Disability and self-identity: Writing a memoir

Patricia Horvath has written about a shrinking woman in her fiction, but now she has written about another in her nonfiction – herself.

Horvath, an English professor here at FSU and author of the forthcoming memoir “All the Difference,” was diagnosed with osteoporosis in her thirties, nearly twenty years earlier than the average.

Osteoporosis is a condition where bones become brittle and weak from the loss of tissue. Bones can be easily fractured and patients typically experience a gradual loss in height. “I had to fight to get a diagnosis,” she said, “but I had full blown osteoporosis. I was very upset, and I started crying when I found this out.”

Horvath said she often writes to figure out things that bother her, so it’s no wonder she began writing about her experiences with the bone disease.

“I wrote this story,” Horvath said, “in which somebody was shrinking and shrinking, and eventually she had to carry a milk crate around to stand on, and nobody noticed her disappear.”

She added, “When I workshopped [the story] with some friends of mine, they asked me about the genesis for it, and I was telling them about my osteoporosis, and how upset I was when I was diagnosed. … My friends said, ‘You shouldn’t write this as fiction – you should write this as nonfiction, and you should write the actual story.’”

Her osteoporosis diagnosis was not the first physical challenge she has faced. As a child, she had severe scoliosis, a condition where the spine curves sideways. She spent her youth locked up in braces and casts that bound her from chin to knee. One surgery left her in bed for months, unable to move. After this ordeal, she had to relearn how to walk.

She said, “Eventually, abruptly, close to the time I was graduating high school, all of those braces and casts and things came off and I was pronounced healed. I was shocked by the difference in the way I was perceived and treated by people.

“Boys who wouldn’t give me the time of day suddenly wanted to go out with me,” she said with a laugh.

“They would say, ‘Oh you’re so smart. Can I copy your homework?’ and I thought, you know, this isn’t about me being smart, because I’ve been smart all these years and you didn’t want to talk to me last year when I was smart.”

Horvath’s workshopping group was surprised to hear about her struggles with scoliosis as a child – she’d never mentioned it to them, even after years of friendship. “They said, ‘That’s the story you need to write.’ I said, ‘No, I don’t want to write that. It’s too personal – it’s too upsetting.’ And they said, ‘Well, that’s why you need to write it.’ They were right.”

And so Horvath began work on her memoir, a project that would span years. “I would write some and revisit it and rewrite it. … I wrote many drafts and rewrote them,” she said.

“I had to do research,” she added. “I had to find my old medical records. I found documents my mother had written from around that time.”

The book is more than just an exploration of her own experiences, however. Through her writing, Horvath tried to find the ways in which disability can shape self-identity. She said, “The question I’m asking is … ‘What happens to one’s sense of self when a physical disability ceases to be visible?’ And within that, I’m interested in ways historically – in literature, because I’m an English professor – physical disability has been conflated with moral failing.”

The memoir won’t be Horvath’s first published work. She has had essays and stories published in many reputable literary magazines, such as “The Massachusetts Review,” “The Los Angeles Review,” and “Shenandoah.” In 2013, she was a special mention for a Pushcart Prize – a prestigious literary accolade – in the category of Best of Small Presses.

Amid her career as a writer and her time working in educational program development for low income students in Boston, Horvath found her way to FSU.

Samuel Witt, an FSU English professor and Horvath’s colleague, said watching her teach a class is like watching “a ship being guided with a really light hand.

“I remember she was trying to teach students how to make writing non-abstract,” said Witt. “She started off by talking about a new dog she had gotten and the students were constructing these pictures of it. She described the dog but didn’t give them any particular descriptive language … The students all imagined different kinds of dogs. And then she revealed at the end that the dog was this little tiny lap dog, and then it turned out that she didn’t even have a dog.”

Horvath’s current student, Robert Renaud, is grateful for the opportunity to learn with her. He said he’s “older than most of the other students at FSU” but Horvath’s “patience with my lack of self-confidence has turned a truly terrifying time in my life into a very pleasant and enjoyable experience.

“She was the first person to suggest trying to do something more with my work,” he continued. “Taking her advice, I submitted to the Onyx and the Literary Awards. … I never would have tried if she didn’t make me feel comfortable. That confidence is something I will always be grateful for.”

Horvath is having the same effect on students that stories once had on her. She said, “From the very first time somebody said those magic words to me, ‘Once upon a time,’ I was transported. … It never occurred to me not to write.”