How American writer Joan Didion wrote a bestseller at 70 after losing her husband

Jeanne Didion

By Nehru Odeh

Only a few writers have seen their literary careers cut in stone at an advanced age, such as American bestselling writer Joan Didion, who died Thursday, December 23, 2021 of complications from Parkinson’s disease at the age of 87.

Although she had some success as a writer, essayist, and journalist, her real breakthrough came in 2005, at the age of 70, with the publication of her magical book so aptly titled The year of magical thinking, a book in which she tells her story of mourning and how she was able to cope with the loss of her husband.

Late flowering? Not at all. It was just the icing on the cake, the culmination of a literary career that spanned more than three decades. Hers is a story of the triumph of the human spirit.

It is a story of hope, of hope that not only her late husband would one day come home, but also of hope for the vindication of literature and its triumph over adversity and grim realities.

It is the story of a writer who turned adversity into prosperity, who turned misfortune into fortune. She of course, as they say, made lemonades with lemons.

Didion was one of the most distinctive and influential contemporary writers, who changed the landscape of American essay – and the landscape of American thought – with collections like Collapse towards Bethlehem (1968) and The white album (1979), as well as novels like Play as it turns out (1970) and A book of common prayer (1977) and memoirs The year of magical thinking (2005) and Blue nights (2011).

“If my degrees had been in order, I would never have become a writer,” she wrote. “If I had been fortunate enough to have even limited access to my own mind, there would have been no point in writing. 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 the Carquinez Strait seem grim to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the nightlights of the Bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my head? Didion has already been quoted as saying.

Journalist, essayist and writer whose mother inspired her to write at five to occupy her time, she went on to win several awards such as the National Book Award, the Medicis Essays Prize, the Edward MacDowell Medal, the St. Louis Literary Award. , the Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement and the National Book Foundation Annual Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Harvard and Yale.

Yet one remarkable thing about Didion, who made phrases dance on blank sheets like Ernest Hemingway, is that after recording a string of hits with his early works of fiction and non-fiction, which recount not only American history but also life growing up in California, his real breakthrough was magical although preceded by a few rough edges.

Didion was diagnosed in her thirties with multiple sclerosis and around the same time she had depression and went to a psychiatric clinic in Santa Monica, Calif., Who diagnosed her worldview as ” fundamentally pessimistic, fatalistic and depressive ”.

However, her magical breakthrough came after the loss of her husband, writer 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 adopted on the day of her birth, was gravely ill in a hospital.

But rather than surrender and collapse, Didion wrote the book caring for their daughter in hospital in 88 days, between October 4 and December 31, 2004, finishing her exactly one year and one day later. Dunne’s death. The notes she took during Quintana’s hospitalization became part of the book

Not only did memoir become a bestseller and near-instant standard, but the kind of work people would instinctively seek after losing a loved one, he won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2005 and was a finalist for the both for 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 featured in the Netflix documentary The Center Will Not Hold, directed by his nephew Griffin Dunne, in 2017.

Another remarkable thing about his career was his fascination with sentences. Didion considered sentence structure essential to her work, something she acquired from American writer Ernest Hemingway, which she meticulously studied and which influenced her.

While learning to make sentences like Hemingway, she had typed her prose in order to master the keyboard and its syntax: the exact placement of words was the basis of her style as it had been hers. “Grammar is a piano that I play by ear,” she said.

In a “Why I write” article, she remarked: “Shifting the structure of a sentence changes the meaning of that sentence, as sharply and inflexibly as the position of a camera changes the meaning of the object being photographed … word arrangement. the things and 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 is happening in the picture .

Rituals were part of Didion’s creative process. At the end of the day, she would take a break from writing to retreat from the “pages,” claiming that without the distance she couldn’t make the appropriate edits. She then ended the day by cutting and editing the prose and revising the work the next day. She slept in the same room as her book, saying, “This is one of the reasons I’m coming home to Sacramento to finish things off.” Either way, the book doesn’t leave you when you’re right next to it.

Next to that? Certainly. Although Didion has just passed away, his book, The Year of Magical Thinking, will never leave us as he is always by our side, inspiring us to create bestsellers even when everything seems dark and spooky.

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