As I spend my Labor Day focusing on sharpening the prose to the opening of (what will hopefully one day become) my novel, I’m reminded of the subtle beauty of the prose of Joan Didion and Jo Ann Beard, both nonfiction essayists who have the ability to melt my heart with their words while making me jealous of their indelible talent. Any time I’m searching for something soft to read, and by “soft” I mean not hitting-me-over-the-head with metaphors and adjectives, not boasting through writerly turns of phrases and over-the-top polysyllables, I always turn to these two women, as the true power of their stories lies in the delicacy of their sentences.
Didion and Beard are masterful at subtlety. They simply refuse to over explain, or over complicate their words. They understand that through the commonality of human experience, we already get it. If you want to really understand this, pick up Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, where she manages to not overdramatize the absolute grief surrounding the death of her husband. Or Beard’s short story Cousins, from the collection The Boys of My Youth, which will have you smiling at the heart wrenching simplicity of being young and naive. In The Fourth State of Matter from the same collection, Beard beautifully juxtaposes the tragedy of the 1991 University of Iowa shooting with smaller, personal tragedies, that of the loss of a marriage and the slow, inevitable death of a pet.
Wendell stretches out on her back and stares at the sky. I stretch out on my stomach and stare at some grass. We are boiling hot but don’t know it, my hair is stuck to my back and Wendell’s is standing straight up in a beautiful manner.
‘Your hair is standing straight up in a beautiful manner,’ I tell her. She nods peacefully. She holds her arms up in the air and makes a c with each hand.
‘I’m cupping clouds,’ she says.
From Cousins, by Jo Ann Beard
Then I realized that the Christopher to whom Lynn was talking was Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, who was the chief obituary writer for The New York Times. I remember a sense of shock. I wanted to say not yet but my mouth had gone dry. I could deal with “autopsy” but the notion of “obituary” had not occurred to me. “Obituary,” unlike “autopsy,” which was between me and John and the hospital, meant it had happened. I found myself wondering, with no sense of illogic, if it had also happened in Los Angeles. I was trying to work out what time it had been when he died and whether it was that time yet in Los Angeles. (Was there time to go back? Could we have a different ending on Pacific time?)
From The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion
Thanks for letting me have this interlude. I’ll be back tomorrow with Part 2 of Summer Re-Reads!