Meghan O’Rourke Talks Writing, Internet, Grief

It was late afternoon when Meghan O’Rourke read from her memoir The Long Goodbye and spoke about writing in the Internet era in the Margaret Fowler Garden at Scripps College. O’Rourke is the Mary Routt Endowed Chair of Writing 2013 and teaches “Writing 197M: Hybrid Forms” at Scripps. Associate English professor Aaron Matz introduced O’Rourke. He said he met her when they were both first-years at Yale.

“She was from Brooklyn, whereas the rest of us just wanted to get there,” Matz said.

O’Rourke read poems and bits of her memoir, which both deal with her mother’s death and her subsequent grief. O’Rourke thought of memoirs as “self-indulgent.” Instead, she wrote columns for Slate on how in modern Western society, there are few rituals of mourning. To write for an online publication is “to write in time,” she says. Her community of readers became her fellow mourners. Their response to her columns is what gave her permission, she felt, to publish a book. As a memoir, The Long Goodbye is unusual in that it presents a “lived experience” instead of a reflective one. Some of her poems are an elegy to her mother.

“Poems,” O’Rourke said, “are a vehicle of experience and affect.”

After the reading, O’Rourke and Matz talked about writing in the Internet era. For O’Rourke, there is a sense of immediacy, and the writing is more casual. She talked about the “news void,” which can be dangerous. In the case of the Boston Marathon bombings, there was a constant flow of content via Facebook statuses and tweets, even though nobody knew what had happened.

O’Rourke also briefly spoke about the development of a writer within a university. Although she chose to be an English major, she understands that taking creative writing workshop classes in college provides the students with a community of readers.

TSL: When did you begin writing?

Meghan O’Rourke: I always wrote, growing up—I can’t remember not writing. But when I was about 13, I wrote a story in one flash, the first piece of good writing I ever did. And I remember thinking when I was done that I wanted to be a writer—it had something to do with the sense of absorption and self-forgetfulness.

TSL: Was your writing encouraged at home?

MO: Yes, always. My mother was a big reader and storyteller. She used to read The Black Stallion and other books to us at night. My father liked to tell a bedtime story called “Goldilocks and the La-Z-Boy Recliner.” My mother gave me a journal when I was about five and told me to write down interesting things in it.

TSL: Do you write on a computer?

MO: Mostly, yeah, though I also take lots of notes in a notebook.

TSL: Who gets to see your drafts?

MO: My partner, Jim, sees some of them—especially my nonfiction drafts. I have a handful of poet friends whom I exchange work with. We send each other poems and meet up in a café and have a glass of wine or coffee and talk about them. I think that we tend to forget the social element of creativity—we romanticize the lone genius.

TSL: A few weeks after your mother’s death, you googled “grief.” What is it like to live and write in the Internet era?

MO: This is a big question I can’t answer in one sentence, but it’s complicated. I don’t think of the Googling “grief” as a particularly Internet-y moment; it was the equivalent of going to a library, which I would have done 15 years ago. The more relevant thing, I guess, is that I ended up writing some of my book The Long Goodbye in real time, online, as I was grieving—not knowing, originally, that it would become a book. I think in this case, the Internet helped me realize that there was a longer-term, more reflective project I wanted to embark on.

TSL: Recently, you retweeted a tweet by Bret Easton Ellis, “Reading a new novel by a writer who is obviously writing for posterity without understanding the fact that posterity doesn’t exist anymore.” Could you explain what he means by posterity in relation to writing?

MO: I can’t say I know what he meant, but I imagine he meant that books, as a mode, are endangered. Certainly that’s what I thought he meant, that old assumptions about writing for the future are now pretty quaint. (One hopes this isn’t true.)

TSL: Warhol imagined a future in which everybody would be world-famous for 15 minutes. The Internet’s sense of immediacy and its accessibility have allowed many individuals to self-publish or become famous because of their blog. What does it mean to be a good writer today?

MO: Another excellent question that can’t be answered briefly, but I think that we still have a responsibility to make excellent work, to do more than just get “published.” One thing I see far too much of is work that is merely adequate, attitudinal—snarky, I guess you’d call it—as if being negative were a form of intellectual superiority. (Usually it is not—a sign of a green critic, I think, is one who tries to prove her/his own superiority at the expense of trying to understand the terms of the work at hand.)

TSL: What books are you reading?

MO: Right now I am reading volume five of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, and Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor. I just read Maggie Nelson’s memoir-investigation The Red Parts, which is a fascinating book about women and violence and family memory; her aunt was murdered by a serial killer.

TSL: What is a “quintessentially” L.A. moment you have experienced?

MO: I was working in a café in Echo Park, taking notes for an essay, when I got very involved in a conversation a young man and woman were having at the next table. He was passionately telling her about his quest to become “consciously conscious.” I began to wonder what unconscious consciousness was. (That reminds me—when I was a kid, my father told me that if I wanted to be a writer I needed to learn to eavesdrop; now I always do.) Also, I saw a giant white possum, looking unearthly, crossing my hilly street under the moonlight. The air smelled of jasmine.

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