The Sunday Magazine

Writer Joan Didion says the only way she can deal with grief is to write through it (reprise)

Novelist, screenwriter, playwright and journalist Joan Didion experienced two horrific losses in less than two years: the sudden death of her husband John Gregory Dunne, then the death of her daughter Quintana. Michael Enright spoke with her after the release of her book Blue Nights, a rumination on motherhood, frailty, ageing and loss.

After wrestling with the loss of her partner she was struck by the tragic death of her only child

Joan Didion’s greatest work as a writer came as she reckoned with loss and personal tragedy of the most profound sort — the sudden death of her husband and of her only child, Quintana. (Kathy Willens/AP Photo)

Joan Didion, the highly acclaimed American novelist, journalist, screenwriter and playwright, survived the unimaginable: the death of her husband in front of her eyes and, a year-and-a-half later, the death of her 39-year-old daughter.

Didion and the late John Gregory Dunne — also a novelist, screenwriter and literary critic — were, to the world of letters, the equivalent of Michelle and Barack Obama.

Their life together ended catastrophically in 2003 when Dunne keeled over at the dinner table. To cope, Didion did what she does — she wrote her way through the grief. Until she puts words to paper, Didion said, "I know nothing ... I can't think at all ... I need to write it down or it doesn't exist. "The result was a brilliant, tiny memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. 

After wrestling with the inconceivable loss of her life-and-writing partner she was struck by the tragic death of her only child, Quintana Roo Dunne, who died in the summer of 2005. And that led to another grief memoir, Blue Nights

Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living, and Joan Didion believes, "the unexamined fact is like a rattlesnake. It's going to come after you. And you can keep it at bay by always keeping it in your eye line." Didion faced down this new set of "facts" in Blue Nights, a rumination on motherhood, frailty, ageing and loss. 

In November of 2011, Joan Didion joined Michael Enright in The Sunday Edition's studio in Toronto. In the course of their conversation, Didion said she wondered whether she would ever write again. She did. In 2017, she published Play It as It Lays: A Novel. In 2021, she will release a collection of essays entitled, Let Me Tell You What I Mean

Click 'listen' above to hear Enright's conversation with Didion from The Sunday Edition in 2011.

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