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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.
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.