Post #140: A Book of Magical Sentences

The Writing Craft, Things You Should Be Reading, Writing Advice

I recently finished Joan Didion’s National Book Award winning memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, and I can’t stop thinking about it. If you’ve never read it, it’s an account of the heartbreaking death of her husband John at the same time her daughter is battling a life-threatening illness. It’s brutally honest about grief, mourning, and loss. It’s as raw emotionally as anything I’ve read in a long time. Didion splits herself open, and you right along with her. It’s unforgettable. And rightfully on its way to becoming a classic.

But that’s not why I can’t stop thinking about it. Not solely why anyway. Of course, it’s Didion’s emotional candor and bravery in laying her grief bare that’s most noteworthy, most humbling, most nourishing. And I was deeply moved by this book. But it’s actually Didion’s language, and her sentences, I can’t stop thinking about. The way she varies short and long. Declarative and interrogative. The lack of modifiers. The strong, muscular verbs. The repetition. The unusual constructions.

In particular, there’s this one sentence from p. 213 that I’m pretty much obsessed with:

“In August and September, after the Democratic and Republican conventions but before the election, I wrote, for the first time since John died, a piece.”

It’s an odd sentence. Meandering. A bit of a mess, and yet utterly distinct, and because of that, deeply personal. Its confident style is what makes it feel personal. I read and re-read this sentence, thinking: I would never write that. Why wouldn’t I write that? Who would write that? Most interesting are those two words “a piece” dropped in there at the end. They feel like an afterthought, shipwrecked and abandoned, oddly disconnected from the rest of the sentence. And yet, the sentence still makes sense, still does the job it’s supposed to do. And maybe even something far more than that.

Let me try to explain what Didion does here in grammatical terms, and why it keeps catching my eye. Let’s take another sentence. How about this: For the first time in over a week, Jimmy walked his dog. Just a boring old sentence, right? Nothing special. It’s a sentence virtually any of us could imagine writing, or at least its equivalent.

But here, let me Didion-ize it for you.

Jimmy walked, for the first time in over a week, his dog.

Feels different, doesn’t it? Strange, maybe? Even a little confusing? Kind of. It uses the exact same words as the first one, and yet, I’d venture to bet that that’s not a sentence that many of us could imagine writing. I’m guessing it’s a small collection of people who would come up with that second version, or leave it that way upon re-reading.

Here’s why, maybe.

In this sentence, we have a subject (Jimmy) doing an action (walked) to someone/something (his dog). The someone/something is called a direct object. A direct object receives the action in a sentence.

I read the book.

I loved Pedro.

Emile cooked an omelet.

Bethany drove her daughter to school.

Typically direct objects are kept close to the subjects acting upon them so that their relationship is clear. Clarity is the soul of effective writing. So why, we might ask, would a writer of Didion’s caliber make the choice to put her direct object “a piece” so far away from the person (“I”) doing the action (“wrote”)? Did she do it on purpose? Is that just the way it came out? Did she fight with her editor about it?

Let’s go back to the two versions of Jimmy’s sentence for a second.

  1. For the first time in over a week, Jimmy walked his dog.
  2. Jimmy walked, for the first time in over a week, his dog.

Which sentence do you prefer? Which feels clearer? I’m going to boldly assume many of us would choose the first one, or at least say it’s clearer.

Now, which has more style? Which feels more personal? Which is more memorable? The answers to these questions feel harder to predict. And therein lies my fascination with Didion’s choice.

Of course, this is all totally subjective, and yet, that’s not to say that we can’t base our opinion on something. I taught high school English for 12 years, and I taught my students to prize clarity in their writing. To keep their direct objects within reach of their subjects so that their meaning would be understood. Writing with clarity doesn’t come that naturally. It’s actually something that most of us have to learn, and then learn again, and keep learning. Students often write long, meandering, messes of sentences, and part of what teachers can do is help them understand how sentences work so they can make more informed choices. To use language more purposefully, and with greater force.

It’s not so much about right and wrong. It’s about intent and communication.

What bothers me a bit is that if Didion was my student, say a freshman in my 9th grade Elements of Literature survey, her sentence would likely get the serious red-pen treatment. I’d likely write “awk” or “not clear” in the margin. I’d likely circle the words “a piece” and draw an arrow back over to the subject and verb.

I write a regular column about music for KIDS VT and I feel confident my editor would also flag this sentence for the many reasons outlined above.

Further, I’m also a graduate of a strong MFA program where I studied creative writing, and I have a hunch this sentence would get mauled in workshop. With good intent, of course. Those arguing that it’s meandering and should just say what it means and keep ideas together would be right, in a way. And yet, they’d all be wrong too. Why? Because if we all wrote to the workshop ideal, or limited our use of language to what would or would not flag a teacher’s red pen, or please an editor, people like Joan Didion may not have been able to develop such unique, indelible styles. When I read Didion, like when I’m reading Toni Morrison or David Foster Wallace or Haruki Murakami, I’m constantly thinking that she doesn’t sound like anybody else. There’s not much higher praise for a writer. And yet, as teachers and editors, despite our best intentions, it’s often our instinct to push back against what defies convention, what makes us think differently. But to what end, and at what cost?

Let’s take another look at Didion’s sentence.

“In August and September, after the Democratic and Republican conventions but before the election, I wrote, for the first time since John died, a piece.”

Here’s how we might edit this.

After I attended the Democratic and Republican conventions in August and September, I wrote a piece for the first time since John died.

With my editor’s hat on, I removed “but before the election” because thinking like an editor, I could argue that the sentence expresses the same idea without it, and therefore it isn’t needed. I know I shouldn’t edit Didion, but bear with me. It’s just a thought experiment.

Is this edited version clearer in its expression? Maybe a little. But is it consequently less personal? Somewhat. Less stylized? Absolutely. Less memorable? No question. By distancing herself (“I wrote”) from the thing she’s writing (“a piece”), she’s showing us how separated she felt from her life beyond the bonds of her grief. And by inserting her husbands’s death (“for the first time since John died”) in between the two, she’s reminding us, and herself, of the painful bridge she has to cross to re-claim her identity and live a life without her husband, who was also a writer.

What is style? And how is it caught up in other paradigms and inevitably burdened by larger political forces like the patriarchy and Western bias and sexism?

Why do some writers develop such memorable relationships to language, whereas most of us tend to listen to our editors perhaps a little more than we should? I don’t know exactly, but I have a hunch courage and conviction plays a larger role than we might at first imagine. Didion is a writer of tremendous courage and conviction.

David Foster Wallace’s editor wrote at length about the exchanges they would have where Wallace would defend his stylistic choices down to the very last syllable. Wallace went to war for every word. And this is a guy who wrote long. To invest that kind of time not only in the making of the language itself, but then in the defending of it makes me tired just thinking about it. The energy burns in his prose. I feel something similar in Didion. And though I have no idea, I’ll bet she was a pain in the ass to edit.

Here’s something Joan Didion said once about grammar:

“Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed. Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences. The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind.”

When you read Didion’s thinking, you can begin to understand the way she thought about language. How deeply personal it was to her. You can begin to imagine the mind of the writer that would write:

“In August and September, after the Democratic and Republican conventions but before the election, I wrote, for the first time since John died, a piece.”

Instead of:

After I attended the Democratic and Republican conventions in August and September, I wrote a piece for the first time since John died.

And thank God that she did. The Year of Magical Thinking is full of wondrous, unexpected, sometimes strange but always true sentences, and I’m grateful for every single one of them.

This is the part where I say Rest in Peace to Joan Didion, who died December 23rd, 2021 at the age of 87. Thanks for arranging your words so carefully and challenging this writer to be more courageous.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s