Writing Through It

October 27th, 2005 · No Comments
by Booksquare

We once confessed to a friend that, in moments of difficulty, that we sit down and write essays. Not about what we did last summer, but about whatever we need to work through. It is amazing how the act of writing can clear the mind, make the untenable feel, well, tenable. We certainly don’t have the hubris to compare our work to Joan Didion’s (but hey, it turns out that we outline better than she does!), but we understand how writing through the pain is often the first and only choice.

Didion’s new book The Year of Magical Thinking is her exploration of coping with two sudden deaths. It was both her personal crying jag and her homage to her family members:

Her husband, John Gregory Dunne, was a writer as well. Over the years, he had drilled into her the need to include a so-called billboard section: a short passage, early in your story, that tells readers what you’re writing about . At the beginning of Didion’s career, she had sometimes neglected to do this.

On that first writing day, when she got to the place where the billboard should fall, she typed one in.

This was her effort, she explained, to make sense of the disorienting months after her husband died and their daughter fell ill, a period “that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.”

It was a classic billboard, a billboard to make John proud — but it didn’t stop there. It went on to signal a dramatic change in Didion’s writing style.

Didion, a product of a “let’s not get emotional” family, discovered a new depth to her work, not so much sentimental as full. Products of the California public education system know her precise writing style. When we picked up this title on a recent (accidental) shopping spree, we were engrossed with the approachable voice. We felt like we’d become part of the story instead of an observer — and, yeah, we bought the book.

File Under: Square Pegs