Saturday, September 1, 2007

Magical thinking

I'm just back from New York City where I saw Vanessa Redgrave on Broadway. I wish she'd seen me, too, because that might mean I'd have her autograph on my Playbill. I attended — "participated in" is a better way of putting it — one of her last Tony-nominated performances of Joan Didion's "Year of Magical Thinking." What a combination of outstanding writing and acting!

Didion managed to turn the worst time of her life — she lost both her husband of forty years and her thirty-nine-year-old daughter — into first a moving memoir and then an amazing play.
Add the lovely hands and voice of Redgrave to Didion's powerful prose and you have ninety minutes of magical theater.

When asked in an interview how she could write about her grief, Didion's reply was that there was nothing else to do: "I had to write my way out of it."

There wasn't a dry eye in the Booth Theater the night I was there, but that wasn't because everyone felt sorry for Joan Didion. Well, maybe a little. And maybe a little because of being only a few rows from Vanessa Redgrave, considered one of the greatest actresses of our time. But mostly the emotional connection was due to the universal expressions of the two women, one behind the scenes through her words and the other in front of the footlights, living it in the moment.

To mix metaphors a little here, I'd like to quote John Steinbeck: " — a great and interesting story is about everyone or it will not last."

I'm sure we've all tried to write our way out of one trauma or another, but Didion and Redgrave were able to find the place where the story was about all of us. Not in its particulars, but in its emotional reach. It's a tough job, but in the end, the only one for a writer.



Deb Baker said...

Thanks for reminding me of what it's all about.

Monica Ferris said...

I wish I knew how to make a story "universal" in the sense that people of many times and cultures could appreciate it. Agatha Christie had it -- why? What did she do that I can't do? I'm not out to do something vastly sophisticated and wise such as the play you're talking about, I'm well aware that's beyond my capabilities. But doggone it, I should be able to tell a simple story in a way that any literate person can understand and enjoy it. Deb's right, this is what it's all about, and it's heartbreaking to discover how difficult it is.

Camille Minichino said...

I think it's "there" for you, Deb and Monica, or no one would enjoy your books. And we know that's not true. If you didn't create characters that we feel we've met and whose motivations and feelings aren't familiar, we'd never go back and read the next one.
Is it because we're writing "genre" instead of "literature" that we tend to be hard on ourselves?
When a bookseller shelves our books under "Mystery" instead of "Literature" or "Fiction" what does that mean? Are they excusing us from this standard of writing "the universal story?"

Kathryn Lilley said...

I so admire Joan Didion's courage. I don't know how I would react in the face of a similar tragedy--I fear I would retreat from writing, and from life. What an amazing writer!

Camille Minichino said...

I'm not so sure, Kathryn ... you managed to write about your own frightening experience on these very "pages."

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

I've read Didion's book. It's amazing, but incredibly sad. Almost overpowering. In her book, there's a scene where her husband, who was also a writer, scribbles something memorable on a scrap of paper while they are out and about, and he hands it to her with the admonition she might use it a some point in her work. As I recall, the point is that by hanging onto these choice phrases and tidbits of interest, a writer need never start with an empty page. I found that useful. Keeping a small notebook on hand at all times--you never know when you'll overhear something or see something. It was also fascinating to read a bit of the description about how they worked and aided each other.

Thanks for sharing about the play...