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Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent at The Globe and Mail.
Christmas feels like it was 10 years ago, I know, but let me take you back for a moment. I, like many Canadians, had cancelled our already smallish plans a few days beforehand as a result of the holiday’s uninvited guest, Omicron. Even though we don’t officially celebrate, we were bummed not to be with some beloved people who do. We were holing up and freaking out a little bit, but trying to make the best of it.
And then, Joan Didion died.
This is a story about how Joan Didion saved my Christmas. But this isn’t about Christmas at all, and it’s not really about Didion either. It’s about tapping into a core delight at a time when I was worried I had lost it – and really needed it. At a time when I suspect many of us need it.
If ever there was a writer who served as a model and mentor in absentia for me, it was Didion. She paved the way (she would hate that cliché!) for so many writers I admire; women who have taken the sometimes-personal reported essay to an art form: including Susan Orlean and my colleague Elizabeth Renzetti (who tells me she kept Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album on her bookshelf all through journalism school).
Didion is probably best known for her beautiful and devastating 2005 book, The Year of Magical Thinking, in which she recounts the sudden death of her husband, and the serious illness of their daughter. So much grief. More shattering: By the time the book was published, her daughter had also died. Didion wrote about that in her next book, Blue Nights.
Just under a year ago, Didion published what would be the final book in her lifetime, the essay collection Let Me Tell You What I Mean. I bought it right away, but never managed to read it. Life, as it so often does, got in the way.
On Christmas Eve, the day after Didion died, I finally cracked it.
Every essay in Didion’s book is a little masterpiece. I had read much of this material before, but was really struck by a personal favourite, Why I Write.
“In many ways, writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind,” she writes. “It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. … [T]here’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.”
Wow, right? The honesty, the grit, the gorgeousness of that paragraph.
But set aside the mastery for a moment, because what I want to talk about here goes beyond a sublime piece of writing. For me, this was a reminder.
The joy of writing was something I hadn’t consciously thought about in God knows how long. Worse: Writing, the thing I love to do, the thing I am paid to do (I’m very lucky, I know), had become, I will admit, a little bit of a chore. Like the rest of the world, heading into year three of this pandemic, I was burning out. Languishing.
Writing was becoming harder. The thrill was often gone.
And then Didion reminded me, on Christmas Day (which is when I got to Why I Write) that I could tune back in to the absolute pleasure of it. Sitting in my electric red recliner (pandemic impulse purchase; highly recommended), I immersed myself in her exquisite sentences – and in so doing, became excited again by the prospect.
When I returned to my job and my writing after the holidays, it was with new energy. It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that I am no Joan Didion. But I kept thinking about the question implied by her essay. Why do I write?
Because of the stories I get to tell. Because it is a gift and a privilege to be able to tell them. Because I love it, even when I’m hating it.
Writing, of course, is not everyone’s thing. But don’t we all have a thing? Or didn’t we, before life – and a pandemic – ground us down? What was yours? Was it painting en plein air, composing songs on the piano, playing tennis? Carpentry? Singing? Reading everything you could get your hands on about Spanish history? Call it a passion, call it a hobby – but what got you enthused before you were too rundown to keep at it? To maybe even remember how – or why?
Can you try to tap in to that again? Because we only have so many years. And I think it is one of the things – maybe the thing – that will get us through to the other side of this pandemic, as we slouch toward redemption.
What else we’re thinking about:
My expectations were high, but my disappointments are many as we approach the end of season one of And Just Like That, the Sex and the City reboot. Rhonda Garelick nails it in this New York Times piece, which takes apart the way the series portrays women in their fifties. But you know what has been a lot of fun to watch? Reruns of The Golden Girls, which I returned to, also over the holidays, after Betty White died on New Year’s Eve. Sure the production values are out-of-date, and so are some of the jokes, but this very funny, female-forward sitcom from my youth has given me a lot of easy pleasure in these less than golden times.
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