“Somewhere in his published diaries, the playwright Alan Bennett observes that when misfortune befalls a writer the effect of it is in a small but significant measure ameliorated by the fact that the experience, no matter how dire, can be turned into material, into something to write about,” John Banville in “A Daughter’s Death,” a review of Joan Didion’s Blue Nights in The New York Times Book Review, November 6, 2011.
Yes, that’s true whether the writer possesses tremendous gifts, like Didion, or modest talents, like me—whether the writer publishes his or her work or doesn’t. The act of writing alone—writing that is rooted in self-examination and critical thinking, not whining and ranting--can ease your pain.
Didion’s two books about loss, The Year of Magical Thinking, written after the death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, and Blue Nights, following the death of her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, will become timeless classics, read by the grieving for god knows how long. I started reading her literary non-fiction in high school and have never stopped reading, through essays and novels and the memoirs of grief. Play It As It Lays, Didion’s powerful 1970 novel set in Hollywood, influenced generations of writers to emulate her lean style and flinty acknowledgement of the emptiness inside American culture. Martin Amis described her as “the poet of the Great California Emptiness.”
Recent reviewers have focused on Didion’s “privileged life,” possibly because class differences are on the public mind. Recent photos of her show a thin elderly woman, brave if no longer fearless, alone at the end of a brilliant life. What difference does it make at that point if you have a lot or a little? How mean-spirited of critics to dwell on her fondness for name restaurants. Her talent should have earned her that. What one does with privilege is telling. She used it as the cushion upon which to write.
What do you read in the wee small hours of the morning?
I was reading the Sunday book review at 3 a.m. on Tuesday morning.
I go to bed around midnight, earlier than I did before I was dying, say three months ago—but I wake between three and four a.m., feeling a little pain. I read until the Aleve takes hold and maybe fall asleep again, maybe read on until my eyes blur. Or sometimes I watch movies, rarely all the way through, so I am searching for endings for days. Or I write.
The wee small hours of the morning have always been my special place, the uncluttered space inside. Since I finally learned how to meditate, I am able to shape and cultivate the space like a Japanese garden—nothing like the empty void at the center of a Didion character. If retreating to this space be death, it is lovely.
There are, of course, books in my inner space, all the books I love. Who can live or die without books (in print or on Kindle)? Not my friends.
November 1 was Carolyn’s birthday; and the next day she wrote:
“I was home for my birthday and took the day off and read. I just finished Gould's Book of Fish, an eccentric novel about Tasmania when it was a prison camp around 1800. And I've started Unbroken and am in the middle of WW II in the Pacific.
“Dick and I went to dinner in Savannah at an incredible restaurant and bar. Makes me wish I lived in Savannah…”
Marilyn is in Bhutan with her husband Rob and will likely return with a reading list for us. Carolyn and I are very eclectic readers, but Marilyn is possibly more so. They have both introduced me to books I would not have found on my own. I knew Lorraine and I were fast friends the night over dinner she told me about re-discovering Hemingway. Her eyes blaze when she talks about books; and in that warm fire, our affection for one another took hold.
I have trouble connecting to people who don’t read good books and can’t talk about ideas. There is a chasm between me and the occasional reader of a Judith Krantz novel (and little else), whose conversations center around spilling other people’s secrets, making pejorative judgments about everyone from public figures to family members and listing her grievances, going all the way back to “Mommy never said I was pretty.” (Maybe you weren’t, Babe.) I am not sorry about that.
Some nights, after I close a book, I read the emails in the wee small hours.
SexyPrime readers are smarter than your average sex blog readers. Reading their letters is a pleasure, not a duty. I feel as close to some of my regular correspondents as I do to people I’ve known for some time.
Every writer gets the pats (“I love you; you’re wonderful.) and pans (“I hate you; you’re stupid.”) Alas, hate is the mindset of the average internet troll who barely suppresses his or her rage to get through the day. It has to come out somewhere, yes? And who takes idiots seriously? Nuance is lost on too much of the general population—but not on my readers.
One male reader noted that Americans today value “cheap emotion” over “intellect”
He’s right. American culture is awash in emotions on steroids—mawkish sentimentality, girlish cutesy-poo drivel masquerading as sex advice in some women’s magazines, the embracing of simplistic religiosity or “spirituality”—none of it really, as my reader said, “deeply-felt” or “particularly ennobling.” He added:
“Generally the working class are ‘devout’ and the upper middle class ‘spiritual’ with the middle class breaking according to intelligence and church history.”
And: “I was never on your side so much as when you wrote—
‘People who can't be happy without playing handmaid to an emotional meltdown should look for another cancer victim to ‘support’. I won't be manipulated into that’.”
Thank you, darlin’.
They may not always agree with me or another commentator, but my readers express their opinions in thoughtful, intelligent language. One new reader, drawn to the Tuesday posts, wrote that she did not find last week’s installment funny though I meant it to be and her mother laughed. Carolyn laughed. But humor is subjective. The reader’s comment was valid. She asked, “What did I miss?”
Nothing. It was just not funny to you, Babe; and that’s all right.
The last email I read on this particular night—Rasmus, a Swedish reader who seems like a friend, wrote, “I hope you are not dead.” He added that his house is haunted by friendly ghosts and invited me to visit after.
As I drift off to sleep, I feel the letters like down pillows under my head.
They float me deeper into the calm space. Only the best memories live here, comforting memories flowing like a gentle waterfall on a wall behind the graceful garden.
The 2 or 3 a.m. feeding when my son was a baby. I was disappointed that he slept through the night at six weeks. The wee hours were ours alone; and I know someday he will remember how to access this place.
My granddaughter’s first Christmas at one month old. I had her downstairs with me so her parents could sleep through the night; and I held her up to the window where snow was falling into the evergreens. This is snow, I told her, you will love it soon; remember how that feels when you are grown and hate it.
The year Jenny, the nieces and I made Thanksgiving dinner. Mama was ill with the flu. Jenny arrived at 3 a.m. to pick up me and the frozen turkey and accompaniments. She was not much of a cook and had never made a holiday meal. At sixteen, shockingly I did not know how to boil the water for tea. (This may be why mothers should have jobs.) Ellen, our family cook, was three weeks from a Caesarian birth and baby Harry was very ill. The girls, eleven and nine, came into the kitchen to help us. Somehow we produced a decent meal, even if we did leave the neck and the bag of giblets inside the turkey; and Ellen was proud of us.
And omigod the sex. I’ve had amazing sex between the hours of 2 and 6 a.m. In fact, I spent those four magical hours in bed with the man who took me by the hand at a jazz bar, led me to his apartment and showed me the cock that dick-matized me for a year.
Those memories flow in the calm space, in the blissful absence of chaos.
If this be dying, it is exquisite.
In the morning, I checked the email and found this from my pal Steve Otero. It is a quote from Pamela Madsen, our mutual friend.
“This is why I write, wisdom from Anaïs Nin: ‘We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.’
“When we write about our experiences - we get to truly savor and roll things around in our mouth for a while. Writing slows down pleasure, and brings it back to us well after the actual event. I deeply encourage all of you students of pleasure and life to begin to write. Start with a journal, or go right for the blog. Don't waste the infinite possibilities of your experiences. Taste it twice.” Pamela Madsen.
Thank you, Steven.
As I read Pamela’s wise advice, I knew what I wanted to write today. Readers. Let go of the bad experiences, savor the good ones. When you can do that, you are ready to die—and to live—and maybe write about it.
IF YOU'VE MISSED THE PREVIOUS POSTS--
Dying, The End Game, Part Six: A Quickie on Questions People Ask
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