Ona Gritz, author of the Shebook On the Whole: A Story of Mothering and Disability, offers her thoughts on chick lit, childhood, and the challenges of parenting with cerebral palsy.
What prompted you to write On the Whole?
I started writing about my experiences as a mother with a disability in a monthly column for Literary Mama in 2005. I took on the subject largely because, while there were many memoirs coming out by mothers of children with disabilities, little had been written about what it’s like for a woman with physical limitations to take on the very physical job of parenting. It felt important to me to share my experiences, but at the same time, I worried that the subject might be too unique to me to strike a chord with others. To my surprise, the responses I got from readers, mostly via e-mail, told me the opposite. What I wrote about—fear, feelings of ineptitude, a passionate desire to be the best mother I was capable of being—were things almost all new mothers, disabled or not, could relate to. In a sense, my cerebral palsy shone a light on the inadequacy everyone feels at one time or another when taking on something new and deeply important. And so I decided to tell my story in a fuller narrative, as a memoir, and began what became On The Whole.
Is there such a thing as “women’s writing”? Do you hate the term chick lit, or do you think we should embrace it, as we have the term gay?
Yes, there is such a thing as women’s writing, thank goodness! Recently I recommended a memoir to a friend, and she told me, “That’s the first book you’ve talked about in years that wasn’t written by a woman.” I can’t help being drawn to books written by people who share my gender. Our themes, our deepest concerns, are so connected to our bodies and how we move in the world as women. And I actually love the term chick lit. I think it’s sassy and self-affirming.
When did you first decide you were a writer?
My second-grade teacher, Mrs. Greenstein, decided I was a writer before I did. On the last day of school, she gave me a book of funny poems and inscribed it: “To Ona, who will someday be a fine author.” I wasn’t too far behind her. When I was twelve, writing flowery poems in a purple-paged flowery notebook and signing them with only my middle name, Fawn, I thought, This is what I want to do with my life.
Is there anything that you consider too personal to write about? How do you find that edge?
When it comes to myself, I don’t consider anything too personal to write about. In fact, I find the more I’m willing to reveal, the better the writing, and the more I learn from it. But I feel differently when it comes to my son. I write about him a lot, and quite openly, but there are times I hit a place as I’m working on a piece, when I tell myself, No, he wouldn’t want that story told, or That fact about him is private. I don’t know what that edge is until I come to it and feel myself about to step over.
How do you define truth in memoir?
For me, truth in memoir has more to do with an emotional accuracy than a factual one. Not that I don’t try to get the facts right, but I know memory to be both faulty and inventive, and I believe part of our job as memoirists is to embrace that. When I re-create dialogue, for example, I know I’m not getting the words right in terms of exactly what was said, so I aim to hear the person’s voice as best I can and capture that on the page. Any story we tell is filtered through us—our perceptions, the details we latched onto. Someone else who was in the room at the time would surely tell the same story differently.
Do you have an e-reader? What book are you reading on it now? When do you like to read on a device?
I actually have two e-readers, a Nook and a Kindle. Right now I’m reading Beth Kephart’s lyrical Shebook, Nest. Flight. Sky. Next on my to-read list is Make Me a Mother by Susanne Paola Antonetta. I like reading on e-readers anytime, but especially when I’m traveling.
What writing projects are you working on now?
I have two books in progress: a longer, full-length memoir on mothering and disability, and a complex family memoir focused primarily on the brief life and tragic death of my beloved older sister.
Do you have a quote, mantra, or thought that you’d like to end with?
I wrote myself a message and taped it over my desk to help jump-start my writing days. It says, “Just get it down. You can always fix it later.”
Read Ona Gritz’s beautiful short memoir On the Whole: A Story of Mothering and Disability, only at Shebooks!