Sad to the point of crying, which I don’t often do. For those who may be reading this and have never heard of Joan Didion, she was a journalist, novelist, essayist, Hollywood writer, wife, mother, and literary icon. I didn’t read her until I was in my MFA program in mid-life and then, later, in preparation for teaching her texts to my high school students. Her essays speak to me most urgently. She was an astute observer of time and place and the people in particular places at particular times, which taps into my urban planner sensibility, I guess. We are all inhabiting various places during our particular time on this planet, and these places, in turn, inhabit us—their landscapes, sky, climate, politics, histories, myths, violence, and catastrophes.
Didion, memoir, and grief
I have yet to read her memoir about the death of her daughter (Blue Nights, 2011), and it took me until 2019 to read The Year of Magical Thinking about the death of her husband. I didn’t want to contemplate her losses because they were my potential losses, and I knew her words would and will break me open. The Year of Magical Thinking came across my radar when it came out in 2005 and through the years from friends recommending it as a fundamental text for grief. But I couldn’t bring myself to read it until a few months after the death of my father when I was at a writing residency, working on a book about him. Only then, with those long days spent mostly alone, was I ready to walk part of the way of grief with her as my guide.
Didion and anxiety
Of all the remembrances about Didion that are flooding my social media feed and news sites in the past 24 hours, what has stuck with me the most was the acknowledgment by Francine Prose in a piece at WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR affiliate, that Didion’s anxiety is always on the page, that even for all her intelligence and sharp observations and commentary, she was an anxious person and this quality infused her work. Francine Prose summed up this aspect of Didion’s writing like this:
“It’s just thrumming with anxiety,” Prose says. “Every sentence has a kind of electric anxiety and it’s partly what makes you pay such close attention. I mean, you’re just waiting for something to explode and then it doesn’t and you keep reading.”
“Everything makes her anxious,” Prose says. “And yet she goes to [El] Salvador; she goes to Miami; she goes to Las Vegas; she travels all around California; she visits the Panthers; she visits the hippies. It’s anxiety and it’s at the same time transcending the anxiety, which pretty much describes what it takes for any of us to get through the day.”
I never thought of her work in quite this way before, but maybe it’s a core part of what appeals to me, as one who has erected so many walls my entire life to hide my anxiety about, well, so many things. Maybe when I cry for Joan, I’m crying for myself, for the hope that I have for myself, to live a little longer, to press on despite my anxieties, to get more words down and get them out into the world. In the meantime, I hope she’s found some peace.
 In my defense — I feel like I have to explain this to the writing community! — I was a psychology major as an undergrad and then pursued urban planning shortly thereafter, so when I started writing later in life, I didn’t have the more traditional literary foundation that an English major would have. I’m still trying to catch up. Or maybe there will always be too many books and too little time, and I will always feel terribly behind as a reader. Or maybe every reader/writer feels this way!