December 20, 2021 § 4 Comments
By Emily Dillon
You probably know Sonya. You may know her award-winning essay collection Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. You likely know her from her Brevity blog post in October. If you do, you know her like I know her: as an empathetic intellect charging through the halls of writing with a megaphone for the disabled and the outsider.
I know Sonya in other ways too–as a colleague, professor, and friend–and yet, if I’m being honest, I’ve had difficulty reading her work about pain in the past. If I’m not in the right frame of mind, it takes me back to the webbed fog of uncertainty, those times when I felt like I was losing my body to terror, wondering if–not how–I would get out of uncontrollable pain.
You see, like Huber, I have also been diagnosed with chronic pain and so her stories echo through my bones. My journey with pain, though, has been different than hers: for the most part, I identify as being in remission. Which only means that I don’t always want to go back to the hard parts. With lots of help and time and luck and perseverance, I have unspooled the lightning laces of pain and wear only small whispering shadows; it’s hard to be reminded of the looping mind through the searing.
Therefore, when I first heard of Sonya’s new project, Supremely Tiny Acts: A Memoir of A Day, I was interested in it not because of its content–which, though I knew little about it, had proved challenging for me in the past–but because of its form. How cool to try a memoir in a single day! How rare to write nonfiction with form at the forefront!
And then I began reading.
The truth is that form is deceptively sneaky. As any poet will tell you, write about the color of a glass figurine in your front office and you might end up telling your whole family history. It is when we are most unguarded, frolicking through the details, that we accidentally turn a corner into the deepest grove of our writerly hearts. And Sonya’s grove has a heart for pain: social and personal, emotional and physical.
On its surface, Supremely Tiny Acts is about a day that Sonya went to court, seeking dismissal of a charge for protesting climate change, and then later, took her son to get his learner’s permit. It swirls with every theme and subject she has ever covered: Hillary Clinton, modern political activism, her German grandfather, chronic pain, teaching, parenting, Buddhism, growing up white and poor. With every theme, she works hard to separate the true from the false in our relative world, admitting when she doesn’t know (“Am I a good teacher? I don’t know”) and claiming her ground when she does (“I know both to keep doing the next right thing and to push myself to do what I’m scared of”). It swirls and swirls and then, like water going down the drain, eventually gets to the last dregs that make the biggest noise: she recounts the day in her life that seemingly drove the energy of the book, a day with her ex-husband. Though I had entered her book with form, I was leaving with what that form led to: revelation and catharsis about pain. As she says, “naming it was a blade that hurt but also cut me free.”
As a pain person, I wanted this moment without knowing it. I wanted her rage, the curse words, the origin story. I wanted it from Sonya because it’s what I wanted for myself in the midst of my pain: to find an explanation. It’s not always as easy as a single explanation or a single day of course, and there is always more than one reason to untie, but it’s a start. And for anyone who has been spiraling into anything–pain, addiction, self-harm–we always need a start.
As I closed the book’s cover, gathering all of Sonya’s work into one hand, I realized that the title, Supremely Tiny Acts: A Memoir of a Day, ended up being a prophecy: the form of a day-long memoir becoming a powerful, supremely tiny act, for Sonya and for the reader. It revealed the power of form to expose the secret waves of trauma, how they trough and crest around the other parts of our lives. It was only looking back at the end of the book that I saw how the toxic relationship with her ex-husband roiled through the day: how she wished in the final pages that she could “tell that girl that love and compassion don’t have to end with you laying your organs on the lawn for another person” and yet the book began with her literally laying her body in the streets of New York City for future generations; her inordinately immense pleasure at throwing away a plastic food container earlier in the book, even after participating in a climate action, because “my relationship with that piece of plastic is over” [first italics my own]; her then-inexplicable fear of a male judge after he apologizes to the courtroom: “I had expected for an irrational moment that somehow we had irritated him, and that the apology would be followed by a lashing out at us, that making him say “I’m sorry”—did we make him?—will lead to it being so much worse for us.”
For all of these reasons, Supremely Tiny Acts is perhaps the most courageous nonfiction that I’ve read in a long while, allowing the scrappy details of a single day to open into personal surprises. I can only hope that it will inspire more like it and we will see more form-first nonfiction, the structure forcing us to face ourselves. How glorious our shelves and notebooks will be then, when we know ourselves as the words do!
Emily Dillon is a writer and educator from Maryland whose creative work ranges from nonfiction to poetry and all the lyrical places in-between. An avid reader, she also publishes book reviews and teaching guides. Currently she is the managing editor for Speculative Nonfiction and an English educator in higher education. She holds a Masters Degree in English Education from the University of Maryland and an MFA in Creative Writing from Fairfield University. www.emilydillonwriting.com