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Events Tue Nov 01 2011

The Challenges of Writing a Memoir

At age 13, Meghan O'Rourke tried to write a novel. It was science fiction with "many princesses," including one named Cassiopeia.

meghan.jpgNow 35, she's since published two poetry collections and a written a memoir, The Long Goodbye, about the death of her 55-year-old mother from cancer.

"It embarrasses me," she said Thursday night at Maxim's (24 Goethe St.), an event sponsored by Chicago Publishes. Mark Bazer, host of the Interview Show, led a conversation with O'Rourke and writer Rachel DeWoskin. "I never thought I'd write a memoir."

As the former fiction/nonfiction editor at the New Yorker and now as Slate magazine's culture critic, O'Rourke is used to writing about the outside world, rather than her interior one. "I wrote cultural criticism, about the intersection of politics and culture," she said. In Slate pieces, "I was present, but I didn't give my full life story."

But while writing The Long Goodbye, a story about both how she dealt with her mother's death and also her coming to terms with the lack of American grief rituals, O'Rourke discovered that she needed to place herself within the story. Although she felt uncomfortable with the idea, a friend reminded her that grief is a personal story, she told the audience of about 40 people. "You have to be willing to put yourself on the page."

DeWoskin, who has published two novels and a memoir about living in Beijing in the 1990s just after graduating from Columbia University, was also hesitant to write a memoir. It's hard, she said, because the writer has to be both the narrator and the character. "The narrator has certain wisdom that the character lacks."

She had to "cleave [herself] into two" to write the story, which started as a series of essays about her Chinese friends during the country's transition from communism but turned into a memoir about her PR job abroad and about her casting in a Chinese soap opera called Foreign Babes in Beijing.deWoskin.jpg

Both women feel a constant need to record, either through diary entries or notes. O'Rourke remembers having a conversation with her father, a really intense one, after their family dog died, when she was struck with the impulse to grab a notebook and start writing it down.

Says DeWoskin, "Writers are always listening, always thinking, always preserving."

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