People often assume, when I tell them that I need to read pretty much constantly when I’m writing, that I’m reading things that are directly related to the work I’m doing. Not so. There’s the scholarship part of my writing, and yes, I do read a lot about the things I need to know when I’m in scholarship mode. That’s a given. I have a row of library books in my bookshelf, for instance, with the word “Descartes” on their spines, and I’ll be reading those when I’m writing about Descartes, a little later this winter. But the reading that makes the most difference to me when I’m writing is actually not the stuff that ends up in my “Works Cited” list. Really great writing of just about any kind is nourishment for me as a thinker and writer. In fact, the further the topic seems to be from what I’m working on, the better–it frees me up both to appreciate the quality of the writing, and to learn something new. And often, that something new will generously offer up surprising connections to whatever I’m working on, helping me out of the ruts I work myself into. In short, someone else’s great writing makes my own work better. It’s like getting an underdog on the swing set: you could probably swing that high eventually, but it’s a lot better to have someone else–someone you trust–give you a boost. Plus, it means that you’re not hanging out at that swing set all by yourself.
Most of the books I’ll write about in this blog will be those “companion” kinds of books. Like Lab Girl (and yeah, by the way, give this a listen–thanks, Carrie), or Tribe. Or The Mothers, which I’ve just started reading, by the literary wunderkind Brit Bennett.
It got a five-star review from my in-house librarian, and I promise to weigh in on it next week.
But over the last few days, in response to something a friend recently said about my own writing, I picked up and quickly inhaled a couple of books that satisfy my criteria for great writing and are more-or-less directly related to my own writing project. Joan Didion–who is a marvelous writer–lost her husband, John Gregory Dunne, to a heart attack in 2003, and her daughter, Quintana Roo, two years later, reportedly to acute pancreatitis, but probably to something more like alcoholism. Quintana was, in fact, in an induced coma in the ICU of a New York hospital suffering from septicemia (that she would sort of recover from) when Dunne died. He and Didion had been at the hospital all afternoon, they took a cab home, and he died right in the middle of a conversation the two were having just before dinner.
The Year of Magical Thinking is the grief memoir Didion wrote in the year following Dunne’s death. I read it right after it came out–in 2005–and I read it again this week. It’s gorgeous. I thought that the first time, and I think it still. One of the things I’ve been writing about (or, more accurately, working through) in my own book has to do with what I’ve come to think of as the lack of reciprocity that so characterizes grief. When someone important to us dies, one of the ongoing conversations that made up the imagined reciprocity of our lived existence is suddenly gone. The work of grief is, it seems to me at least, the attempt to restore that lost reciprocity. That doesn’t mean simply replacing the person who is gone with another; it means trying to find the distance that will enable conversation again–not with the dead person, but with life. The Year of Magical Thinking both registers the loss of the conversation–painfully, beautifully–and looks for ways to restore it. Didion does so by remembering, but also by reading and thinking her way through to the first anniversary of her husband’s death. There are so many ways in which she reaches outside of herself in order to bear witness to her grief–and that, to me, is her brave attempt to try to find reciprocity again. I’m quite sure that Didion would not think herself successful in restoring the conversation she now lacks, but the seeking after it is so moving and literarily courageous, that the book, for me, became and has remained part of my own ongoing restoration project.
Blue Nights is an entirely different sort of book. It is, ostensibly at least, a eulogy for her daughter. And the verbatim repetition–echoes, I think Didion would call them–of parts of Magical Thinking would seem also to insist on its being a sequel of sorts to that book. So I don’t think I should be faulted for expecting it also to be a book about grief. It’s not. It’s a book about sorrow, that’s for sure. But if grief writing, according to my definition at least, has to claim some sort of attempt to locate the conversation again, and if, by conversation, I mean with something outside of the self-fettered “I” of pure lament, then this book is not about grief. It’s like she’s saying, to herself, “We had everything: the exquisite homes in LA and New York; the Westlake school; the movie star friends; the black challis dress from Bendel’s back when Bendel’s was really something; the Christian Louboutin shoes; the peach-colored wedding cake from Payard. How could all that now be gone, and how could I be old and alone?” I know, it doesn’t really sound like Joan Didion, does it? All that product placement, for one thing, seems at best a desperate grasping after something that only pretends to be meaningful. There just aren’t very many ideas in this book. Where Magical Thinking included many challenging voices other than her own, this book quotes only her husband, her daughter, and herself–and the same words over and over. You could call it “incantatory,” as the Washington Post blurb on the front cover does, but I would call it “confined,” as though she’s trapped in an endless loop of regret. It is a very sad book, a frail book, and I suppose that makes it also an honest book. But I don’t think it’s a book about grief.
She still composes some of the best sentences, though, and that alone is going to carry me into another writing day. And my own conversation with grief.