“Gatherer’s Blog” is an invited feature that provides emergent as well as seasoned writers with opportunities to reflect upon aspects of their own writing processes. This entry of the Gatherer’s Blog takes on a new approach for us, as we present a conversation between two members of the editorial team. More details follow.
Reflecting on [the] Present Imperfect: A Conversation with Ona Gritz and Diane R. Wiener
Note: This conversation took place via Zoom, and its transcript was thereafter edited collaboratively by Ona and Diane. Ona is Wordgathering’s Gatherer’s Blog Editor; Diane is the Editor-in-Chief.
DRW: Well, I’m very happy, honored, and delighted to talk about your book with you, and I want to start by asking you a little bit about how you’ve been feeling about the book since it’s been in the world. So, how long has the book been in the world? And can you tell our readership, my friend, about what it’s been like knowing the book has been in the world in this form?
OG: It’s interesting because, on some level, I wondered whether this book needed to exist because all these essays have had a nice life. They’ve been in Wordgathering. They’ve been in many places, but all those places are virtual, with the exception of one or two. So it feels different to have these essays in print. And of course different to have them curated together, to see what they added up to, what they said to each other, and what echoes were appearing. Barbie, for instance. I actually didn’t realize that Barbie dolls are mentioned five times in this book until my editor pointed it out.
DRW: Have you ever seen that book about Barbie that’s all about these multiple generations of people affected by Barbie? There’s a whole bunch of artwork, inspired by feminists’ reclamation of Barbie, and one of the art pieces is actually a doormat. So basically, you are rubbing your feet right on a woman, and so this is a comment on how messed up and toxic that is. But I also think about all the different articles that started coming out. Maybe you remember. Like if Barbie was really a person what her dimensions would be like. It’s ridiculous and messed up and there’s a kind of embodying–that underpinning of her that really is ablest, actually, right?
OG: Yes, but, or and.. I think one of the reasons I loved playing with Barbies was that I could have a body other than the disabled body that I had.
DRW: So you got to live in an imaginative way with an alternate embodiment through Barbie.
DRW: I can understand why you entered into this whole other world. What other kinds of themes are there in the book?
OG: Barbie is a thread. There’s the thread of sisterhood. The thread of being a bookish girl. The thread of disability. The thread of motherhood.
DRW: How would you describe the relationship between the threads? They don’t necessarily become just a tapestry. In my experience of the collection, there are lots of other shapes and fabrics that form. What kinds of descriptions would you use for it as a fabric? For example, I see a shawl. And maybe that’s partly because I’ve been wearing a shawl that my cousin made for me that’s knitted. But there’s something about wrapping yourself in story that happens for me when I read your work. And I feel very comforted, even though some of the content is certainly not easy, or peaceful.
OG: I really appreciate that you feel that way because what I love about first person nonfiction is the intimacy, the feeling of confession and trusting that there’s a relationship between writer and reader when the writer is sharing from her own life and digging for what’s going on beneath the surface. I’m talking about things that are painful or were difficult, but everything that’s painful and difficult is informative and formative. So, I like that you say that you feel comfortable because what I want is that sense of intimacy and that sense of being in the hands of a friend. You’re being entrusted with what’s on these pages.
DRW: Yes, I think that you summon us. There’s a calling into company and into conversation where the interaction is more than just interlocutory. The really vivid images stick. Intimacy, as you said. And I think about the idea of being wrapped in a shawl. The threads of these fabrics are really interesting to me.
So you started to notice that you were writing about Barbie. Did you then deliberately keep indexing Barbie or did you just notice that afterwards? Are there certain themes that you wanted to make sure you reckoned with more than once and in multiple ways like holograms or facets of a gem? Or did it just happen that way?
OG: Well, I’ll answer the Barbie question first. I have another essay that’s not in the book because I felt like it would have been too repetitive to include. I think of that one as my “Barbie essay.” And so, when I was talking to Roxanne, who is one of my two editors on this book, and she kept mentioning Barbie, I thought, Well, why is she talking about Barbie? That essay isn’t even in here. I had the Kindle version where you can do a word search and I saw Barbie shows up five or six times. So that was a completely unconscious repetition. And, you know, each of these essays was written as an individual piece. This is a collection, rather than a book that I sat down to write. So, by choosing from among my essays and seeing how I wanted to lay them out, that’s when I started to discover my themes and obsessions.
DRW: So let’s talk about some of those, if that’s alright with you. I was thinking about the profound and vivid continuance of memory, and of the simultaneously linear and alinear structures of your relationship with your sister–may she rest in power and peace. And the ways that you talk about her as if she is, and knowing she isn’t. And yet, of course, because it’s written in multiple tenses, she was and then is. And so there’s this way that the title of the book (Present, Imperfect) is doing that in those ways, specifically in the ways that she appears and manifests, and joins us in conversation, and all the heartbreaking ways that that happens. Can you talk a little bit about your sisterliness and the writing of that?
OG: In my poetry book, Geode, which came out in 2013 or 14, my sister is completely absent. It reads as though I have no sibling. And in fact, I had two other half siblings. But she’s the one I was raised with, and her death was so earth shattering that I really didn’t allow her into my consciousness for many years. I wasn’t ready—and I think that’s very much in the essay, “It’s Time,” that’s in here—and so I developed a kind of amnesia around her. But at the same time, sisterhood has been an obsession in my writing. I have a middle-grade novel coming out that is all about the longing for an older sister. I attempted to write a young adult novel that was sort of a fantastical version of her life, because I didn’t know a lot about her life and because it was before I began researching. Anyway, for the past ten years she’s been a real presence for me. And the way that I’ve kept her close, or brought her close again, is both through learning everything I could that happened to her and also from manifesting her on the page, inviting her back by telling the tragedies of her life, because there were many, but also just writing us as sisters before everything went awry.
DRW: One of the things that I’m struck by listening to you is, again, this idea of that before. And what does before mean, when time is transitioning in so many different complex directions simultaneously throughout the stories in the essays? And so one of the things I was thinking about was your choosing this title, which is obviously a reference to grammatical structure, but it’s also about the impossibility of being static. And the dynamism of your writing is a promise you make to us in that title, and I think you certainly do right by us as readers in the way the dynamism unfolds. So I was thinking about, you know, I’m not fluent in French. I was raised by a French teacher, in part, but I was thinking about all these different grammatical ways that something can be in the middle of happening, or how there is the future conditional. And the idea of the present imperfect is not just a pun. So, can you say something about the way you choose your words and the multiplicity you intend? You let the reader decide what things mean, but there are multiple times in the essays where you want us to have a certain understanding of something. So there’s a balance between inviting the reader to have their own experience, and encouraging them to understand something very much as you intended, which I know is a big question to ask. It has to do with the artist’s intention as compared with the receiver’s experience of the art. So that’s sort of a question, but more of a reflection. What are your thoughts about all that?
OG: Well what comes to mind is arriving at this process as a poet. Something I’d thought of as one of my strengths as a poet is a certain amount of restraint and trusting the reader to make meaning out of the image or the scene. And when I came to prose writing, I had to learn when to do that and when to be the overt meaning-maker. And it’s something I’m still learning. Because there’s a sort of push-pull. Every writer is taught to show rather than tell, but in essay writing, I think it’s actually finding that balance, because you’re thinking on the page.
DRW: Yes. Yes. What are some examples that you find especially meaningful when you look back at the process of doing that in this book?
OG: There’s a very short piece that’s based on this photograph which is how this photograph landed on the cover. And it’s just a sharing of a moment in an unhappy marriage. And it’s something that I grappled with. I wrote a poem that’s actually in Geode, that’s based on the same photograph, but it never quite landed the way I wanted it to land, and somehow when I thought of writing it as a flash nonfiction piece, it broke open for me in the last line. There’s this negative space in this photograph between my head leaning against my three-month-old baby’s head and the negative space, very clearly, to me, forms the shape of a bird in flight. And how do you talk about that, without being predictable? And it was the word suggest. When those lines came to me I knew that I said what I wanted to say: “That bit of light shaped by the way our dark forms touch, doesn’t it resemble an open winged bird? Doesn’t it suggest flight?” And there we are. You and me. Reader and me. I’m having this conversation with you. I’m asking, don’t you see what I see?
DRW: Well, I love that for so many reasons, and one of the reasons it’s so moving to me–well, of course you know I think the world of you–and the word suggest is so complex here. Because, in a way, the idea of suggestion is nuanced about itself.
OG: Right. But I forgot to mention the line before that, which leads to it. In talking about this photograph that I had very complicated feelings about because of what was going on when it was being taken, I say, “I can even say it told me what to do.”
DRW: Right, so that suggestion is on one level very literal. So when someone suggests something to someone, they don’t have to listen. But the suggestion, as an act, is more than an invitation. It’s not just advice, though, either. It really has so many complicated implications. But I think the word suggest is also such a wonderful image to us in a photograph, because you’re talking about a photograph, but it’s more than just an idiom about the negative space, although that would have been plenty beautiful. And it is that too. You’re doing all these different things at once in a way that is very resembling of poetry.
OG: Yeah. For better and for worse, I only know how to write as a poet. And then, because I am also now a prose writer, I have to undo certain things or expand certain things. But I also really appreciate everything I learned from my great poetry teachers.
And what happens to me, what I live for as a writer, are those moments when it feels like there’s someone else in the room who’s kind of driving the car and knows more than I know. Or, you know, they’ll say that smart thing, and I’ll almost look over my shoulder to see who said it. For me, writing is largely listening. There’s something I’m trying to capture. That’s why I’m always amazed when people tell me that they listen to music when they write because what I’m listening to is the writing.
DRW: What I’m listening to is the writing. What a beautiful thing to say. So you’re listening to, in a way, your own experience of creativity–at the writing process, which is of course part of what the Gatherer’s Blog engages. Your inner landscape of the writing process as having a conceptual framework that’s your relationship with yourself, but also the writing has its life, and it speaks to you. It is so much in the middle of who you are. That’s so compelling, too, because it’s like you’re aware that you’re writing, and that the writing is alive, and that you’re writing about yourself, and that you’re one of the characters–as it were. And you’re aware of an awareness of what you’re doing, so that it has a music to it that emerges as it’s being created. So it’s not scripted and yet you have something in mind that you want to convey. That’s a really complicated and nuanced way to describe the writing process. So if you are going to explain that to someone who didn’t know a lot about writing, and what it is like to write, what would you say? How would you describe that experience to them?
OG: Well, you know, it depends on how it’s going at any given time, but ideally you’re coming to understand something. I do have something to convey, or I think I do when I sit down, but I don’t always know what it is, and it’s not static. I’m not a very clear thinker. If, you know, you were just listening to my mind doing what it does. But when I’m writing I’m searching for a kind of clarity and searching for pattern and for meaning and so I feel like the parts of myself that I understand the best, that I can articulate the most, are those that I’ve taken the time to try to convey on the page.
DRW: And so what would that be like, how would I describe that to someone who doesn’t do this?
OG: I don’t know what I would liken it to that might be in that other person’s experience. Is it kind of like prayer? In some ways. Is it kind of like a conversation? Sometimes I think of it in terms of solving a puzzle, because there’s often a problem that you’re trying to work through in the making of something. And, it’s also about memory. And it’s about the trickiness of memory. And it’s about living twice or living as many times as it takes in order to convey what it was like to have a given experience.
DRW: So, several times already we’ve made reference to birth. The baby. The book is a baby. But, but in a way you’re describing a generative element of your own imagination, that has to do with you, appearing repeatedly and reliving, and re-narrating. Not re-narrating like it wasn’t written the right way the first time. What I mean is reinvigorating. A repetition or polishing of a narration until you have it conveyed the way you would like, but still letting the reader have enough bandwidth to figure things out for themselves. That’s a really generous kind of generative writing.
So I want to ask you a different kind of question, which is when you think about what it’s become as a collection, when you think about looking at it now as compared to each of the pieces individually, what does it offer you as a writer that is more than just the sum? How is this life in this form different for you?
OG: There are the 14 pieces and then there are all of their relationships to each other. How they speak to each other. When I was choosing pieces. I was looking for echoes. I didn’t want too much repetition, but I kind of like that things weave in and out. I didn’t want a straight chronology. I wanted to layer it more. The weaving of memory and experience. I put it together in the way you would put together a collection of poems, and when you do that, you know, you’ve got your files, and you’ve got your yeses, your nos and your maybes. And part of it is, which ones do I really love? And the other part is which ones are working to inform the others in some way.
DRW: So when you think about the echoes–which are different from themes, in a way, right? Or patterns. Maybe they’re all the same.
OG: Or they–maybe they’re all different ways of looking at what my preoccupations are. What keeps coming back? Who’s important to me? What’s important to me? What am I still grappling with?
DRW: And you, of course, created it so you knew it would be this way. But now that it’s in its form in the world, are there any things about it that you didn’t notice when you were putting it together that surprised you, other than the five mentions of Barbie?
OG: That’s a little hard to answer because I am now so familiar with each of these pieces because of the whole editing process. People say write the book that you want to read. And the punch line to go with that is because you’re going to have to read it 75 times. So I feel very, very informed about what’s on these pages right now. But I’m sure there are things that I will discover when I have distance.
DRW: What do you know about yourself as a writer right now that you maybe didn’t know five years ago?
OG: I’ve realized how much trauma informs my writing, and something that I’m constantly discovering is that—I, you know, I talk a lot about being a kid who loved to pretend, and I think that what I was doing, in fact, was a form of survival and dissociation as self-protection. And what I have discovered is that that messes with your memory because you’re not fully present. And you can’t remember something if you weren’t there, right? I can have been there in the room without having been there, fully present. And so, that’s something that I’ve had to figure out. How can I be essentially a memoirist when there are so many holes in my memory?
DRW: Well there’s so much discussion now in multiple spaces within different cultural contexts, about the idea of gaslighting. And I think in a way, this happens a lot to people who are multiply marginalized, certainly, that people can self-gaslight. And you, you’re an accomplice.
OG: Right, you become an accomplice in your own gaslighting. In my case, my parents were not truthful people. I loved my parents. My parents were really good to me. They weren’t so good to their other children, which is very painful. And they told lies. They made stuff up. And I helped them. You know, when something didn’t quite make sense, I worked pretty hard to make myself believe it anyway, because it came from the source of someone who I was invested in believing.
DRW: Well the kind of compassion the child develops for themself, hopefully, in the context that you’re describing, and that kind of trauma, I think may be supported by the process of writing about it. And I’m not saying that you necessarily set out to be therapeutic for yourself in the writing.
OG: You know, I think art-making is a form of self-healing. And if you’re going to make something for a wider audience than just yourself, it has to be that and more than that. You’re also creating a story. You’re creating an experience for someone else. You’re trying to make a thing of beauty in some way.
DRW: I’m very moved by everything you’re saying, of course, and I think another layer for me listening to you is that the idea that not being sure about what happened is about questioning this, the solvency or solemnity of memory. If memory is already complicated and messy and nuanced and not necessarily reliable, that doesn’t mean that the child isn’t true in their own awareness of themselves. And so, the adult who looks back at their child self and writes is modeling for us as readers that it’s okay to be confused about the memories, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not able to have your own experience. So in a way, it’s anti-gaslighting. I always think about Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde, and how she called it a biomythography. She wanted to, I think, mess with these categories of truth and fiction. You know that biography and history are not mythology and you know that there’s the truth and then there’s the invented. Yet what you’re describing is that you made these imaginative worlds to live. So they were real to you.
OG: They were real to me and they were necessary, but they also deprived me of some important experiences. But this comes back to the act of writing as healing. The truth is healing. And we writers are diggers for truth.
DRW: Yes, even if we’re writing fiction, we’re diggers for truth. Sure, poems, too. Yeah. The idea that something can be simultaneously protective and shielding and survival-enabling and advancing of protection in a way that is still imaginative. I always love the magic type of form, of chutzpah. The masculinized version of this would be ballsy, right? But you’re doing something that goes into the middle of the paradox of something that was simultaneously producing a sharing with yourself of comfort and space and safety, which also took you away from something. And to notice that all these years later is a kind of reckoning, in a way.
OG: It makes me think of the piece that’s in Wordgathering, “Am I the Burning House?,” which talks very directly about bravery and ultimately embraces the idea that every one of us is actually performing bravery constantly. Because we live with so much embarrassment and so much shame, so that anything we do to counter that is, in fact, a form of bravery.
DRW: What are some things that you’d want readers to be not just aware of in your writing process, but engaging with and exploring in the book? Or do you not think of it like that?
OG: I don’t know that I think about that especially directly. I’m a firm believer in the idea of the universal and the particular. So, I’m always hoping that if I’m very candid in a piece of writing, that the reader will see something of themselves in the piece. Literature offers two beautiful opposing possibilities, right? The mirror–Oh my god, I see me there. And empathy, the experience of the other. And you mash them all together and you get empathy for the self, hopefully.
DRW: Yeah, and also the ways in which, like with imagination, that you can go somewhere else. That makes you come closer to yourself, but you also have a break, and in the same kind of way that you describe being in these spaces that protected you and were also separating from certain things as a consequence. I’ve been avoiding the word resilient during this conversation, but it is some of that. I think the word resilience has been kind of ripped off recently, but it’s a good word, you know.
OG: Yeah, I think so too. Good word and it’s a good quality. Yes.
DRW: And there’s something going on where you’re like…someone said this to me recently, but you know it’s like you’re going through something. And, you know, you tell someone about what you’re going through. But then you listen to what they’re going through and listening to someone else talk about what they’re going through is not just a compassionate and kind thing to do. It’s also a way to move away from your own experience for a moment. And listening to another person, it’s also bringing you back to yourself without narcissism. I mean, I think the writing takes the reader to places that aren’t theirs and takes them away from their own experience, but also brings them back to their own experience, and that’s a gift that you have, I think, as a writer, that I think is unusual. That you somehow bring us away into a place that is not ours and yet you bring the reader into proximity to themselves because of that empathy you’re describing. I think that’s really something.
OG: Thank you
DRW: I mean, you know, my bias is not going to be occluded. It’s explicit. I’m a big fan. And I know the fan word is not the greatest word, but it’s okay. Do you want to read something to folx? “Am I the Burning House?” Would you like to read that? Of course, as you mentioned, we have that published in Wordgathering, and thank you for the wonderful connections therein.
[OG reads “Am I the Burning House?]
DRW: Holy shit. I’ve heard you read it, of course, several times. And each time, I feel vividly affected by the words that you’re using and how you read them. But also–I didn’t ask you if I could tell you this, I’m just holding forth for a second, if that’s okay. I often ask permission before I talk like this, but I’m just going to speak, if that’s okay. [Ona indicates her permission.] It’s not inspiration porn. It just isn’t. It’s so not that. And it’s such an important example about the difference between the expectation that we’re supposed to inspire and that that does, in fact, sometimes still happen.
OG: I struggled so much in the writing of this piece. There were so many false starts, and months of trying to get it right. And it was because I was so stuck on what I thought my perspective was supposed to be, as opposed to what it actually was.
DRW: You let yourself just be yourself. And then it was there.
OG: Finally. And I talked about that in the piece. In the writing of the piece, I’m trying to be affronted, you know, because I don’t want to be somebody’s inspiration porn. And yet, you know what? It did take real courage to go out there.
DRW: Mm, hmm. Your facility and capacity–dare I say–at describing that, are part of what makes you such a great teacher. And I think that the book has many stories and examples of humility that are juxtaposed with confidence and vulnerability. And the way that they all thematically create a tapestry. So, is there anything else that you would like to make sure we talk about, but we didn’t talk about? And was this okay?
OG: This was fabulous. I love it. I love talking to you, anyway.
DRW: Well, I love talking to you anyway, anyway.
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About the Authors
About Ona Gritz
Ona Gritz’s new collection of essays, Present Imperfect, is now out from Poets Wear Prada. She is also the author of Geode, a Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award Finalist, and On the Whole: A Story of Mothering and Disability. A longtime columnist at Literary Mama, Ona’s poems and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, The New York Times, River Teeth, The Bellevue Literary Review, Brevity, and elsewhere. Recent honors include two Notable Mentions in Best American Essays, a Best Life Story in Salon, and a winning entry in The Poetry Archive Now: Worldview 2020 project.
About Diane R. Wiener
Diane R. Wiener became Editor-in-Chief of Wordgathering in January 2020. Diane is the author of the full-length poetry collection, The Golem Verses (Nine Mile Press, 2018), the poetry chapbook, Flashes & Specks (Finishing Line Press, 2021), and the forthcoming poetry chapbook, The Golem Returns (swallow::tale press, 2022). Her poems also appear in Nine Mile Magazine, Wordgathering, Tammy, Queerly, The South Carolina Review, Welcome to the Resistance: Poetry as Protest, Diagrams Sketched on the Wind, Jason’s Connection, the Kalonopia Collective’s 2021 Disability Pride Anthology, and elsewhere. Diane’s creative nonfiction appears in Stone Canoe, Mollyhouse, The Abstract Elephant Magazine, and Pop the Culture Pill. Her flash fiction appears in Ordinary Madness; short fiction is published in A Coup of Owls. After serving as Guest Editor for Nine Mile Literary Magazine’s Fall 2019 Special Double Issue on Neurodivergent, Disability, Deaf, Mad, and Crip poetics, Diane was appointed as the magazine’s Assistant Editor. The Founding Director of the Syracuse University Disability Cultural Center (2011-2018), Diane now serves as a Research Professor and as the Associate Director of Interdisciplinary Programs and Outreach at the Burton Blatt Institute (Syracuse University College of Law); she also teaches in the Renée Crown University Honors program. Diane has published widely on disability, pedagogy, and empowerment, among other subjects. She is a proud Neuroqueer, Mad, Crip, Gender Nonconforming, Ashkenazic Jewish Hylozoist Nerd (etc.). Diane blogged for the Huffington Post between May 2016 and January 2018. You can visit Diane online at: https://dianerwiener.com.