Where Your Private Story Could Have a Public Purpose: A Conversation with Meghan O’Gieblyn

Min Li Chan

I first encountered Meghan O’Gieblyn through her 2014 essay Hell, in which she juxtaposes the evolution of hell, as conceived in popular culture and theological doctrine, with her own loss of faith in an evangelical Protestant tradition rooted in the physical and psychic landscape of the Midwest. Hell is as riveting as it is rigorous, drawing from O’Gieblyn’s lived experience and deep engagement with research and critical reflection. Her discerning prose is graced by the provocation, capaciousness of thought, and the intellectual and emotional questing that makes the finest essays so compelling.

This early encounter with Hell was a formative experience for me as an essayist; at the time, I was working in the tech industry in Silicon Valley and writing in my second shift, having moved from Kuala Lumpur to the San Francisco Bay Area several years prior to study electrical engineering in college. Hell and O’Gieblyn’s subsequent work demonstrated how the modes of writing and thinking that I wanted to pursue could exist in the world.

I had the pleasure of meeting O’Gieblyn in person recently in Chicago. We conducted this interview via email from our respective desks in the Midwest, following the release of her debut collection Interior States.

Min Li Chan: The preface to your collection reads like a meta-essay on essays, in that generative tradition of complicating accepted notions about the form and re-energizing our sense for its possibilities. Where the essay’s lineage is often traced to Montaigne, you have connected your practice to the Augustinian tradition of “personal writing” and the communal ritual of giving testimony. How did this understanding of the essay develop for you? And how does it inform what you think is an essayist’s potential roles — or responsibilities, if you will — when thinking on the page and in the public?

Meghan O’Gieblyn: Around the time I was putting these essays together in manuscript form, I was thinking about “confessional writing,” which is a term that’s often used to dismiss personal essays or memoir that are perceived to be self-indulgent or navel-gazing. It’s funny that people rarely talk about the term’s religious connotations, but the idea is that the writer is essentially unburdening herself the way she would to a priest, in order to receive absolution. The term also seems allusive of Augustine’s the Confessions, which is the first instance of introspective autobiography in western literature. But what’s interesting is that the Confessions is actually not formally or tonally similar to the type of writing that today is criticized as “confessional.” Augustine was writing an argument. He was using his life in a very deliberate way to respond to ongoing theological debates, and his story was meant, in part, to refute the charge that he was still a Manichean.

This narrative form is similar to what we would today call conversion narrative—or what we called, when I was growing up in the evangelical church, “giving testimony.” The idea was that your private story could have a public purpose, that your experience could serve as a form of evidence in service of an argument. I wasn’t thinking about testimony on a conscious level when I was writing these essays, but I heard so many stories like these when I was a child, I imagine the form was deep in my DNA, so to speak. I’ve always been interested in making arguments as a writer, and when I began writing essays I suspected that my life could lend authority to the point I was making or might help the reader understand why it was important to me. But it wasn’t until I was putting the collection together that I realized that testimony might be a useful way to think about the kind of writing I do—and the kind of essays I most enjoy reading.

MLC: A thematic unity undergirds your collection, of interrogating the loss of telos when you left the evangelical Protestant faith tradition, and a parallel loss of telos that has beset the industrial towns of the Midwest. You begin with Dispatch from Flyover Country — was there a particular context, chronology, or feeling that you hoped to establish, and what guided your process of building an overall arc in this collection?

MOG: I do feel that that essay introduces a lot of the themes of the collection, which is part of the reason why I wanted it to lead the book. I wrote it during a time when I’d moved back to the small Michigan town where I’d grown up. My husband and I were broke and in debt (we’re both writers) and we had the opportunity to live rent-free in a trailer on the grounds of the Bible Camp I’d grown up attending. I had recently turned thirty, and being back in the place where I’d started forced me to think about the larger trajectory of my life and my loss of faith years earlier. I had grown up with this clear vision of the future (the Christian redemption narrative) and my purpose in that story. But after I left the church, my life felt derailed, or stalled. I noticed a similar loss of direction in my hometown, which had once been known as “The Lumber Queen of the World” and had, like so many Midwestern small towns, fallen into economic decline. The town was trying to revamp itself as a tourist destination and had conjured up a new ad campaign—“We’re just getting started”—which was so sad to me, since their best days were probably behind them. You see this loss of telos all over the Midwest: industrial cities like Detroit were once symbols of progress and innovation, but now that narratives about the future have shifted to globalization and technological disruption—changes that have affected many of these communities for the worse—there’s a wariness, in many of these places, toward the very notion of progress.

That essay is one of the most personal pieces in the collection, and I think writing it helped me uncover what was at stake for me in the other subjects I’ve been drawn to as a writer. All the essays in the collection ultimately return to questions about time, history, and progress. I’m interested in those ideas because my understanding of the future was disrupted in a very dramatic way when I lost my faith.

MLC: In returning to these questions about time, history, and progress in order to understand the future, you are also a keen observer of our relationship with technology. There is a moment in Contemporaries, towards the end of a dinner conversation that you describe, in which you capture with wry acuity that reflexive, yet truly remarkable, ritual that we’ve begun to accept as quotidian: “One man lays down a credit card, and the rest of us send him money invisibly, through our phones.” And in your thrilling essay, Ghost in the Cloud, you explore the parallels between Christian eschatology and transhumanism, as championed by some Silicon Valley technoutopian figures. In what ways is the brisk, dopamine-firing world of tech important for you and the slow work of thinking and writing?

 MOG: When I was putting the collection together, I was surprised by how many of my essays return to questions about science and technology, which was not something I consciously set out to write about. I suppose I’m interested in how our relationships with new technologies often feels like a spiritual experience. Digital technologies have made our experience of the world increasingly intangible and abstract, for example, since many transactions now take place in an invisible realm—the ether, the cloud. As a former Christian, I’m particularly interested in the way in which narratives about technology have their own eschatology. The most extreme examples are the technoutopian narratives that argue that technology will one day allow us to alleviate illnesses and death, perfect the physical world, and merge human consciousness, which strike me as very similar to the biblical redemption narrative. Religious myths are some of the oldest and most familiar stories in our collective memory, so it’s not surprising that we find ourselves reviving them when faced with the new and unfamiliar. I often think of Ernst Haeckel’s phrase “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” and his theory that each new human embryo passes through, in compressed form, all the evolutionary stages of our species. The theory is false, but it’s a useful metaphor for how new technologies often spur us to revisit our earliest myths.

Of course, as someone who left religion behind, I’m naturally skeptical of these narratives—at least in their most insistent forms. And I’m also acutely aware of the way in which digital technologies create rote, addictive brain patterns that are at odds with the headspace required for thinking and writing. I find writing very rewarding, but its rewards are slow and difficult to achieve, whereas the experience of the internet is so much more immediate and constant in its doling out of rewards—likes, updates, etc.  I know a lot of writers find a way to toggle between those two pursuits, but I haven’t been able to do so. I have to nearly disconnect during the weeks when I’m working on a project. Then, when I’m not writing, I immerse myself more fully in the internet.

 MLC: I’m curious about the scope of your writing practice, and particularly admire the range in which you operate; from deep, research-driven investments across numerous historical and contemporary concerns, to the ways in which you weave the understated material of your own life—the textures, subtleties, and seeming non-events—into your essays. (In one instance of the latter, you write about lying in the tunnel of the MRI machine and reverting to a childhood game in your head. I remember feeling an immediate sense of recognition and kinship upon reading that anecdote; an imaginative act under similar circumstances had also incidentally found its way into my work!) How would you describe your writing process?

 MOG: Yes, that’s a good way to describe the two different modes of writing in the collection. Each kind of piece requires its own process. I actually prefer writing small, quiet, personal essays. I love writers like Natalia Ginzburg or Mary Ruefle who draw observations about life from ordinary, seemingly mundane, moments. The writing process for those pieces feels more akin to fiction in that all you need to get started is a situation, a scene, or an observation. The scene you mention about the MRI, in my essay “Contemporaries,” was the starting point for that piece. I didn’t know what the essay was going to be about until I started writing, and all the themes and ideas emerged through the drafting process in a way that felt very intuitive. You just let your subconscious take over. The wonderful thing about small, intimate essays is that they have the capacity to be perfect—even if they never are—because everything is within your control as a writer. They aren’t contingent on research or other sources.

About once or twice a year, I vow that I’m only going to write these kinds of pieces going forward. But then I somehow get the idea for something more ambitious that involves lots of research. I just finished an essay of this sort, about homeschooling, where I consider my experience being educated at home, as a child, in light of the history of the modern homeschooling movement. My strategy with these sorts of essays is to do a lot of research at the outset, before I begin the writing process. But inevitably the really important questions in an essay arise during the writing process, usually as the result of writing about my personal experience. And then I have to go back to researching some other topic and end up revising or cutting a lot of what I’ve already written. It’s a very inefficient process, and these pieces are very exhausting to write. But it is satisfying to learn about a topic in more depth. I think one of the reasons I’m drawn to researched essays is because I’m curious about a certain aspect of my life and want to learn more about the systems and ideologies that informed it.

MLC: You mentioned earlier that testimony might be a useful way to think about the kind of writing you enjoy. Can you talk a little bit about who or what is in the constellation of influences that have fed your work as a thinker and an essayist?

MOG: I read a lot of Russian novels when I was at Bible school, particularly Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. I don’t think their influence is legible in my essays, but reading these 19th century novels convinced me that ideas and arguments could be dramatized through situations, through characters. I never figured out how to do that in fiction—I was writing short stories for many years before I converted to nonfiction—but I think that’s essentially why I was drawn to personal essays: it’s a form that explores larger social and cultural debates through the lens of character—though in this case, the character is you, the writer. A lot of my preoccupations as a writer can probably be traced back to Dostoevsky as well, particularly his belief that humans are fundamentally irrational and cannot be improved through utopian scientific projects.

When I started writing essays, I read a lot of Meghan Daum and Zadie Smith, each of whom influenced me in their own way, particularly in terms of developing a voice and a presence on the page. And Joan Didion, of course. I came to her fairly late—I didn’t read her until my late-twenties—but I’m sure her writing about the West inflected my thinking about the Midwest, even if I wasn’t conscious of it at the time. She had such a monomaniacal preoccupation with California, such that it became a metaphor for everything that was happening in the country during those decades: it was the end point of American progress, a place where the myth of the frontier broke down and devolved into chaos. For most of my life, I’d taken very little interest in my surroundings (we Midwesterners are direly lacking in regional consciousness). Reading her caused me to realize that places were essentially ideas, and it was possible to use landscape—particularly the landscape you know best, as a writer—as a lens, or a metaphor, to talk about larger things.

 MLC: It seems to me that many of us who strive to make things — writers, artists, performers, filmmakers, scientists, engineers — have a set of obsessions and enthusiasms that we keep returning to, that anchors our work. These obsessions and enthusiasms seem to be, more often than not, formed quite early on in life, when we are more likely to have a heightened porousness to the world, or a heightened awareness of the ruptures that render discontinuities in our lives. Does this observation ring true to you, and did anything change for you over the course of writing this collection? What do you think is a sustainable way for approaching the continual excavation and anthropology that we perform on ourselves and our subjects of interest?

 MOG: I love how you put it: “the continual excavation and anthropology we perform on ourselves.” That really captures how it feels when writing personal essays: that the self is a raw material that is always in danger of exhaustion. The question of sustainability is one I’m constantly thinking about. My obsessions as a writer were definitely formed in my twenties, and most of this collection grew out of writing about those experiences—being at Bible school, losing my faith, discovering writing, etc. I’m sure that those obsessions will stay with me, but I also feel spurred to move on and write about other things. It’s difficult because as a writer—i.e., someone who spends most of my day in front of a computer—it’s easy to feel as though I’ve stopped accumulating new experiences. My life today is very stable and healthy and therefore boring, and personal essays feed on tension. Maybe this is why I find myself increasingly drawn to criticism and reporting. I imagine that I’ll continue to explore these interests in ways that diverge from my own life, rather than continually revisit it. Or—who knows?—maybe something fantastic and unexpected will happen to me and I’ll get to write about that.

Meghan O’Gieblyn is the author of Interior States, which is now available from Anchor Books. Her essays have received two Pushcart Prizes and have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, The Guardian, n+1, The Point, Tin House, Ploughshares, and The Best American Essays 2017.

 Min Li Chan is a writer and technologist whose essays have appeared in Buzzfeed Reader and The Point Magazine. She was a 2018 BuzzFeed Emerging Writers Fellow, and is currently a University Fellow at Northwestern University’s Litowitz Creative Writing Graduate Program. She can be found at www.minlichan.com.