Interview: Lisa Olstein on Pain Studies

Micah Bateman //

Lisa Olstein, the author of four collections of poetry, recently released a prose meditation on chronic migraine, Pain Studies (Bellevue Literary Press, 2020). Thinking through migraine and with migraine, Olstein’s study threads in and out of autobiography, history, philosophy, literature, pop culture, and more—making piquant stops along the way at Joan of Arc and Dr. House, M.D.—not to make meaning of pain, as with our pop conception of the Romantics, but to untie the knots that bind pain to meaning. Rather than ask, What does pain mean?, Olstein asks how pain has meant, drawing from luminaries such as Elaine Scarry and Virginia Woolf as well as from Olstein’s own medical narrative.

For two years, I worked with Olstein in the New Writers Project M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Texas at Austin. We caught up over e-mail during the pandemic following the more felicitous announcement that she had just been awarded a 2020 Guggenheim Fellowship.

Through a lens of pain, you write, “The ocean is not beautiful today.” How does pain change our perception of beauty and the world, and in particular how does pain change that for the writer?

Pain influences our outward gaze profoundly and variably, of course, and while I was interested in tracking that, I was actually more interested in how migraine alters the workings of perception itself. Heightened senses of sight, smell, hearing, touch; stranged encounters with time and space, memory and attention, and, crucially, language—with migraine, altered perception becomes a lens through which you experience not only your physical pain, but the world around you and your own movement through it. So while I wanted to write about migraine, even more I wanted to write from and into it as a place of heightened awareness of the malleability of perception and of curiosity about what the implications of that experience might be.

You begin a book about migraines with labor pains. Why?

Actually, the book’s very first lines sprang from a conversation I had with Mary Jo Bang over dinner when the book was still just an idea I was circling with considerable trepidation. I learned that she’d also suffered with chronic migraine and admitted I was thinking about writing about it. Trying to describe my angle of approach, I said “Well, all pain is simple, and all pain is complex, right?” and she said, “There’s your opening….” Months later, when I began writing, I realized it was a good place to start. But you’re right, the opening scene is about labor pain. I think beginning with such a clear-cut and dramatic form of physical pain helped me differentiate my intentions: that in this inquiry I wanted to pursue questions about what it means to live with persistent pain, how it’s an altered way of being in a body and a mind over time. It’s also true that the experience of being a mother—specifically, of being a mother who lives with a chronic pain condition—threads itself through the book in a quiet but important way that’s hard for me to articulate, but must have urged me to begin there even if only to then depart.

I’m thinking about the biblical creation myth of labor in the Book of Genesisthat God “punishes” Eve with labor. To me, it seems like labor pains are the perfect introduction to a book largely about unraveling the meaning-making of women’s (and artists’) pain. As a writer with divinity school experience, were you thinking about the Bible?

Not consciously, but I do think there’s an element of origin story operating, both my own as a mother, which tilted the axis of my story of/in/with pain and who I might be telling that story to or for, and in terms of pain itself, particularly a woman’s pain brought about by a condition that afflicts far more women than men. And I think labor pain offers an opening into the private drama that pain is: mundane and spectacular, common and extraordinary. I’m also really interested in what you point to regarding meaning-making as relates to pain and the morals and assumptions for which it so often serves as projection screen. The strained, sometimes explicit, often implicit discourse between meaning and meaninglessness, chance and design, will and fate as ascribed to pain is one of the things I reckon with in the book. It shows up even in the etymology of the word “pain,” where punishment for a misdeed and emotional distress show up before physical suffering does.

What are other differences between women’s pain and men’s? What are we asking of women and their pain? Or what are we ignoring? I’m thinking particularly of your treatment of Joan of Arc in the book.

Our culture takes a pretty gendered perspective to everything, and pain is no exception; in fact, it’s probably a force multiplier, so it’s in the water, so to speak. There’s plenty of maddening evidence about the persistent ways sexism and misogyny negatively affect women in health and medical contexts, and history is overflowing with perverse examples of gendered ways women’s bodies are sites where pain is ignored or inflicted. My experience has, of course, been inflected with both ambient and specific aspects of this reality, so my story and my outlook are thus informed. But I’m not, in this book, attempting to stake out a particular claim beyond reflecting those inevitable aspects of my experience. I became fascinated by Joan specifically through the faint glimmer of her own resistant language as represented in the copious, bureaucratic transcript of her trial. She was a woman who resisted gender norms and whose body did not behave—in some ways this misbehavior had a lot in common with migraine (e.g. visual and aural hallucination)—and whose utterances resisted the submission that was being required of her. Once I started pouring over the transcripts, it was astonishing to see her emerging again and again in a sea of hostile men: the flood of their names, of their questions and accusations, of their outrage and remonstrations about her body and her claims about what it experienced.

Your book is in part a challenge to memoir, autobiography, or life writing, in that pain resists being recorded and recalled by memory in the same way as other sensations. Can you talk about formalizing pain within a book that’s semi-autobiographical?

I wrote this book immersively and in active dialogue with a range of different sources and forms, which felt like the truest way to get at that goal of not only writing about but from and into migraine. Mostly, I wanted to follow the energy of language and fascination where it led me through the prism of migraine. At the same time, I was consciously wary of anything that might smack of false resolution or superimposed arc or some kind of “acceptable” performance of a woman’s pain. I had no idea if it’d work, and was OK with the possibility that it might not, so I embarked on what felt initially like a very private experiment of search and discovery in which I was trying to both explore and inhabit the strange fascinations and intensities of migraine-mind while also creating a record of my own experience with them. I hope that the forms the book takes up—lists and litanies, collages and fragments, glosses, appendices, indexes, and proofs, as well as analysis, interpretation, and personal narrative—reflect this in terms of documentation and reasoning, as well as in terms of how my mind fastens on language itself.

I’ve heard you describe your project as a lyric essay in the past, and what you’ve just described sounds like my definition of the lyric essay in its weaving together different forms of witness. What does the term “lyric essay” mean to you, and how does “migraine-mind” lend itself to the form, cohering these various types of documentation?

I think of the lyric essay as a category of stylistically and topically wide-ranging nonfiction prose interested in the interplay between language’s aesthetic and semantic registers, which of course is to say the interplay between form and content. At its best, it’s an inherently intimate form because of the way it reveals how we think as much as what we think about. Within this context, being guided by (or pursuing) “migraine-mind” meant being compelled, but not obliged—that is, not only pursuing the ideas or texts or memories that invited fascination, but trying to manifest the qualities of the fascination itself, the strange intensities of attention and the materiality of it, too. Migraine has many qualities, some of which are quite deadening and monotonous, but certain aspects of it, for me, at least, are prismatic and highly attuned. I wanted the book to inhabit this multivalent, shifting sensibility.

How does pain mark time differently?

I think pain peers into, reinforces, and breaks apart our experience of time in ways similar to how it peers into, reinforces, and breaks apart our experience of self. It takes orderliness and givens and says not so fast, not so much. It positions us in paradox: pain can make things slow down and/or speed up, become indelible and/or disappear, reveal our isolation and/or our connectedness, our power and/or our vulnerability. We often use time as a measure by which to calculate and thereby comprehend or value our lives, and this kind of reckoning is tricky business when you’ve spent years in pain that, unlike labor pain, doesn’t transform or produce. Making those calculations in the book—counting up the accumulated hours, months, and years, the qualities of different pain experienced, the medications I took to treat it and their side effects—felt risky to me since avoiding taking stock in that particular way had been a kind of coping mechanism for me. Finally doing it did shift something, I think—it allowed me to admit this aspect of my reality more fully. More interesting, though, was thinking about the way time itself feels malleable in migraine-mind: how attention feels like it becomes embodied as a temporal dimension, how a moment can lengthen beyond what seems reasonable or several hours can disappear like a mirage.

Probably my favorite part of your book is your reading of the medical procedural House, whose main character solves strange medical cases through procedure while himself enduring chronic pain there is no cure for. Can you summarize your reading of the show as it relates to your pain?

I think the show resonated in its devotion to the long arc of resolve-less-ness as against the mini-arcs of repetition and temporary resolution. The cases House solves come and go: they arise, disrupt, and resolve on repeat—rather like my migraines—but they never touch the underlying story of ongoing pain for which there is no holy grail solution despite a never-ending quest—rather like my migraines. The rub between its different temporal realities—the individual show (read: specific migraine) vs. the ongoing condition of House’s pain and its effects on his life (read: chronic migraine condition)—felt very apt, as did some of what I read as the show’s underlying questions about identity (does pain make us who we are? are we ourselves despite or because of it?) and meaning (is pain meaningful? is knowledge meaningful if it can’t effect change?). It was an unexpected discovery, to realize I wanted to be in conversation with the show, and it felt like the best kind of lark—it took on possibility and depth that I couldn’t have predicted while remaining good fun.

In the book, you reference Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill,” which calls for centering illness as an informing consideration for much of literature. How does a central attention to pain change the way you read?

For me, it’s not about selecting a particular theoretical lens to apply to things, but about being informed—as we all are—by the experience that shapes my consciousness. Crisis or other inflection points affect us, of course, but often deposit us pretty quickly back in a new/old normal. Part of what I was reckoning with by writing Pain Studies is what it means to have this altered version of reality be a consistent if intermittent and unwelcome part of my lived experience, an ongoing aspect of my lived present. As such it shapes my relationship to both reading and writing, sometimes dulling my sense and sensibility, and sometimes heightening them, opening up what Woolf describes as “…a mystic quality…with the police off-duty, we creep beneath…and words give up their scent and distill their flavor.”

Author bio: Micah Bateman (@micah_bateman) is a writer and public humanities researcher on faculty in the School of Library and Information Science at the University of Iowa.

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