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 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.
What I also loved about the Barthes book was that it captured the kind of fractured-ness of things, which [for me] was harder to preserve in the final book but was very much in the original draft.
What was it like to go back and revise something so personal?
A little strange – I would say that was the hardest part. While I was writing the book people kept going ‘This must be so hard.” There was this really interesting underlying assumption that it was morbid or dark or hard for me to be doing it, whereas, for me, to be doing this was so great. And I know that must sound really weird because of what the subject is, but I was already in this place, I was already mourning my mother and thinking about her all the time, so it gave me a way to do that constructively. It didn’t feel bad to write this book, but having to revise it, when the first act of writing it down had been so, you know, necessary, intuitive and organic, going back over it again to revise certain themes, or a couple of scenes where I felt I hadn’t gone deeply enough into the emotions, that was harder because it was much more cerebral.
Throughout the book, you also share and go back to the many texts that you read: poetry, Buddhist texts, clinical studies, C.S. Lewis – what made you gravitate towards the works that you did?
I was really just looking around for texts to help. I had always read as a way of understanding the world; it’s through reading that the world makes sense to me…But one thing that happens after loss, is people want to help you. And one way that they try is to say “There’s a book that helped me.” So a lot of the books were recommended to me.
With the clinical studies, it was really just Google. I literally went running to Google “grief” and started to read. And then I Googled “grief and clinical studies.” Even though I distrusted, in some senses, studying grief, I also was very curious to know what scientists said. Elizabeth Kubler Ross [who proposed the five stages of grief] was someone whose work I already knew. People kept mentioning the five stages to me, so I felt I should go back to that. As I say in the book, I really wasn’t experiencing the five stages in the way you’re supposed to and I wondered whether that was normal.
And then with Hamlet, I remember a guy friend was talking about it and I just said “Oh, Hamlet, I really want to re-read that.” So there was something kind of bumbling and random about it. At one point I did think to myself, I need to study grief because I’m writing a book about it.’But I found that when I tried to read specific things and put them into the book, it didn’t really work; it felt off. I realized that if this was going to be the book I wanted it to be, it had to be a really organic record of my grieving. I had to forget that I was writing a book and I had to just transmit the experience I was actually having, what I was actually interested in, not what I thought I should be reading.
You also have a lot to say about the marginalization of death and loss in our culture and the lack of language and rituals to express them. Why do you think this has happened?
I feel honestly that it is very complicated, so I don’t want to over simplify that or opine, but there are all sorts of sociological reasons. In the 20th century our world, our lives, really changed…While death is a constant, our attitudes and our thoughts about it are not, naturally. As various critics and scholars have said, death kind of became silent for a period in England and America, especially because we just didn’t see it around us that much: People began to die in hospital. Instead of having the big Irish wake in your own home, you have it in a funeral parlor. There are all these ways that it gets distanced. Once you lose that language of shared community ritual, you have to talk about your loss with words rather than having something you can do together with your friends and family that observes the loss. My family is Irish Catholic, but I wasn’t raised Irish Catholic and we’re not surrounded by our family. The people I work with and all my friends, they don’t’ necessarily have the rituals I have, and that creates a kind of difficulty. There’s no shared language, no idea that we should say X or Y, or do X or Y together. I think that memoirs like this really come out of people wanting to find a public space to talk about loss, and in some ways I feel this book is less of a traditional memoir in the “It happened to me” sense and more of a “This happens to all of us and here is my particular record of it.”
What you say about language is interesting. Even our language for sympathy places so much emphasis on the positive, on progress: “I hope you are doing well;” “I hope you’re feeling better,” for example. That isn’t always what someone needs to hear.
Yeah, it’s funny. I think one reason we’re silent about grief is that we imagine it to be the worst possible thing in the world. When we haven’t experienced it, we’re very fearful of it. I was very fearful, really scared, to think about what it would be like when my mother died. And it was awful, it was completely awful, but it also was survivable. We know that people in general are very resilient, so there’s a kind of paradox. On the one hand, it was really terrible, but, on the other hand, I survived, my family survived, we have joy in our lives, we have many things we love. I think that the language that surrounds grief comes from the fearfulness. People are scared to let mourners just express and experience their emotions.
Part of what I wanted to do with the book is show that it is really painful, but it doesn’t have to be terrifying, and that if we look at it more squarely in the face, maybe we’ll find a better language for sympathy. My friends really wanted me to feel better, so that’s why they would say “you’re going to feel better soon.” But in the moment, and I think many bereaved people will understand this, I felt like “I don’t’ want to move right to feeling better. My mother died and I really care about her and I want to spend time honoring that loss rather than being told I’m going to feel better.”
Do you think anything can be done to make talking about death easier? Writing books like yours is a good start.
Yes, it is very much my hope that this book will be helpful on some level, for mourners – for everybody, for my friends who didn’t know how to talk to me about what I was going through…Starting a national conversation about grief is very important, especially at a time of war. We need to be a little more open to the idea of grief. What I’m really interested in is the idea of letting people grieve, letting them have their grief and understanding that that’s OK. I think that if we can come to that place by talking about it openly, that would make a real difference.
You are also a poet – your previous book, Halflife, was a collection of poems. Why did you choose to move from poetry to prose for this?
That’s a great question. I just didn’t know how to write about it in poetry. It seemed to me that it was necessarily kind of meditative. The things I was thinking about were things I had to think about in prose because they had to do with interactions with other people; they had, in a way, to do with narrative and a failure of narrative. Sometimes you’re trying to create a narrative for something and you just can’t.
The kind of poetry I write and I’m drawn to is not narrative, but lyric: about a lyric moment, or capturing an evasive feeling or an image. I felt that this was about time in a much different way. I tried to write poems about my mom’s death after she died and I really couldn’t at first, because there is something so open about poetry. I just kept losing the thread. It was too scary, too emotional, like going into a well. Whereas with prose, I had the through line of the sentence, which became a tightrope that I could hold on to on the path.
Were there any Irish books, authors, or poets you gravitated towards?
Oh, God yes. Yeats, I read a lot of Yeats. On the two-year anniversary of my mother’s death we read a Yeats poem, “A Prayer for My Daughter.” I read some Seamus Heaney poems about his dad. I re-read James Joyce’s “The Dead.”
That image of snow blanketing the world, that to me felt like a beautiful image of what it felt like to be grieving: a kind of stillness everywhere and a kind of transformation.