person with these conditions is often a complete wonder of efficiency, because he or she has had to make difficult choices with regard to precious energy and time that can’t be squandered. People with these conditions get as much or more done because they know their own energy levels and work abilities intimately. They are mental and emotional athletes. They often have a high degree of empathy, and in some cases their ability to design work-arounds in their own lives has resulted in enhanced creativity for out-of-the-box solutions.
Should I give the person extra leeway with deadlines, etc.?
That’s not necessary unless they ask for it—like any other employee that needs a flexed deadline. And we all do, for all the shit life throws at us.
Some days a person has visible aids, like a cane, a cushion, limb or hand supports. Does that mean the person is feeling his or her disability most acutely and that it is gone on other days?
Actually, no—not at all. One of the difficulties of an invisible condition is that the discomfort is usually chronic. A particular aid might be called for on a particular day, but the hardware just means that a specific part is having difficulty, and does not even act as a barometer for when the worst days are.
When I see a person with one of these aids, does it help to express sympathy or to ask how the person is doing?
This is a very individual thing, but in my case, the answer is no. I want to try to normalize my condition, to have it be a part of me but not the most obvious part. I want my coworkers to understand that some days I have my hardware and some days I don’t—but that every day is hard. Because every day is hard in different ways, expressing sympathy only when the hardware appears makes me feel a little like the person doesn’t get my condition (it’s fine if they don’t—I barely get it). The worst part, however, is to associate my cane with a sad expression and the need for sympathy. I love my cane. I love it. It helps me walk, it announces my disease as visible, and it does a lot of other things for me. The worst days are the days you can’t see. So when you see me with a cane, just say hi.
Should I suggest various things that have worked for my niece’s boyfriend or that I have seen on Facebook, such as supplements, yoga, etc.?
No. These people are barraged with well-intentioned advice. Think about what it must be like to have a life-long condition that other people assume is easy to fix when in fact doctors have pronounced it incurable. What you are saying to the person is that they have overlooked something obvious and so therefore that they might be a little dumb. You don’t mean it to sound that way, and you’re just trying to be helpful, but it’s a little insulting, and it doesn’t help to build connection.
Should I use this person’s condition against them in power struggles and office conflicts?
Hahah! You’re FIRED! No, seriously: This is probably too obvious to say, but it needs to be said: if you in any way imply that the person is less able to do their job, is weak, is less qualified, or is a burden, you are not only wrong but you are also doing something that is immoral, unethical, and illegal. You are bullying based on physical ability, which is reprehensible.
February 15, 2016
Adriana Páramo came to the Fairfield low-residency MFA Faculty this past winter 2016 residency as a guest writer, and after that we decided we had to have her on the faculty. Lucky for us, she accepted, and we are thrilled to welcome her.
A cultural anthropologist, writer and women’s rights advocate, Páramo is the author of Looking for Esperanza: The Story of a Mother, a Child Lost, and Why They Matter to Us, winner of the 2011 Benu Press Social Justice and Equity Award in Creative Nonfiction. Páramo immersed herself in the world of undocumented women toiling in the Florida fields to explore the story of an immigrant mother who walked the desert from Mexico to the U.S. Páramo is also the author of a memoir, My Mother’s Funeral, in which she recreates her Colombian mother’s life in order to understand her own.
I asked Adriana a few questions about her work-in-progress, her teaching, and the writing life:
What part of your own writing process is essential to your teaching? What have you learned from writing that you feel is always important to share with students?
I write about things that matter to me, things that make me feel like I have my fingers on the pulse of life. Writing about what’s dear to my heart—women, social justice and travel—gives my writing a very personal meaning. I think it’s important that you write about things that matter to you, because when you do, there is no dithering about your voice, your writing has “heart,” and you are more likely to arouse emotion (empathy or otherwise).
Of course this comes with a challenge: Once you decide that you want to write about the loss of a beloved one, or disease, or complex relationships, or your pet, you need to control the narrative in a way that’s compelling without being melodramatic, a narrative laden with sentiment without being sentimental.
What have you been working on in the past few months, and what’s your current challenge as far as the writing goes?
I’m working on multicultural notions of female virginity and the symbolic value of the hymen. It sounds high-brow, but it’s not. What I want to do is a vast, multicultural exploration of how women lose their virginities in their cultures, the intrinsic value of their hymen and the taboos surrounding women’s “first times.”
The challenge is to turn, what I fully expect to be, anthropological research and field work data into a soft narrative that’s appealing, compelling, marketable and fresh.
Can you share a story about sharing your work with readers/viewers that helps keep you going?
I was the special guest at a 250-women gathering here in Doha, Qatar, where I currently live. The women were warm, receptive, and patiently lined up to have my books autographed. So far so good, right? After the meeting I was approached by a lovely Egyptian woman who invited me to speak at the book club to which she belonged. I accepted the invitation and two weeks later I had the opportunity to sit and chat with the book club members: two very aggressive South Africans who couldn’t understand why I had wasted so much time looking for an “illegal” woman and who vehemently refused to call her “undocumented” after I explained the difference; an English woman who was puzzled by the fact that the undocumented women returned to Mexico after all their tragic border crossings into the USA. When I told her that they had gone back to visit their children, she said: couldn’t they just bring their children over for holidays? They have Disney and Universal Studios in Florida. There was also a shy American woman, who looked mortified but made no contributions to the meeting and the Egyptian hostess, who kept bringing snacks to the table whenever the conversation got heated, which was pretty much the whole time.
Long story short, they weren’t sympathetic to the women I wrote about. They perceived me as a good doer with too much free time on my hands and showed little respect for my writing. I had the option to stand up and leave, but I decided to stay and learn what’s like to have your work smeared and stepped on. And I’m glad I did.
I learned that as a social writer I need to be extremely humble. No matter how dear the cause is to my heart, or how much passion I pour onto the page, there will always be those who don’t care about what I write, why I write it, or the lives of the people involved in the process.
But then again, I compare these five women in the book club to the 250 in the auditorium and I know I can use my words to convey a message, I know I can do it. That keeps me going.
If you’re interested in studying with Adriana, please check out the Fairfield MFA program for more information!
December 20, 2015
I have a completely serious proposal that could do good for people and make someone some money (….and that might be the most American thing I’ve ever written). Here’s my vision: facilities modeled on health clubs that are specifically targeted to people (including but not limited to the elderly) with chronic pain, mobility, and mental health issues.
There are three health clubs in my not-affluent town all competing for the market of the physically fit and exercise oriented, while another demographic is offered no services.
These facilities would be membership-based and would be attractive for people who need to get out of the house and relax, but whose issues make the traditional clanky, loud, screaming décor, industrial design of a gym completely awful. Modeled partially on the idea of the public baths and saunas of Europe and the Middle East, these facilities would be soothing and focused on the needs of people with limited mobility. The goal would be stress relief through completely simple physical support, including nice low-light rooms with aromatherapy, heated lounges, nice towels, and views onto natural environments. A range of options would allow people with a range of challenges to have the social interaction so necessary for health in an environment built for them. Medical waivers would protect against liability, and additional revenue could be generated by offering newsletters in which traditional and alternative healthcare providers could advertise their services to this targeted market. (See? I can totally talk the talk).
The health outcomes of greater socializing, stress relief, and even connection with healthcare services would make these facilities attractive to health insurance companies, who might offer their patients premiums and discounts if they were to join and use such a facility.
Low-key yoga and balance classes, tai chi, etc.
Saunas, hot tubs, steam rooms for heat therapy
Mats for stretching
Benches for just sitting around
Soothing music and rooms with no music
Rooms for meditation or just chilling out
About me: I’m a good writer who has been marinating in corporate language and mindsets for 16 years (i.e. in higher education). So I know the lingo about synergy and stakeholders. I could sell you my idea or consult. I’m totally serious. I have tons of ideas and I’m even sometimes funny. Admit it: this is brilliant. One of these should be in every town including mine.