Books to Read: The Year of Magical Thinking

For those of us, the lucky ones, who have never experienced the death of a spouse or significant other, it’s not something we like to think about. When I consider what would happen if I lost J, I focus on the practical. How I would have to sell our new loft and find a smaller place. How I would tell his parents. How our cat would grieve and whine.

Beyond that, it’s a deliberate void. The thought of someone that’s become part of me suddenly gone is a black spot in the brain that can’t be breached. Reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking stormed the ramparts and brought the possible out in the open.

There are two amazing things about this book. The subject matter is dark and forbidding: Didion’s husband drops dead one evening, and she commences a year of mourning, a year in which she can’t help but believe that he’s not really dead, that he’s merely absent a time. When she goes through his clothes, logically determining they should go, that they could help someone who needs them, she trips up:

I stopped at the door to his room.
I could not give away the rest of his shoes.
I stood there for a moment, then realized why: he would need shoes if he was to return.
The recognition of this thought by no means eradicated this thought.
I have still not tried to determine (say, by giving away the shoes) if the thought has lost its power.

During her grief, she’s also taking care of her adult daughter, severely ill at the time. Although the subject material is necessarily sad and even upsetting, it’s absolutely compelling. It’s a page-turner, a term usually applied to crappy paperbacks you find in the bargain bins or bodice-rippers. Instead, it’s a literate, delicate, but riveting read.

That leads to the other amazing part of this book. She writes so simply, so matter of factly, that taken out of context some parts could be mistaken for a how-to, a magazine article for a business audience, or other sparse and stripped down book. She’s a writer, of course, so she approaches her grief like a writer. And she presents her feelings like a writer. The result is accessibility, universality, and staying power.

One of the best reviews I saw of this book is on the back cover, from Lev Grossman at Time:

“An act of consummate literary bravery, a writer known for her clarity allowing us to watch her mind as it becomes clouded with grief…”

A fantastic summary of the power of this book.

The QRW Makes a Schedule

I like knowing what to expect. Call me a creature of habit, but I like knowing that almost every Wednesday night I have date night with J, that Friday nights we’re probably going to order sushi, that Saturday afternoons we hit LaBamba for a burrito lunch and then go book shopping. Patterns and routines can be boring if you let them, and it may be surprising to see someone that enjoys being quietly rebelliousprofess a love for habit. But I find routine can be constantly made new and exciting, while still being comforting.

Same goes for my web reading and blog visiting. I like knowing what to expect. I like knowing, for example, that although the insights will change and tidbits differ, I will find something freelance friendly and helpful everyday at Freelance Switch or Freelance Folder. I will find snarkiness and feminist quirk aplenty at Jezebel. And the list goes on throughout my blogroll.

I want to offer that same sort of quiet joy and comfort to my readers here at QuietRebelWriter. My goal with this blog is to spark freelance success for writers and creativity for all, by showing ways to flout the rules and thereby enrich your life. I want to be on your daily reading list, zipping into your RSS reader through subscription and into your Firefox or Explorer. So I’m telling you what you can expect. I’m telling you now, clearly and decisively, with excitement and a little scaredy-cat flutterings, what you will find here, and when.

Need more background? Wondering where the hell you just landed? Here’s some help, and here, and here.

Quiet Rebel Writer List of Contents:

Monday: Mondays are tough: ease into the week with a Monday Date, using lyrics, excerpts, poems, scenes and more to break the block and get a creative kick.

Tuesday: Freelancing lifestyle, issues, frustrations and joys in Tuesday’s Freelance Frenzy. Plus, tune in for a handy link round-up. Some of the best and the brightest from the past week.

Wednesday: Live vicariously through my attempts to get that damn novel published in Publishing Aspirations, and learn about tips, resources, and more in your own efforts. Plus, find a book to add to your case with Books to Read.

Thursday: Marketing successes and failures in Marketing Maven. Read about the transcendent power of writing with Writers who Matter.

Friday: At the end of week, all restraint is gone. It’s time for a well-mannered Rant, plus the new crazy sweeping the nation (or at least my office): Word Porn.

Until tomorrow.

UPDATE March 14: Ah geez. So the first week of the schedule is done, and I biffed it. I missed a few promised postings. Stupid loft closing. It eats up some time to own a piece of Chicago, all 1600 sq ft of it. But at least you know my plan, dear readers. And I’ll do my best to stick to it. :)

Cultured Pop, Prepared Fresh Weekly

And now, the inaugural edition of what will certainly be my insanely anticipated and influential take on the weekly cultural offerings. Take notes.

Tunes: I’ve been digging on Vampire Weekend this week. Sure, their buzz was ridiculous. They were touted as the second coming of every big indie band in the past few years, along with Paul Simon circa-Graceland. If you remove all that hype and just listen in, it’s entertaining, grooveable, and original.

Digging into the archives, I’ve been getting addicted to old school androgynous glam rock. Think Lou Reed on his first two albums, and David Bowie in the Ziggy Stardust era. Such weird, wonderful stuff, and the combination of pop, rock and sci-fi glory that is Ziggy is still mildly shocking and eminently enjoyable today.

Books: This week I finished Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. What struck me about this book was the starkness of the writing, the plain language, the step by step by step approach that seemed at once masterful and completely lost. I watched Didion search desperately for meaning at a time of tragedy, return to her journalistic education and seek out help in the only way she knew how. Of course, the painful and inevitable conclusion is that no matter how much “information” you can get, no matter how much “knowledge” you can obtain about death and grief and survival, it’s still not enough. It’s not a thick enough buffer to protect you from the reality of living without a loved one. Heartbreaking.

In two nightly gulps I finished a little novella by Joyce Carol Oates called Rape: A Love Story. It’s been a while since I read Ms. Oates, but I am continually in awe of her writing approach, technique and ability. This short snippet of a book felt just that – way too short. The story was extremely compelling, telling of a beyond-brutal attack in a small town and the repercussions. But I wanted more. At 153 pages, it felt like the book barely scratched the surface. It did get me thinking about my own writing, though, and encouraged me to continue taking some of the linguistic risks I take and experiment even more.

TV: JJ Abrams et al, how I love thee. You entertained and titillated me with Alias. You taunt and frustrate me with Lost. But I keep coming back for more. And you reward me for it. This week’s premiere of Lost was shocking (the ability of this show to continue to shock is shocking in itself) and rending. The Oceanic 6?? WTF?? And Jeremy Davies is here! Can’t wait to see what kind of douche he plays.

One other short take. I tried Torchwood last season, and gave up within a couple episodes. It seemed too monster-of-the-week-ish for me, too campy, lacking in emotion and compelling characters. But hearing that my boy Spike (James Marsters from Buffy and Angel) was making a guest appearance on the second season premiere as a bisexual bad boy was just too much. So I tuned in last week. And holy lord – there was hotness. There was male kissing. There was extreme fighting, and lots of drinking. All in a two-minute reunion scene between Capt Jack Harkness and his ex, Spike (of course he had another name, but I forget. He’s Spike). But even more, there was improvement in this show, in terms of storytelling ability and content. So I’ll keep tuning in. And hope Spike returns for more.

To the Skin that is Thick

Us writers are supposed to have thick skins. It’s a catch-22: we’re supposed to be intuitive, observant, and sensitive to the things around us. That’s what gives us the material to be witty, satirical, heartbreaking, or simply kickass at selling stuff. But at the same time, we’re supposed to be hard, resistant to the “slings and arrows” that become part of our job. We get a lot of crap as part of been a working writer, criticism that’s both constructive and merely bitchy. And we’re supposed to be able to take it.

So how do we resolve that?  The best I can figure, as unfortunate as it sounds, is that it only comes with time. After years of writing for highly varied (and highly critical) companies and clients, and years of merely surviving in corporate America, my natural inclinations for fight or flight are pretty dulled. While occasionally I still want to crumple down and cry after a particularly hard piece is met with disdain, or yell back in my best adolescent sneer, “well, you asked for this, stupidhead!” I can control it pretty well.  I guess it’s compartmentalizing. When it comes to reactions to work projects, I’m shiny steel. When it comes to creating work projects, or my own fiction work, I call upon all that malleable softness underneath, all that feeling and emotion. I’m trying to remember this as I hear rejection after rejection for my novel from agents. I picture myself like Colossus from the X-Men (geek alert), with an impenetrable exoskeleton I can call upon at will. It helps.

What about you? What ways do you deal with the essential catch-22 of professional writing?