Why I Write, According to Joan Didion

Why do I write? Why does anyone write?

I can always think of things I’d rather do than write. Reading the great and not-so-great books on my bookshelves, trying recipes from my burgeoning collection of National Trust cookbooks, or just walking in the rain.  And I think most writers call that procrastination. Non-writers would say any of those activities fall under the daily joys of life.

Like most writers, I love reading about the lives of other writers. How do they churn out the words when a headache holds their brains in a vise grip or the sullen daughter-in-law refuses to attend a family dinner? How do they keep going when life seems to break into pieces with every breath taken?

I discovered a copy of Joan Didion’s essay, “Why I Write,” in a pile of papers, wadded into a filing cabinet in my office. Ms. Didion is no stranger to things falling apart. Her Year of Magical Thinking pokes at the tender spots, the places where we all try not to go – loss, bereavement, grief, death.

How does Ms. Didion write about these things? What transpires between her thinking of her thoughts and her words that land on the whiteness of paper or screen?

Here’s what she says:

Let me show you what I mean by pictures in the mind. I began Play It as It Lays just as I have begun each of my novels, with no notion of “character” or “plot” or even “incident.” I had only two pictures in my mind, more about which later, and a technical intention, which was to write a novel so elliptical and fast that it would be over before you noticed it, a novel so fast that it would scarcely exist on the page at all. About the pictures: the first was of white space. Empty space. This was clearly the picture that dictated the narrative intention of the book a book in which anything that happened would happen off the page, a “white” book to which the reader would have to bring his or her own bad dreams and yet this picture told me no “story,” suggested no situation.

Of course. Pictures. Or “images,” in today’s parlance.

A picture is worth a thousand words. Or perhaps 80,000?

 

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