Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking faces the harrowing absence of death with systematically beautiful language.
On most surface levels I seemed rational. To the average observer I would have appeared to understand that death was irreversible. I had authorized the autopsy. I had arranged for cremation. I had seen the ashes placed in the wall and the marble plate replaced and the service held. I had done it. I had acknowledged that my husband was dead. I had done this in as public a way as I could conceive.Yet my thinking on this point remained suspiciously fluid. I happened to meet a prominent academic theologian who spoke of ritual itself as a form of faith. My reaction was unexpressed but negative, vehement, excessive even in me.
Later I realized that my immediate thought had been that I did the ritual. I did it all. And it still didn’t bring him back. Bringing him back had been through those months my hidden focus, a magic trick. By late summer, I was beginning to see this clearly. “Seeing it clearly” did not yet allow me to give away the clothes he would need.
I’ve had no success in getting my writing published. I am on my ninth novel now. Yes, nine completed novels and nothing. I’ve written six screenplays, two novellas, too many poems and articles, and this, my 757th blog post. And nothing.My publishing success is limited to a momentary sports column, a handful of advertorials for British Columbia Tourism and failed copy for a toilet company. Once, I posted a comment about the paparazzi the day after Princess Diana’s death and got a positive reply. Yes, 19 years later, and I still remember that one comment. My most successful blog – 1,200 hits – was due solely to the image of Bachelorette hopeful Jade Elizabeth posted along with it.
Over these many years, I have accumulated hundreds of rejections from literary agents – all kindly phrased – while friends have listened to my writing ruminations with fading patience. Acquaintances are more interested because they don’t know any better.
It’s not that I’m feeling sorry for myself. I’m just trying to figure out what I’m doing with all of my time. It’s a dream of something – recognition, immortality, dinner with the president, a night of naked adulation, an admiring smile. I am well aware of Orwell and Didion’s thoughts and agree that it must be in my nature and that I am my only I, but it doesn’t feel like that very often. Not today anyway. It seems more like I’m being stubborn or, more accurately, a dumb shit.
Darin Strauss’ Half a Life is an intensely personal experience. The raw and relentless prose made me turn within and question who I am. Not that I have had the same experience as Strauss – who accidentally ran over a girl when he was a teenager – but that I have moments in my life that make me shudder, make me turn back and wonder who that was that went through that. Where is that person in the me that is now?No one who encountered me in classrooms, at a frat party, the campus center, noticed the fierce inner battles I’d fought to make the different Darins into a Darin that friends could recognize.
The rawness of his prose is reminiscent of Joan Didion’s devastating The Year of Magical Thinking.
Quintana, John Dunne and Joan Didion
It is especially clear in the delicate descriptions of every moment, every thought, always returning to the same thing, someone who is gone.
I remember the first time after the accident my name was called in the class, the feel of pause and hush in the room, like deer scenting something strange. Everyone’s ears and tails flicked.
Strauss’ story is a compelling narrative, a personal journey that won’t leave you alone, that prods your memories and makes you think. Relationships are physics. Time transforms things – it has to, because the change from me to we means clearing away the fortifications you’ve put up around your old personality.
Lately I’ve been trying to figure out how to be an actual writer, whether it’s using the right words, or it’s a sensibility or a devotion to craft or just being in the right place at the right time. I mean, I know it isn’t just writing. I’ve been doing that for over 30 years and I have yet to feel the part. I do sometimes tell people that I’m a writer, but not the customs agents because I don’t make money doing it, with the exception of a brief stint as a sports columnist and my current job writing copy about toilets.I know that writing means something to me. I have a clear sense of me when I write. It’s just me and the words coming out of my head, a long wavering stream that I sometimes catch, and feel clear when I do. And so I’m writing. I know that I’m doing that.
I just don’t know about the being a writer part. I doubt my ability to be as open as Richard Blanco or as honest as Darin Strauss.I doubt my cleverness, wit and sense of denouement. But more than anything I doubt being able to enunciate what it is I doubt without trying to make it sound too much like what I think I should and then I’ve just missed the point.I have been told that I have an ear for dialogue and that I seem dedicated to my work. I’ve also been told that part of my problem is that my narrative tends to be too fast-moving, a frantic thing that doesn’t breathe and therefore is opaque.But still…I know that my writing makes sense to me – even these few words; it gives me solace, a moment where life isn’t just chaos and missteps. That’s why I’m trying to do it, so that it’s not me just chasing words, but crafting and binding and offering my thoughts on that. I’m attending conferences and workshops and orientation meetings for MFA programs. I’ve even thought of growing a beard.
But I’m still not so sure. I have my doubts that, even after whatever comes next, I’ll even be a writer then, that I’ll feel like I should, or I’ll even want to because it seems that maybe there’s nothing like just chasing words, nothing as pure as that. At least that’s what I tell myself.