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Common Reading 2019: Eula Biss

"The Pain Scale"

Hospice nurses are trained to identify five types of pain: physical, emotional, spiritual, social, and financial. The pain of feeling, the pain of caring, the pain of doubting, the pain of parting, the pain of paying.” 

—Eula Biss

Eula Biss


Eula Biss is a nonfiction writer who is founder of, and an editor at, Essay Press and teaches at Northwestern University. She is the author of three books titled On Immunity: An Inoculation, Notes from No Man's Land: American Essays, and The Balloonists and has written multiple essays. She has previously visited Susquehanna University as part of the Seavey Reading Series and traveled to South Africa in 2018 with creative writing students as part of Susquehanna’s GO Short: Travel Writing in South Africa trip.  

Discussion Questions

1. Biss discusses her experiences with physical pain. Could other types of pain also be described in the terms of this story?

2. Why does the author share her thoughts in this format?

3. What’s the worst pain you’ve ever experienced? How would you rate it on a 1-10 scale? 

4. Which is worse, physical pain or emotional pain? Why? Do other kinds of pain exist?

5. In what ways does the pain we experience make us who we are? What pain has affected your identity?


Amy Jarvis plans to graduate from Susquehanna University in 2021 with a Creative Writing major and Women’s Studies and Religious Studies minors. Her chapbook Separating Wound from Weapon was published through Corona Press and she’s had work published in RiverCraft, Essay Magazine, Flagship, and Laurel Moon. She’s a poet, loves words fiercely, and wholeheartedly believes that stories are the heart of human connection.

Introduction by Amy Jarvis

Act It Out!

Two Actors: Father and Eula


Father: One of the functions of the pain scale is to protect doctors- to spare them some emotional pain. Hearing someone describe their pain as a ten is much easier than hearing them describe it as a hot poker driven through their eyeballs into their brain.

Eula: nods

Father: I think we should describe pain but what we are willing to do to make it stop. Like, would you visit five specialists and take three prescription narcotics?

Eula: *laughs* Would you give up a limb?

Father: Would you surrender your sense of sight for the next ten years?

Eula: Would you accept a shorter life span?


Skits contributed by Dr. Jennifer Sacher-Wiley and Samantha Schwarz

In-Class Activities

1. Have students write about a time that they were in any type of pain, where they would rank their pain on “the pain scale,” and how they got through it. 

2. In groups, have students create a new version of the pain scale that is most accurate for them. This activity may include drawing faces or coming up with written descriptions. The scales can measure physical pain, or some other type.

3. Have students write a story of their own pain anonymously. Mix up the stories and hand them back out. Each student should try and step into the shoes of the pain they’ve been given and present it to the class.