Joan Didion (2005) The Year of Magical Thinking.

The Year of Magical Thinking has been an international bestseller, been reprinted over twenty times and is perhaps the best-known of her books. The subject she specialises in is death, which we’re all familiar with, but nobody seems to want to talk or write about it.

In Duncan Williamson’s short story Death in a Nut, Jack (no relation) lived with his mother in a cottage by the shoreside (Williamson was born in a tent on the shores of Loch Fyne). His mother won’t drink her morning tea. She tells her son that Death will come for her that day. Sure enough, Death appears as an old man with a shining scythe on his back. He asks Jack for directions to the cottage they live in. You can guess what happens next.

‘Go to the literature,’ Joan Didion tells us. ‘I’ve been a writer all my life.’

Screenplays, in particular, like The Panic in Needle Park, start with the status-quo. That’s the set-up.

Quintana, the beautiful child Joan Didion and her husband, John Murray, adopted when she was three-days old admitted to the sixth-floor ICU at Beth Israel Hospital, New York, 25th December 2003. We know from Didion’s subsequent memoir, Blue Nights, Quintana doesn’t make it. Which is a nice way of saying she dies.  

John, her husband, also dies on the 30th December 2003 (Death in a Nut, book 1). He has a heart-attack. The kind doctor friends of the family called ‘widow makers’. When the paramedics came, they performed a theatre of dance. Shocking him back to life and cutting his chest open. He was already dead. It was just a matter of putting him on the gurney. Wheeling him away and pronouncing his dead body, dead on arrival. Didion recognises this sad truth later, when she’s more herself.

Just because her husband of 40 years was dead didn’t mean that they’d stopped bickering. She called it the void. ‘There is no real sense of the meaning of the word “dead” when applied to someone who was alive just days ago.’

‘Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant.’

This is Didion’s refrain from Magical Thinking. Limbo was for the living. She was reminded of how, before John died, he had complained about wasting time (writing time is precious) on writing a piece about Natalie Wood. Yet she can’t seem to think or do. Her failure is not just that of a widow but also a writer.

A writer’s job is to remember. When she sits down and begins her outline of what happened to her on 4th October 2004, she was doing her job. Making sense of the world. Her habit of mind had changed from grief to mourning. Greif puts death in the nut. Mourning lets death washes back to shore and unfold oneself, stand upright with his (or her) sickle. Grief is passive and past tense. Mourning is always present.

‘Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.’ Read on.


1. The Ordinary

2 The Nature of Grief

3. Mourning Ourselves (plural)

4. Letting Go

“I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.” But eventually, we must release them. Letting go doesn’t diminish our love; it allows us to move forward while honoring their memory.

5. The Power of Shared Knowledge

“Read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information is control.”