I recently finished a 2005 memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” by Joan Didion. I’ve admired Didion for some time, reading and hearing only snippets of her accomplishments in writing. But after finishing this book my admiration for her skyrocketed.
The memoir is about the year that followed her husband’s sudden death by cardiac arrest and her daughter’s troubles in and out of the hospital in the year to follow. Didion describes her immobilization and inability to move from grief to mourning over her husband’s death. I doubt if the writer has ever been a woman who dwells in self-pity or feels comfortable being in a state of inertia (“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. The question of self-pity.”). So this glimpse into a year of her life was moving, if not permeated with melancholia that asks nothing of the reader. It simply is. And I think that kind of writing has always been present in Didion’s work. It’s also the kind of writing that I’ve always admired.
I am sometimes torn in the world of literature, writing and journalism. I’ve seen egos tear writers down, or undeservingly win writers praise. It often creates a kind of fight-or-flight reaction in me. I want to run away from the conceit of it all. Or I want to curl up in an armchair and read all I can get my hands on, write down every damned thought that passes through my head and just live in the beauty of words.
I’ve chosen the former before. I’ve run. My own disgust and experiences caused me to abandon it all and tell myself I would never look back. And then my younger self who could sit down for 10 hours straight reading anything I could get my hands on will sometimes re-emerge. She’ll return. And she’ll find flashes of beauty in literature. She’ll momentarily forget whatever disgust she was feeling. She’ll relish the painstaking and exquisite beauty of the written word when done well. Most importantly, she is able to discern the difference between ego and genuine talent.
It ropes me back in.
“Read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information is control.” -Joan Didion