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The Year of Magical Thinking

by Joan Didion

Here it is: the last reading assignment. I read it over Christmas, then re-read it a month ago, and again last week. It is a true account of grief, as a friend commented last week, one that refuses to place mourning along a pat chronology but shows Didion moving forward in time across a difficult year even as her memory wheels and dives across forty years of life with the husband whose death opens this book.

Let them become the photograph on the table.
Let them become the name on the trust accounts.
Let go of them in the water.
Knowing this does not make it any easier to let go of him in the water.

It’s a poignantly fitting book for closing out my final semester in the MFA program. I’ve spent two years among writers, all of us struggling to improve our skills. It’s a community of writers that will continue to be important to me for the rest of my life. But it’s like reading a book for the very first time: I will never again walk into a classroom as an MFA student. That is now part of my personal history.

It hasn’t been easy. I cried myself to sleep the first night of the program, convinced (as most of us were convinced, it turns out) that I was a “pity student'” unqualified to be there. I may not be a “pity student,” but I have submitted a thoroughly respectable number of extremely bad essays, made boneheaded writing mistakes so far into my education I worried about early-onset dementia, and spent countless hours pretending to understand Emerson, W.G. Sebald, and Capote, feeling such a tenuous grasp on their craft that I wanted to write my undergraduate college to ask for a post-hoc change in major, because for an English major I surely had no idea what I was doing.

But in the end, this is what I learned. You wipe your nose, revise the essay, put it in a manila envelope, and send it out, and meanwhile work on the next one, and the next, and the one after that. You share work with other writers. You go to readings. You carry a notebook and a working pen, and you do not simply think, “I should write that down”; you do write it down. Legibly, so you can read it later. And you read, and write, and read, and write, and you buy manila envelopes and send work out again, and you read and write some more. Because that’s what writers do, and that’s what I am.


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