Writer, interrupted

DIDION ON DEATH Joan Didion’s searing book on the experience of grief.

THERE is nothing like a new idea to throw a writer’s writing schedule right out.

It happened to me over this Easter weekend, perhaps because I got out of my comfort zone – my desk – and went away for a weekend with family?

It might also have something to do with reading a new book, well, rereading actually – Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, a sparse, difficult book about grief.

Didion’s husband died right in the middle of a conversation they were having as she prepared dinner at the very end of one random year. At the time, their daughter was in an induced coma.

I imagine these events cut a gash into any writing schedule Didion (a hard-working career writer in the Hemingway tradition) had for that particular year.

But she wrote anyway, and The Year of Magical Thinking was the result.

In the last four years in particular I have stuck to my writing schedule like a long distance runner in training. I don’t write vast amounts at a time, but I write regularly. I sit, open my word processor, and commit words to the page.

If I miss a week’s worth of writing, I do twice as much the next week.

I don’t judge the quality of what I am writing until I edit the work, and editing forms an ever-increasing part of my schedule, considering that my output is now mounting-up.

With two plays, a collection of short stories, a novel, regular blogging, and a part-time job as a sub-editor, the question is, do I have room for another work?

My answer is immediate and rather obvious to me: of course I have room. This idea is knocking on my consciousness wanting to be born.

I learnt long ago that ideas need to be given legs. I always try them out. I force myself to let them out of my mind. Even when it feels a bit like vomiting, I know I’ll feel better afterwards.

Joan Didion forced herself to write in her grief, something I find incredible, knowing by experience the crippling effect grief has on all forms of creativity.

In the weeks after her husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne, died of a coronary incident, Didion started to take notes, and underwent ruthless research, on processes that only medical practitioners explore as a matter of course.

This was, no doubt, a natural response for a journalist seeking to understand an incident to find the unbiased truth of each moment, particularly when grief and shock were warping her reality.

It’s a misshapen, unresolved, stilted, imperfect piece of writing, very much a literary incarnation of traversing the ripple effects survivors endure after every death, but The Year of Magical Thinking is a masterpiece when the reader considers how close to Didion’s husband’s death it was executed.

And had it not been for this book, countless readers might never have encountered the work of Joan Didion, including me.

So I really have no excuses. Another work in a writing schedule that often seems to burst at the seams? Of course. Bring it on. There’s nothing on television anyway.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Writer, interrupted”

  1. That enticing new inspirational idea is like the glamorous new model who
    appears from nowhere to seduce the writer away from the older models that’ve lost their lustre. That said it’s always good for the mind to stay open to receive any new ideas that happen to pass by. Just don’t forget all the others!

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