Mia Herman is a writer and editor living in Queens, NY. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Atticus Review, Barren Magazine, Bellevue Literary Review, Third Coast, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Hofstra University and is Associate Managing Editor for F(r)iction. Her interests beyond the literary world include “curating road-trip playlists, watching obscene amounts of reality TV, and setting her friends up on blind dates.”
Her essay “Wings” appeared in Potomac Review issue #66 in spring 2020. In spring 2021 PR intern Mikaela Columba had the chance to speak with Herman. They talked about chronic pain, the craft of nonfiction, and the dubious origins of family mantras. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mikaela Columba: First off, I want to say that I am in love with the craft of “Wings”—the pacing, the chronology, the effortless movement from past to present. I know that, for me, with nonfiction it’s always tough to decide what goes in and what stays out; I just want to do a bunch of in-scene writing. Can you talk a little about how the structure of this essay developed?
Mia Herman: I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who struggles with this aspect of essay craft! I think the reason it’s so tricky is because life is an ongoing series of memories, so you’re choosing from a pool of experiences that widens and deepens every day.
Ultimately, for “Wings,” I wanted to select and sequence my memories in a way that illustrated the progressive nature of chronic pain, how its consequences morphed over the years. What was at stake when I was a child (not enjoying a family vacation, for example) became something more menacing during adolescence (a deep sense of shame, the result of unwanted whispers and stares). And then that shame morphed again, during young adulthood, into something life-threatening.
The presence of chronic pain in my life has never been a stagnant thing; its form seems to have shifted and grown with me over the years. Always there, but always changing. So it was important to me to select memories from each stage of life, showcasing that progression.
MC: I love that quote from the piece, “give them roots but give them wings.” I’d never heard something like that before. I did some looking around and apparently the quote has been variously attributed to the clergyman Henry Ward Beecher, the journalist Hodding Carter, and, oddly enough, Jonas Salk. How did this quote find its way into your life?
MH: Wow, I can’t believe I never thought to research that phrase! It was something my aunt and my mother would say on occasion, when my brothers and I were younger, usually in the context of staying out late, driving far distances, dating, etc. It was a mantra of sorts, my mother’s hope for parenting with balance, the recognition that she needed to give her children room to grow and mature while also offering a cocoon, a safety net, to catch us if we stumbled.
But with my chronic migraines and scoliosis, I don’t think that parenting style was even a possibility—no matter how much my mom might have wanted it to be. So I decided to use that phrase as the lens through which I could explore my childhood and adolescence, my relationship with pain, and my mother’s parenting practices. I think the phrase offered me a way in which to examine certain memories that could otherwise have been too challenging or too sensitive to excavate.
MC: “Wings” isn’t exactly an easy read. The subject matter is difficult, and the piece has a lonesome, wrenching feel to it. How did you approach the question of audience? Do you find it challenging to write about a topic people might not find readily appealing?
MH: Honestly, I didn’t think about whether or not the topic would be readily appealing to others when I sat down to write. I do sometimes write with a particular person or audience in mind. But for this piece, the desire to understand my relationship with chronic pain wasn’t dependent on appeal or relatability.
I tend to write about experiences I’ve had that I still don’t fully understand. So most of the memories I put down on the page are the things I wrestle with: wanting to understand myself more deeply, to understand the way in which my body has informed my memories, to understand my relationships and my interactions with the world.
Often, I don’t really know what I think or feel about an experience until I get the words down on the page. Most of the time, I don’t know where the essay is headed or where my memories will take me, but when I take a break and read the words back, it’s like a lightbulb moment. Oh! So that’s how I feel! And that desire to understand myself, to grow as a person, isn’t dependent on audience attraction.
MC: The essay feels as if it was written from a specific time and place. Looking back, are you satisfied with the piece? Do you have a sense of how the story might change if you tried to write it again, from where you are now?
MH: “Wings” would undoubtedly be a different essay if I tried to sit down and write it today. When I first drafted this piece, I was still wrestling with migraines on a daily basis so life was a revolving door of abortive medications and holistic treatments.
But I am in a very different place in my life right now. My migraines have become more manageable, thanks in part to a drastic change in my dietary lifestyle. (If you’re ever in search of gluten-free + dairy-free recipes, I’m your girl!) And having an incredible partner has helped as well! My husband is supportive, empathetic, and selfless, and he helps me deal with the pain and the doctors and the physical limitations without ever getting flustered or frustrated.
So I guess I relate to migraines differently these days. I sort of think of them as fair-weather friends rather than a constant threat; migraines are my reminder to slow down and take a breath, my reminder that I am not invincible, that my body is ever changing and that’s okay.
But if I did sit down to rewrite this essay, I would probably include a section about the way in which migraines and pain meds affected my road to pregnancy and my postpartum journey.
MC: “Wings” ends on this line: “These days, I fly around, wings spread wide, afraid to come back down to earth.” I just love that. It has this melancholy finality to it. How did you find this ending? Did it come about naturally, or was it a product of revision?
MH: Thank you so much! I’m glad that last line landed for you. Endings are always a struggle, aren’t they?
In its original state, this essay was actually part of a longer piece! So the ending was entirely different. I decided to split the longer piece in two after an editor mentioned that each half seemed to be wrestling with a different theme. Once I pulled the two apart, it was immediately easier to understand what “Wings” was about and how it needed to end.
MC: As I said earlier, the subject matter here is deeply personal. It’s heavy. Were there times you wanted to walk away from the essay? What sort of barriers did you encounter, and how did you move past them?
MH: I think the hardest thing was the fact that I didn’t have any distance from the subject matter. I usually like to let some time pass before trying to tackle certain events or experiences; I find that it helps to let my thoughts and emotions marinate.
But because migraines are a here-for-the-long-haul thing, I knew that if I wanted to write about them, I couldn’t wait for distance. (I’d be waiting forever!) Instead, I had to evaluate my life with them, both past and present, and consider how they’ve affected the totality of my experiences.
MC: I read a few of your other pieces—“Three Poems” in Foliate Oak, “How to Explain the Breakup to Your Overbearing Mother” in Atticus Review—and, like “Wings”, they deal with personal, emotionally heavy subjects. So I wanted to end by asking what you’re working on these days? Can we expect further exploration along these lines?
MH: I’ve always been fascinated by the way our bodies influence our minds and emotions. Does that qualify as emotional heft? I recently completed a poetry chapbook titled “Trying Times” and I’ll be sending that out soon to a handful of pubs and presses. It chronicles the unfolding of a new relationship, the challenges that arise as a result of intimacy (honesty, isolation, loss, disappointment), and the way we use our bodies to communicate.