The Phrases of Grief

"This is a case in which I need more than words to find the meaning," says Joan Didion of her writing after the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 26, 2005

NEW YORK In a way, it should come as no surprise that, nine months after her only child was stricken with an inexplicable, life-threatening illness and her husband of nearly 40 years fell dead at the dinner table, Joan Didion would sit down and begin writing the book that became "The Year of Magical Thinking."

She's been writing since she was 5 years old.

What else would she do?

She began Oct. 4, 2004. She wasn't thinking about a book at first, but a week or so in she found herself working out how one might be structured. The best way, she thought, would be to come back over and over again to certain key scenes, foregrounding different details each time, evoking the obsessive nature of her grief.

Didion never writes from outlines. Sometimes she thinks as much as 30 pages ahead, but in this case, she didn't even do that. She knew the book would end a year after her husband's death. She sensed that an especially intense crisis in her daughter's illness would form a "movement" that should fall a certain distance into the narrative. Otherwise she didn't plan it out. She just wrote.

Her husband, John Gregory Dunne, was a writer as well. Over the years, he had drilled into her the need to include a so-called billboard section: a short passage, early in your story, that tells readers what you're writing about . At the beginning of Didion's career, she had sometimes neglected to do this.

On that first writing day, when she got to the place where the billboard should fall, she typed one in.

This was her effort, she explained, to make sense of the disorienting months after her husband died and their daughter fell ill, a period "that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself."

It was a classic billboard, a billboard to make John proud -- but it didn't stop there. It went on to signal a dramatic change in Didion's writing style.

"As a writer, even as a child," she continued, "I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish."

Then her world changed.

Polished language wasn't enough anymore.

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