Joyce Carol Oates and Meghan O'Rourke on Grief

Two writers reflect on personal loss
Karen Barbour.
Joyce Carol Oates and Meghan O'Rourke have spoken out on their recent memoirs, A Widow's Story and The Long Goodbye. In a conversation published in the New York Times, they discuss how personal losses have shaped their work, and attempt to describe an experience of writing and grief:
Joyce Carol Oates: Writing always seems so private — I can never quite believe that anything I write, especially in longhand, on scraps of paper, which is my usual way of writing, will ever be read by anyone else!

I never set out to “write” a memoir — the book called “A Widow’s Story” is comprised of journal entries from Feb. 11, 2008, through Aug. 29, 2008. When Ray was first hospitalized, I was very anxious and excited and could not sleep well, so I wrote in the journal late at night, as I’ve been doing, though not so intensely, since the early 1970s. After Ray’s death, this was the only kind of writing that I could do, in fragments of a page or less. The act of writing — of even trying to write — of imagining to write — seemed meaningless, vain and silly.

In the summer of 2009, when I could not write fiction very readily, and was haunted by memories of a very visual nature, I gave in, in a sense, and turned to the journal entries — which I had not wanted to reread, as I certainly did not want to write a memoir — to shape into a coherent structure: what is called, so very abstractly, a “book.” In a traditional memoir, chapters are written; in this sort of composed memoir, chapters are assembled out of small journal entries, developed or expanded a bit, or edited.

The diarist doesn’t know how a scene will end, when it begins; she doesn’t know what the next hour will bring, let alone the next day or the next week; she is wholly unprepared for the most profound experience of her life — that her husband will die.

[...] the act of writing is an act of attempted comprehension, and, in a childlike way, control; we are so baffled and exhausted by what has happened, we want to imagine that giving words to the unspeakable will make it somehow our own. [Read more]

Also at A Piece of Monologue