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.”
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.
Post a Comment