In Praise of Joan Didion

It has been said, in many of venues… verbally to me, read by me, or even thought by me, that to be a good writer you must be a good reader. I think there is truth to that. However, my downfall, the Achilles heel of my writing process, is my difficulty in reading.

Year of Magical

It isn’t for a lack of want. My fictitious Heaven is constructed in the midst of an endless library. It isn’t my cognition either. While I do suffer from a confirmed case of dyslexia, making it difficult to spell, memorize, especially numbers, that problem only slows down my reading a bit.

No, my problem are my eyes, those physical windows to the soul. When I was eighteen I suffered a rather severe chemical burn to them when a “friend” intentionally threw a handful of powered sodium hydroxide (lye) into my widely opened eyes. He thought it would be funny. It was not. I almost lost my eyes completely.

But it left me with chronic eye pain. The official diagnosis is chronic dry eye, but a rather severe case. It appears that the oil glands around my eyelids were burned out and scared over. For most people with dry eyes, it is more of an autoimmune problem or of aging.

So, enough with the self-pity part, but when I start to read—or write for that matter—from the first word on the page my eyes start to burn. Then with each subsequent word the burning intensifies. By the end of the first sentence I have tears blurring my vision and soon running down my face (thanks to my lacrimal duct plugs). By the time I finish the first paragraph, I must stop and squeeze my eyes tightly closed for the pain to dissipate, before I start reading again. I’ve tried every drop on the planet, both over the counter and prescription. I’ve seen countless doctors including the dry-eye specialist at Mayo Clinic. I have had bandage lens made to cover my corneas, which worked well until they would stick to and abrade my cornea, making things worse.

However, despite this, I have read at least one book per month for most of my life. Up until about ten years ago, they were all non-fiction. One day my son Ramsey said to me, “Dad, if you want to write fiction, you must read it.”

This started my on a fantastic journey of reading down the top 100 list (by the American Library Association) of the best English fiction books. This journey has been delightful.  However, my bottleneck of reading was still the limitation of my eyes. For example, my wife could finish off several books by the time I finished one, because I could not bear the pain.

I had often thought about trying audio books. A few years ago, I did join Audible. I hope that my experience was the exception, but it was terrible. The software would not work on my computer. But then when it did work, I could not transfer the book to any mobile listening device and was therefore worthless. Then I had a very difficult time cancelling my contract and billings. Never got to listen to a single book through them but paid a lot of money for nothing.

Then, last summer, someone told me about the state of Washington’s library system audio book loans. I joined the library, downloaded their software onto my phone and presto, the problem solved. I have now listed to more than a dozen books.

The only problem that I have is finding the best book to listen to. It is odd to me, but, although the books are digital, they are like a physical book, in that if they are checked out to someone else in the state, I can’t check it out. So, I have to get in line to get it.

The other problem is searching for the best book to listen to. I wish the top 100 novel list was a searchable option, but it is not. I’ve tried several options. I ended up choosing the most popular books option.

I would have to say, this exercise has been a great disappointment. I have listened to about eight books, each being very popular and a great financial success in America. All the authors are franchise authors, meaning that they have written along series of “best sellers,” usually with the same characters as romance or mystery novels.

I listen to these books to learn about writing. The problem is, their writing was terrible. You know exactly what was going to happen next. Everything was predictable. I could hear the voice of my editors in my mind saying things like, “Hmm… I think you need to omit that section Mike, or rewrite it completely as it does not hold the reader.”

When the books do deviate from the predictable, it isn’t with great imagination, but rather ood. For example how odd the character reacts to situations.  For example, one book started with a police detective coming home to find his entire family brutally murdered. So the author said something like, “He had to quickly think like a detective and examine the crime scene carefully. The cut across his wife’s throat was from left to right, meaning the perp was right handed.” I could hear my editors (one in particular) saying, “Michael, what normal human being would respond the way your character does?  Re-think this story.”

So, it dawned on me, that these books all had the same things in common, they were published in the past ten years, they went right to the best seller list because of the following of that author. But they were not intellectually or imaginatively stimulating. They were the Cheetos of the book nourishment menu. Maybe that tells me more about the American reader.

I visited the museum of modern art in San Francisco last week. Many of the exhibits were like these book, with no intrinsic value (a huge canvas painted with a plain monochromic black, or a wooden chair with a glove on it) but only had value because the artist was famous.

driving miss daisy arrivals 2 251010

Joan Didion- Recent Photo

Then, a few weeks ago Joan Didion’s book, A Year of Magical Thinking showed up on the list of most popular. I had heard of this title before. I had even used that term “Year of Magical Thinking” or “Magical Thinking” to describe someone who refuses to live in reality. For example, someone whose girlfriend keeps sleeping around with his friends and he tells me, “She’s over that now. She has re-committed herself to just me.”  Hmm? You really want to believe that?

The only problem with this book was that it was on long waiting list. So, while I was listening to one of the pop-culture mystery novels (poorly written but financially successful) Didion’s book came up. I left the old book because I was so sick of it and latched onto Didion’s book.

I just finished A Year of Magical Thinking during this morning’s 5-mile run. I will have to say that Joan has restored my faith in the American writer. It, however, is not fictional. I didn’t know what it was about before I started it. But like C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, it is a self-obsessed journey about her year after her husband, of 40 + years, suddenly died. But the writing was beautiful. It was her best work and she won a Pulitzer prize for it (well-deserved).

It is possible that this book meant so much to me as I recently lost my dear mother. The process of mourning, for me, was aborted. My mother died during a four day celebration at my house of my daughter’s wedding. The wedding was here on the west coast. Mom died in Tennessee. My siblings had the funeral before I could get there, and I was coming as fast as I could. I cancelled my trip to Tennessee. It is like my mother faded from my life with no goodbyes of any type. I feel hollow, like a film that breaks before the movie’s ending. Lacking. Surreal.

I learned so much, as a writer, from her (meaning Joan, not my mother). She describes the ordinary in a way that it becomes the fantastical. I have written two books that are someone autobiographical. In the midst of positive comments, I have heard negative comments such as, “You wrote too much about yourself. No one cares about you or your journey.”  In Joan’s book, I was consumed with her thoughts, feelings and journey. She knew how to make her most narcissistic thoughts, the central theme to each reader’s world. Thank you Joan!




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