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The Grief of Writing About Grief

There are a number of books out right now about grief. There are an even greater number of newspaper and magazine inches devoted to dissecting these books. The New York Times Book Review devoted quite a lot of column space for two weeks running to Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir about losing her husband of nearly 50 years, A Widow’s Story. A Widow's Story

Poet, editor and literary it-girl Meghan O’Rourke is also coming out with a grief memoir about her mother’s death, The Long Goodbye. O’Rourke teamed up with Oates to write a column in the Times Book Review in which the two write about writing about grief. Titled (of course) “Why We Write About Grief,” the column details how neither author set out to write a memoir, but were instead just making sense of the world in the way that writers do. O’Rourke calls it an “organic response to loss.”

Or as Oates puts it, “Writing always seems so private — I can never quite believe that anything I write…will ever be read by anyone else!”

To which I say: Really? Really? This from a woman who has published more than 50 novels, dozens of short story collections, novellas, dramas, essays, poetry and even children’s books. Why should she so delicately dance around the idea that even her journals about the loss of her husband would be publishable?

Oates, like O’Rourke and Joan Didion (Year of Magical Thinking) and Ann Roiphe (Epilogue), is a writer. Grief is universal. We will all lose someone close to us over the course of our lives. Spouses, parents, friends, even children die and leave us floundering in the minutiae of the living. What is a writer supposed to do if not to write? Why should there be this mincing apologetic tone about the process of writing and even publishing about loss?

I saw an interview once with Carl Reiner in which he said of losing his beloved wife, Estelle: I went back to work. It’s what you do. The work goes on.


Whether you are a plumber or a teacher or an architect or a producer or, yes, a writer, you work. The only response to death is to live, and living is working.

Now, I have to admit that I’m often skeeved out by the amount of over-sharing that takes place in written form these days. The New York Times Modern Love column has often left me wanting a shower, but it doesn’t change the fact that writers have a right to write. No one has the right to be published, but if some of these confessional tales are granted that privilege, well, huzzah!

I haven’t yet read Oates’s memoir, but I probably will. I was absolutely flattened by Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking. It deserved every bit of praise it received. A good memoirist takes a personal story and turns it into something that strikes a universal chord. A reader needn’t have experienced the loss of a spouse or a parent to appreciate a book about such loss. Maybe reading about another person’s grief will help prepare us to deal with our own, or remind us that we’re not alone, or even just illuminate the actions of others.

Or, maybe it’s just a way for the writer to deal with her own loss. I don’t think anyone should apologize for that.

About Tiffany Quay Tyson

Tiffany Quay Tyson is a writer living in Denver, Colorado. She was born and raised in Mississippi. THREE RIVERS, her debut novel, was a Colorado Book Award finalist and a finalist for the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for fiction. She is a 2016 Amtrak Resident. She is currently working on her second novel.

8 comments on “The Grief of Writing About Grief

  1. Chris Ransick
    March 2, 2011

    As you point out, the best writing about grief isn’t necessarily about the author’s loss but about loss itself. It evokes the particulars of an experience, but it simultaneously transcends them and in so doing, makes a bridge for the reader that has value beyond the mere expression of the author.

    Then there is all the rest of the griefy scribbling–the stuff that “skeeves us out” by being myopic, maudlin, or self-pitying without any connect to the commonality of grief, the shared aspects of it.

    It’s damned hard to write the former and all too easy to get lost in the latter. The good news, or maybe it’s bad news, is that any writer who survives long enough will get plenty of opportunities to practice.

  2. megnix
    March 2, 2011

    I love this post, Tiffany. I’ve been thinking about writing about grief lately, too.

    One of the kids in the Lighthouse workshop at Manual is writing about the grief he has experienced from being abused by his father, but he actually didn’t know what the word “grief” is. He pulled it out of a bucket (the bucket o’ words I borrowed from Joy Sawyer 🙂 and asked the other students “what does grief mean?” Another student said it’s a combination of every heavy emotion you have ever felt: sadness, anger, bitterness, guilt. She called it a crock pot of everything sad. I hadn’t ever thought about it that way, but I agree with you–we shouldn’t apologize for needing to write about one of the most complex emotions that exists. We need manuals like Didion’s to learn not only how deep grief goes and how much it changes by individual, but also to learn how to be with the grieving.

    Another great book I’d add to the list is An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken about her stillborn child. It’s not the going-on-as-if-nothing-happened that gets her through the event, it’s when other people acknowledge her suffering that she is deeply moved and changed. Even years after the loss of her first child, every “I’m so sorry” edifies, and I think that’s what we do when we read books like hers or like the ones you’ve mentioned here.

  3. Michele Johnson
    March 2, 2011

    Tiffany- Thanks for this post!!! I’ve been avoiding writing about grief because it’s just not fun (duh!). But you snapped me wide awake with your musings on “getting to work” and “it’s what we do.” Another ‘Duh’ moment for me. I’m sitting here in Philly with my 86 year-old Mom who I usually describe as ‘living with breast cancer.’ When I even think about writing about this time with her, the internal censor shuts me down. “But you write funny stuff,” it says. “Cancer is a drag.” And of course it is, but some of the moments within the struggle are funny (e.g. the way Mom dresses up for her Grey’s-Anatomy-hot oncologist), some kill me (she is currently sporting only half a head of hair similar to a 1980’s British Punk Rocker). And that’s what stories are about – highs and lows. So why not write about it. Maybe I can write a humorous cancer story….

  4. Aray
    March 2, 2011

    Great post, Tiffany. Writers are supposed to deal with the big questions, it seems, and the question of death (and its aftermath for the living) is one that we all must confront, in writing or otherwise. But I also understand why a writer might be hesitant, or resent the implication that “it’s all material.”

    The NYT review of A WIDOW’S STORY made me want to run out and get a copy, as it sounds like Oates goes into some tremendously challenging territory about her marriage, her career, and her husband’s identity. (Thank to Andrea for pointing me to the last devastating paragraph of that review).

    I’m also excited about the collection entitled WIDOW by Michelle Latiolais. She was my thesis advisor in graduate school, a good friend, and a stunning, fierce writer. Her book was reviewed along with JCO. Guaranteed no mincing or apologizing here:

  5. Alisa A. Gaston-Linn
    March 3, 2011

    As always, well done, Tiffany. 🙂 When I read The Year of Magical Thinking I had such a visceral reaction and the book has resonated with me for years.

    Many years back, one of my good friends asked me why I always wrote about death. Funny enough, I didn’t even realize at the time that every story I’ve ever written has death in it. Interesting what grief can do to us subconsciously …

  6. andreadupree
    March 4, 2011

    This is a great topic, TQ. I read SOURLAND, by JCO, and a lot of the grief material is played out there, too. In the fiction it’s paired with and expressed through shame and violence; I’ve read some of the excerpts from her memoir and I was surprised at how much more tender it seemed. I preferred the memoir. A-Ray, the excerpts from WIDOW in the NYT review are astonishing. I’m going to have to read that one. And Meg, AN EXACT REPLICA is one of the best books on grief I’ve read. I love me some Elizabeth McCracken. (Ditto, Alis, on Didion–still, years after reading it, moments from that memoir return… so different, it seems, from JCO’s relationship with her writer/editor husband. I remember Dunne giving Didion the “birthday gift” of reading from one of her novels and telling her how wonderful it was. Meanwhile, Smith never read JCO’s writing, from the sounds of it.)

  7. Terry Everett
    March 5, 2011

    Great post, Tiffany. I’m proud of you. Keep writing, please!
    All best, Terry, who cannot say the details (I’m not at liberty) of why your post is so timely for me now. I’ll just say thanks.

  8. Meeg
    March 5, 2011

    Thank you for this. I have been writing poems to my daughter, gone now for six years. I often wonder why I do this and you have put it into perspective for me.

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This entry was posted on March 2, 2011 by in Good Books, Writing.

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