Angela Kelsey

Tell the Story

book 2 of 24 books in 28 days: the year of magical thinking

Filed in Books, Memoir, Writing :: February 5, 2010

Year of magical thinking

I set up some rules for this series of posts: Do not reread books already read.  Skim underlined passages only.    Skim and blog, skim and blog. Save time for books as yet unread.

I promptly broke my rule when I came to the second book on my list: Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking

When I wasn't able to put it down, I realized something basic about why I read memoir: to discover how other people "do" life.  I read it the first time almost two years ago, not too long after my
ex-husband's death.  I was trying to figure out not only what I was
grieving but also how I was going to write about it.

How did Didion "do" grief?  I read to discover how she grieved the loss of her loving forty-year marriage to John Gregory Dunne.  And I read to discover how she "did" writing.  How did she write about the marriage and its aftermath?

I figured out that (in shorthand) I was grieving the loss of time and possibility.  And I used, well, stole, actually, her "year" structure for the first few drafts, hanging my story month by month on the prop of the calendar until there was enough flesh for it to stand on its own.  In the most recent draft I finally took out the references to months, and in the next draft I think I will not even remember that they were ever so important.

After having written several drafts of my own, I was impressed all over again at the seamlessness and apparent ease of her movement in time from present to recent past to distant past and back.  She includes psychological texts and fiction and poetry without losing her narrative thread.  In space she moves from New York to LA to New York.

Didion moves so easily among times places and genres and impressions and descriptions and people and associations that it's as if she has woven a large, beautiful tapestry of very fine threads.  My internal critic says that in comparison I have woven a grapevine basket.  But that's okay for now.  Baskets can be beautiful, and with each revision I can move from basket toward tapestry.

Filed in Books, Memoir, Writing


  1. TheWordWire

    That’s a perfect description — find find out how others “do” life. That’s why I read blogs too. I’ve read Joan Didion but not this particular book. Thanks for the recommendation — I’ll put it on my list for the next library visit. Happy Friday!

  2. Dian Reid

    I read this book a year or so ago, similarly to see, how does Joan Didion “do” grieving. Reading her memoir made me completely change the way I would continue to write mine. I, too, began with a linear structure…day 1, day 2, and so on. What I realized about Didion’s grieving was that she did it on her terms. While her structure worked for her, I had to find what would (did) work for me. And so, the writing of my own grieving had to be on its own terms—anything but linear.
    Makes me want to read it again before I send it off to a friend in a couple weeks.

  3. Square-Peg Karen

    Didion rocks – her style is gorgeous – and that book, OH, that book! I have a whole slew of grief books (due to both professional interest and personal need — reading grief books to see how other people do grief, like you said) and so darn few are good – hers is GREAT! Another beyond excellent one is Barbara Lazear Ascher’s Landscape Without Gravity – and there’s a fantastic new one coming — by an author who used to go by “Gracie” might know her (grin)

  4. Bonnie

    So glad I found you via The Barefoot Heart. I’ve been wanting to read this book and now my interest is reignited! If your memoir is anywhere nearly as compelling as this post, you’re on your way to “beautiful tapestry.” (The “grapevine basket” description made me laugh – love the internal critic – mine sounds similar.)

  5. Maryse

    I could not go through that book so I find it fascinating that so many people love it. It was recommended to me by a friend. I found it cold (too many medical details) and that it did not offer any hope. Dust to dust. But again, I did not read it all because it put me off. I welcome words of wisdom about what I missed. Thanks!

  6. whollyjeanne

    this was yet another book that i discovered before it was published and had to wait to actually hold it in my hands. having been a personal historian and started the certification in death education and counseling, grief is a topic i devour. perhaps having read so much and being so intimately familiar with grief from a personal perspective as well as from being an end-of-life doula is why i didn’t totally embrace this book. i found it helpful, and i’ve recommended it to others, but it’s not at the top of my list. maybe i should’ve read it through the lens of construction of story instead of through the therapeutic lens. that might’ve made a big difference. i have, however, given it to several folks who have lost a spouse because it’s short (which is helpful since grief often causes an alarming attention deficit and lack of focus) and relatable.