Meghan O'Rourke on Writing Through Grief
Meghan O'Rourke talks about her recent memoir, The Long Goodbye.
Meghan O’Rourke’s accomplishments are many. A graduate of Yale, she was a fiction/nonfiction editor at The New Yorker at the age of 24, one of the youngest editors in the history of the magazine. She then became culture editor and literary critic for Slate, a poetry editor of The Paris Review from 2005-2010, and published a collection of poems, Halflife, in 2007, to critical acclaim and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. The Long Goodbye, her first book of prose, was published on April 14th.
As eloquent and thoughtful as it is brave, The Long Goodbye is O’Rourke’s reflection on her mother’s battle with cancer and the strange, difficult months following her death. O’Rourke’s taxingly honest account of her experience of grief transcends the category of memoir as, in addition to sharing her personal story, she turns her critic’s eye to the question of what it means to lose someone and to grieve that loss in today’s culture. Far from scholarly or staid, this is criticism of the most personal kind, and it is both heartbreaking and illuminating to read about how she tried to make sense of things.
In a recent phone interview, I asked Meghan about the experience of writing something so personal and her call for change in our language for grief.
It’s a very brave and important thing you have done by writing this book. How did you begin writing The Long Goodbye?
It began in a couple of different ways. In one sense I began without even knowing I was beginning. Right before my mother died, I would find myself coming back from doctor appointments and writing down what had happened, just as a way of trying to create some illusory order and understanding. But those were more-so notes to myself, more of a journal that I was keeping for myself. I really began writing it after my mother died. I was behind on my columns for Slate, where I was working at the time. I was trying to write about something else and I just couldn’t focus, which is one thing that many bereaved people experience: a lack of concentration, a difficulty working. So I told my editor, “I just don’t know that I can work on this piece.” All I could do was think about grief. And she said ‘Well, why don’t you try writing about that?’ And I remember I thought, well, this is such a personal experience, why would anyone want to hear about my loss? But I also realized, as she talked more about it, that this was not something I had seen described in a lot of places. So I thought, well, maybe there is something there and I started to write. When I was about 7 or 8 [columns] in, I realized that I really hadn’t exhausted my interest in the topic, and I started to get a lot of responses from readers. I became aware of a hunger for discussion of what grief was actually like in the moment rather than reflected upon later – what it really felt like, what the strange crevices and crannies were, and the difficulties of being kind of adrift in a culture that doesn’t have, necessarily, a lot of support built into it.
The other thing I found was that, for me, the act of writing was a weird transformation. I had always been a writer and found writing as a way of ordering the world, but that act of transformation became a work tool, one that almost functioned like other people’s rituals [for grieving] might have. And it was that that made me want to keep writing.
O’Rourke and Kelly – those are two very Irish last names that you have.
Well, both my mother’s family and father’s family are Irish and, as they liked to tell us when we were growing up, we are all Irish. Both sides are Irish and Irish American, going all the way back. My mother’s family was the Kellys and the Flahertys. [My parents] both grew up in large Irish Catholic families in New Jersey and gave us all Irish names: Liam, Eamon and Meghan. There was always a strong sense of Irish pride. I actually spent half a year in Ireland in college, in Dublin.
Where did you study?
(Laughs) I didn’t study, actually! I hung out and worked in a vegetarian restaurant called Cornucopia, which is right off Grafton Street. I worked there for six months and it was horrible, it was the hardest work I’ve ever done. In fact, when I was writing [The Long Goodbye], I kept thinking about that, saying “You think writing a book is hard? No, working at Claire’s Cornucopia was hard!” My father’s family has roots in Sligo and Dromahair and I think my great-grandfather on his side came from Killarney. My mother’s family came from the area just north of Dublin.
I read the review of Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary you did for Slate, and found it so interesting that, since those are his personal notes, published posthumously, they weren’t really intended for an audience, they were just things that he had written for himself following his mother’s death. Your work also started off as your own personal journal writings. What changed between writing for yourself and writing something that you knew other people were going to read?
Well, once I started writing the pieces for Slate I was very aware that other people were going to read them, so I felt that there was an obligation to try to be communicative in a way that would also honor the strange impossibilities of communicating things like this. But then once I actually began writing the book and I wasn’t publishing the pieces on Slate anymore – and I think this is something any writer would say – it really became private again. Even though I knew it was going to be published, that knowledge seemed extremely theoretical.
The primary impulse was to get something down on the page, as if it would help me understand. I only really began to think about the question of readers after I had written a draft and started to go back over things that were repetitive or not clear. So there was kind of a layering process, but there’s a lot in it that came from a very private place. I think that’s important. I don’t think you can totally write about grief unless you are writing from a private place.
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