The night following Peggy Orenstein’s breast cancer diagnosis, she woke up in bed planning her funeral. Anxious and unable to go back to sleep, she put her fingers to a keyboard and began typing everything on her mind.
After several nights, those thoughts turned into 80,000 words, which was then cut down to a 4,000-word story in the New York Times. Orenstein said it was around this time that she began her journey into first-person narrative.
“As journalists, we’re always trying to tell a story. We might be trying to enact some social change, but I think the most important thing is to find some authenticity. And for me, I have never felt so authentic as when I’ve written in first-person,” she said.
Orenstein spoke to an audience of about 50 at Harris Hall on Wednesday. Labeled a “feminist journalist,” she has written magazine articles and books on women’s issues for years.
Originally her work was based on research and interviews with specific groups of females, including working women and schoolgirls struggling with a lack of self-confidence. As time went on, her writing became more personal. Orenstein’s latest book, Waiting for Daisy, from which she read excerpts, tells of her trying attempts at pregnancy.
“If I was going to put other women’s lives under the glare of my microscope, I felt I better be ready to do the same to my own,” Orenstein said.
After months of exhausting every pregnancy ritual and suffering two miscarriages, the scrutiny of doctors, marital conflict and crying every time her period came, Orenstein journeyed to Tokyo, Japan. In her book she recounts how she participated in the traditional Buddhist custom of honoring miscarried infants (known as mizuko, or “water children”).
In the toy store where she planned to buy an offering for her mizuko, Orenstein wondered, “What do you get for a child who never was?”
When Orenstein finally told her husband that she wanted to write a book on the whole experience, he gave her his blessing on one condition: honesty. As a writer, Orenstein says she constantly struggles to wring universal truths out of everyday experiences without sugarcoating anything.
“What I have come to feel is that each of our lives has something to say about our times: who we are as women, and who we are as people,” she said. “I feel I’m very privileged to do this — to convince people that ordinary life is worth writing about.”