If you are a writer and grieving, you will read The Year of Magical Thinking.
Your friend will hand you a dog-eared copy over the first public cup of coffee you’ve had since your sister died and tell you this. They will tell you if you are a writer and grieving, there are actually six stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Reading Joan Didion, Depression, Acceptance.
The story will feel familiar—Didion’s literary fame, her husband’s heart attack, her daughter’s mysterious illness. You will read the book in one night, only pausing to write notes in your phone or cry or puzzle over the dog-eared pages, why those words led another reader to plot a return, whether that wisdom folded into itself over time might forge you a home.
If you are a writer and grieving, you will feel obligated to emulate Didion, to leave behind a literary monument to your sister.
If you are a writer and not Joan Didion, you will find this difficult. Grief will fold its arms and spit in your eye when you pick it up. It will refuse to transform itself into the shape of a heartbreaking memoir or life-affirming novel or that pink wool shawl your sister would wear to parties and pull tight against her shoulders as she walked through a winter night.
If you are a writer, you will begin a memoir anyway.
Scene: the last family dinner. Your brother reading board game instructions. Your sister, impatient, imperial, interjecting dick jokes like decrees.
Scene: the ICU. Overly pessimistic doctor explaining the transplant process, how a family member can speed things up. You are not first to volunteer.
Scene: the morning of. The sun unyielding against hospital windows. Your mother asking if you would like to see her one last time.
If you are a writer without a major book deal, you will have a job that expects you to return. After using up your three days of bereavement leave, human resources will quickly approve your request to use your five paid vacation days. You will resent your boss, this country, Didion’s comfortable life.
You will take three of those days to write your sister’s eulogy. When something in the family is broken, your father fixes it. When someone in the family was upset, your sister would make them laugh. When the family needs something written, you don’t need to ask.
You will continue doing research for your memoir, so much so you barely write. You will discover that psychologists already created a sixth and final stage of grief: Meaning. As a writer, you are skeptical; as a griever, indignant. There must be recursion, nightmares, an inexplicable epilogue.
You will not write one sentence about your sister that you are happy with. You will abandon the memoir for two weeks and try writing a poem. You imagine her plucking each line from the page and holding it between her fingers like the crickets she used to find beneath the bathroom sink and carry gingerly into the backyard, her face scrunched in wonder, unwilling to kill a thing.
Scene: an early family road trip. Watching your sister slip a thin pretzel stick between her fingers and place it on her lips like a cigarette.
Scene: ditching church as teenagers. Devising new gods on an ice cream stained napkin and plotting a move to Seattle.
Scene: her thirtieth birthday. Dinner at her favorite vegan restaurant. The last time you remember hugging.
If you are a writer and grieving, you will find that writing resurrects no one. This is only a sentence. It obeys rules. It did not sneak you into The Misfits reunion tour in tenth grade. It cannot revitalize failed organs. And imagine it could, what then?
You will stare at the photo on the book’s back cover: Didion, her husband, and her daughter leaning against the porch railing of their seaside Malibu home. You will wonder what Didion felt when she first held that photo, how that changed after death touched it. You will spend hours contemplating which photo to use for the book you have barely started. You will settle on the one taken at your grandmother’s house, you and your sister with legs slung over the back of her corduroy couch, both dressed in all black, eyes lowered and locked on someone standing just outside the frame.
You will finish The Year of Magical Thinking and scour the reviews for a clue. One reviewer says, “I can’t imagine dying without this book.” You do not know if your sister ever read the book or what she was able to imagine.
Another reviewer complains about the deluge of grief memoirs inspired by Didion, how these writers selfishly consume their dead loved ones like “grief meat.” You will be offended by this. You will tell yourself if your sister didn’t want to become a story, she shouldn’t have died young. You will regret saying that. You will stop writing again.
You will tell yourself over and over there are as many ways to manage despair as to feel it. Your brother works sixty-hour weeks. Your mother makes and unmakes photo albums. Your father befriends strangers at a horseshoe bar until the straws fill his shirt pocket and carry him home. Your sister would doodle in empty notebooks that now sit on the top shelf of a closet in a house no one lives in.
You will convince yourself that stories are not a form of consumption.
You will remind yourself that we have always told these stories. Didion had read C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. And Lewis, he was writing in the shadow of Saint Augustine. And Augustine? In God’s, you suppose. His grief is all creation.
You will remember that day you saw your sister and your older cousins sneaking into the dusty alley behind your uncle’s house. When you caught up to them, they were gathered around a hole at the base of a brick wall. You crawled on your knees to catch a glimpse, your sister kneeling at the front of the group, the hole at her feet a hissing cauldron, a mythical pink stew inside. Later, you asked her what it was, what it all meant, what it felt like when she stuck her finger in it. You will remember her laugh, how satisfied she looked to have done what she had, to have nothing more to add.
What mercy to be a story.
Scene: a dream. Your sister, alive again, standing on her toes in the wet gravel, stretching out her arm toward a drooping orange.
Scene: a dream. Your sister, alive again, her hair dyed near indigo, her feet splashing in a bathtub draining a summer sky’s blue.
Scene: a nightmare. Your sister, alive again, having to die again.
If you are a writer, you will read about Didion’s recent death. The Year of Magical Thinking is mentioned in every memorial you find online. Some of them never mention who Didion’s book was written about. You will imagine your grief so wild and ungovernable it wraps itself around your own eulogy like an ancient graveyard elm. You will imagine your sister calling to you from the treehouse she’s built on the highest branch. You will imagine her view.
If you are a writer and grieving, you will not reread The Year of Magical Thinking. You will let go of Didion, her book, its weight. That grief is not yours.
You will stop asking, How do I do this? and do it. You are a writer. You know that sometimes stories will write themselves. You will let the story lead. Your grief is this story. Your grief is your memoir. Your grief is not a book. Your grief is not your writing. Your grief is all creating.
Your grief is not your sister and your sister is not your grief. You will need to remind yourself of that. Your grief is not your sister and your sister is not your grief. Your grief is your sister’s window cracked on your road trip to Santa Barbara. Your grief is the road. Your grief is the wind caressing your sister’s cheek, then yours, and, finally, the sea’s once more.
Your grief is a long wooden table in a home you inherited before you were born. Seat us all there. Have us close our eyes. Tell us a story in which there is only you two. Tell us a story in which she is our sister too. Tell us a story with a joke inside it. Mimic your sister’s snorting laughter until it’s like she’s in the room with us, until you too are snorting, until we can no longer tell the difference. It’s okay. You will. You will tell this story forever.
Alex Dodt is a philosophy teacher and chihuahua father in Phoenix and his work has appeared in Ghost City Review, Qu, and Devastation Baby.