26th December, 2021
By Nehru Odeh
Only few writers had their literary careers hewed out of stone at an advanced age like American bestselling writer Joan Didion, who died on Thursday 23 December 2021 of complications arising from Parkinson’s disease at 87.
Though she had had some string of successes as a writer, essayist and journalist, her real breakthrough came in 2005, when she was 70, with the publication of her magical book so rightly entitled, The Year of Magical Thinking, a book in which she tells her story of grief and how she was able to cope with the loss of her husband.
A late bloomer? Not at all. It was just an icing on the cake, the climax of a literary career that spanned more than three decades. Hers is a story of the triumph of the human spirit.
Hers is a story of hope, of hope that not only would her late husband come back home someday but also hope of the vindication of literature and its triumph over adversity and grim realities.
Hers is a story of a writer who turned adversity into prosperity, who turned misfortune into fortune. She sure, as they say, made lemonades out of lemons.
Didion was one of the most distinctive and influential contemporary writers, who changed the landscape of the American essay—and the landscape of American thought—with collections like Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979), as well as novels like Play It As It Lays (1970) and A Book of Common Prayer (1977), and memoirs The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) and Blue Nights (2011).
“Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer,” she wrote. “Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Strait seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the Bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind?” Didion was once quoted as saying.
A journalist, essayist and writer whose mother prodded her to write at five as a way of filling time, she later went on to win several prizes such as the National Book Award, Prix Medicis Essais, the Edward MacDowell Medal, St. Louis Literary Award, the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement and the National Book Foundation’s annual Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and honorary Doctor of Letters degree by Harvard and Yale. .
Still, one remarkable thing about Didion, who made sentences dance on blank sheets like Ernest Hemingway, is that after recording a string of successes with her earlier works of fiction and non-fiction, which tell not just the American story but also life growing up in California, her real breakthrough was magical though preceded by some rough edges.
Didion was diagnosed in her 30s with multiple sclerosis and around the same time suffered a breakdown and checked into a psychiatric clinic in Santa Monica, California that diagnosed her worldview as “fundamentally pessimistic, fatalistic and depressive.”
However, her magical breakthrough came after she had lost her fellow writer husband and writing partner, John Gregory Dunne whom she had met at a dinner party, in 2003. She was 68 at the time. Dunne had collapsed in 2003 at their table and died of a heart attack even as their daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael whom they had adopted on the day she was born, was gravely ill in a hospital.
But rather than capitulate and break down, Didion wrote the book while taking care of their daughter in a hospital in 88 days, between 4 October and 31 December, 2004, completing it exactly a year and a day after Dunne’s death. Notes she took during Quintana’s hospitalization became part of the book
Not only did the memoir become a bestseller and a near-instant standard, the kind of work people would instinctively reach for after losing a loved one, it won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2005 and was a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Biography/Autobiography.
The book was later adapted into a play, which premiered on Broadway in 2007. Didion was profiled in the Netflix documentary The Center Will Not Hold, directed by her nephew Griffin Dunne, in 2017.
Another remarkable thing about her career was her fascination with sentences. Didion viewed the structure of the sentence as essential to her work, something she gained from American writer Ernest Hemingway, whom she meticulously studied and who influenced her.
While learning how to craft sentences like Hemingway, she had typed out his prose in order to master the keyboard and his syntax: the exact placement of words was the basis of her style as it had been of his. “Grammar is a piano I play by ear,” she claimed.
In an article “Why I Write”, she remarked, “To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed… The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind…The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture.”
Rituals were a part of Didion’s creative process. At the end of the day, she would take a break from writing to remove herself from the “pages”, saying that without the distance, she could not make proper edits. She would then end the day by cutting out and editing prose, and reviewing the work the following day. She would sleep in the same room as her book, saying “That’s one reason I go home to Sacramento to finish things. Somehow the book doesn’t leave you when you’re right next to it.”
Next to it? Certainly. Though Didion has just left us, her book, The Year of Magical Thinking, will never leave us because it is always next to us, inspiring us to craft bestsellers even when all seems gloomy and grim.