Joan Didion’s 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘠𝘦𝘢𝘳 𝘰𝘧 𝘔𝘢𝘨𝘪𝘤𝘢𝘭 𝘛𝘩𝘪𝘯𝘬𝘪𝘯𝘨

Though I deeply admired Joan Didion’s essays and fiction and had read Play it as it Lays many times, I avoided her acclaimed memoir when it came out in 2005. The book dealt with the death of her husband of forty years and because I was still reeling from the death of my mother, I didn’t feel I was ready.  Even a National Book Award didn’t change my mind.

Perversely, perhaps, I’m ready now when my 102-year-old father is in a slow decline and his hospice nurse is very pessimistic about his chances for pulling out of it.  He’s like an abandoned ship without crew or captain, barely recognizable as the man he used to be even into his 90’s. 

Seeking catharsis or comfort or something in between, I picked up Didion’s memoir last weekend.  It’s a stunning, visceral travelogue into a world anyone of us can enter at a moment: the land of illness, the land of sudden death.

Didion’s novelist husband John Gregory Dunne died after a massive heart attack at dinner one night in New York, at home, and this was soon after they had been visiting their deathly ill daughter at the hospital.  She was in an induced coma and there was every possibility she could die.

Years earlier, Didion had written about this terrible kind of unexpected disaster in Play it as it Lays: “In the whole world, there was not as much sedation as there was instantaneous peril.”

The book is a meticulous mapping of what happened before and after her husband’s death and her daughter’s hospitalizations as Didion examines the events from various standpoints.  Her encounters with medical personal are sometimes discouraging, sometimes bizarre, and when it comes to her daughter’s repeated hospital stays, she had to learn how to ask questions without seeming like a nag or a smart ass.  Those times force her to learn about procedures and medications as if she were taking a crash course in a foreign language.

Didion and her husband were deeply connected to each other through their work, never rivals, always collaborators. Their privileged life of writing screenplays in Hawaii, trips abroad, publicity tours, mingling with other celebrities, and eating at famous restaurants was no protection from cataclysmic change.   Et in Arcadia ego is ascribed to Virgil: Death is in Arcadia too.

Didion seeks answers or solace or stability through reading sublime poetry and matter-of-fact depictions of illness and death like Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die.  And she explores all the ways in which friends tried to help her and assuage her grief.  Most mesmerizing is the clear-eyed recounting of how she could not cope with her husband’s death and even denied that it had happened.  This kind of trauma is approached as a medical/psychological issue and as a sort of mystery: What was she thinking?  How was she thinking–and why?

Didion is like someone who’s just barely survived an earthquake that destroyed her home and is picking through the rubble to see what might not have been lost. The book is harrowing, beautifully written and observed, an unforgettable exploration of grief and loss.

Lev Raphael is the author of the memoir My Germany and twenty-six other books in many genres.  His work has been translated into fifteen languages and he currently mentors, coaches, and edits writers at writewithoutborders.com.

Goodreads Goofs on Bogus Author Quotes

Back in 2017, I contacted Goodreads to let them know that this top-ranked quotation by George Eliot is bogus, and I sent proof:

It is never too late to be what you might have been.

Yes, you’ve seen it attributed to Eliot everywhere: Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, t-shirts, kitchen magnets, mugs, bookmarks, tote bags, tattoos. But there’s no source.  None.

I read George Eliot in college religiously, and read about her as well because she was a major inspiration to me as a budding writer. So the first time I saw the quote it felt off to me — a bit too peppy, more like something from a Hallmark greeting card.

I poked around the Internet, and though it’s inescapable, there’s no attribution. Nobody who knew Eliot records it as a comment she made, it’s not something she wrote in her diary, and it doesn’t appear anywhere in her writing. That’s been proven by Eliot scholars, as reported in The New Yorker. It’s also been researched by a great web site, Quote Investigator, which shows a long history of misquotation.

Eventually, someone at Goodreads asked me to post on the “Librarians page” and said the team would investigate. I did, but what was there to investigate? That had already been done by scholars who I imagine have more expertise than the intrepid Sherlocks at Goodreads.

Well, the bogus quote is still there.  A Goodreads “expert” recently emailed me to say that Goodreads doesn’t take down quotes.  It’s now listed as “source-unknown” which is just plain wrong:  The source isn’t unknown, it’s nonexistent.  But the “quote” makes great click bait.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk! and 26 other books in many genres. He mentors, coaches, and edits writers at writewithoutborders.com

Image Credit: Pete Linforth from Pixabay

Tony Morrison & The Author’s Dilemma

I never met Morrison but she helped me cope with one of the most vexing aspects of being a writer.

It happened in Chicago.  I was on a short Midwestern book tour with another author.  Over a steak dinner one night, we shared our admiration of authors including Morrison.

Like many of her fans, I read The Bluest Eye, Beloved, and essays of hers in a state of wonderment and delight. Writers like Morrison, Ann Tyler, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan are so polished, so deep, so memorable that reading them, I feel like Viola in Twelfth Night: “O brave new world to have such people in it.”

Done with talking about her work, my travel buddy told me a story he had first hand that has stuck with me for twenty years.

A young writer contacted Morrison to ask for a blurb for her forthcoming novel.  Now, whether you do an MFA or follow a different route to becoming a published author, nobody warns you how demeaning it can be to beg authors you know–or would like to know–to endorse your book.

It’s not enough to have fought your way through to find an agent or a publisher, now it seems like you’re starting all over again, a supplicant in a universe of wealth.

Some authors never bother to reply.   Others wait till it’s too late to fill their spot to let you know they’re busy and can’t do it.  I’ve even had one well-known author change his mind at the last minute, without offering a reason.  Another said she never blurbed books, which made my editor at the time laugh because this author had skyrocketed to fame thanks to a blurb she got for her first book from someone as famous as she was now.

Then there are the writers who say they’ll blurb the book but don’t have time to read it, and tell you or your editor to write whatever.  And you’re stuck wondering if it’s ethical to have their name on your book when the quote is in effect bogus.  Does it taint the book’s karma, or your own?

So the young author waited and waited for Morrison to reply.  Then the author wrote a second request which was on the desperate side.  This time, she got a speedy reply: “My dear: I understood your letter to be a request, not a demand.  Sincerely, Tony Morrison.”

My first response after laughter was pity for the newbie author. But then my focus turned to Morrison herself.  She probably was the recipient of hundreds of blurb requests–and that was before she won the Nobel Prize.  I felt sorry for her and admired the elegance of her note.

Would Morrison’s blurb have made a difference?  There’s no way of knowing.  Best-selling authors have blurbed my books and it’s been lovely to have their imprimatur, so to speak, but the excitement fades too quickly because there’s always another book in the pipeline and a different sent of authors to hit up for blurbs.

When Morrison died, that story about her note was the first thing I thought of.  It had turned the obnoxious task of getting blurbs into a mild comedy of errors, and we authors need to laugh more about the vagaries of our business.  As an author friend once warned me, “The only thing worse than not being published is being published.”

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com and is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery.

Are You Having Bad Sex–In Your Fiction?

I didn’t realize there was so much bad sex out there until I started book reviewing in the mid-1990s for the Detroit Free Press where my portfolio included literary, commercial and genre fiction.  Though there’s an annual prize given in England to bad sex writing—The Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award—I hadn’t previously paid much attention to the problem. But as the books arrived at my door by the boxload, I began to realize that a lot of writers, even good ones, were sexually inadequate. On the page, that is.

Time after time I’d find myself reading an involving story of one kind or another and suddenly there would be a sex scene that made me wince because it was clumsy, improbable, or even grotesque. I was surprised and disappointed that writers I admired and enjoyed seemed to fall apart when it came to writing sex scenes. Whether it was lack of practice in this particular aspect of their craft, or embarrassment, or even being too turned on to have enough objectivity, I couldn’t say.

But I did start to notice two major trends in bad sex writing and I still see these problems cropping up: problems with timing, and depersonalization.

Many authors don’t seem to understand that timing is just as important in fictional sex as in real sex. If a sex scene is introduced, where does it fit in the arc of the story? Does it move the plot along, or does it slow it down? Does it add depth to the characters and story or is it distracting? Not enough authors ask themselves when’s the best place for a sex scene or even if it’s organic to the work.

I goofed in an early version of my novel The German Money by putting a sex scene early in chapter one. I thought it illuminated the inner state of my narrator, but a writer friend thankfully pointed out that it would distract readers from the character’s dark musings about his very dysfunctional family. As soon as she said it, I knew she was right, so I moved the scene several chapters along and used it as a short flashback.  It worked.

A more serious problem than timing and appropriateness in sex scenes is that two people who’ve been fully individualized characters before the scene fade away and become little more than a jumble of primary or secondary sex characteristics. We end up reading about parts having sex, rather than people. Some writers seem so determined to be un-puritanical that they forget they’re writing about human beings who have feelings aside from lust or passion. Sex means something more than just itself, or at least it can be something more than just itself. And if it’s casual or “meaningless” sex, then that should be clear in the scene, however it’s narrated.

As my first editor at St. Martin’s Press said: “Sex reveals who people are in unique ways–it’s crucial for authors to get it right.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from mystery to memoir.  This blog is adapted from his guide to the writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk.

Was Gore Vidal a Bigot?

I grew up watching Gore Vidal on TV and enjoying his wit. He was a liberal version of William F. Buckley, Jr.: witty, insanely well-read, cosmopolitan, and delightfully snide. But like Buckley, he oozed privilege and contempt, and his act could wear thin.

Gore Vidal during a Los Angeles interview in 1974.

I think that’s why he’s never been a favorite author of mine. Though I’ve read a handful of his novels over the years and his memoir Palimpsest, none of his books made that great an impression on me. I do remember him wafting through Anais Nin’s Diaries where he seemed fascinating and somewhat creepy, a young man on the make.  Nin’s take on him was almost more interesting than Vidal himself.

A writer friend recently recommended that I read Jay Parini’s new Vidal biography just as I’d finished reading a review essay about it in the New Yorker.  That piece offered me an insight into Vidal I’d never expected.  In the late 70s, Vidal told the novelist Martin Amis that he’d been reading D. H. Lawrence and this is what he thought about Lawrence:

“Every page I think, Jesus, what a fag. Jesus, what a faggot this guy sounds.”

Where do you start to unpack lines like that?  Despite his attempts to blur the question, Vidal was gay, lived with a man and only had sex with men.  And here he was, using “faggot” as invective.  But putting that aside, what did he find in Lawrence’s work that evoked so much contempt?  Vidal comes across in that bizarre outburst as an anti-intellectual boob, a yahoo–or a bigot.

Unless he was simply jealous.  Because Lawrence reached artistic heights Vidal couldn’t even approach.  Lawrence is one of the 20th century’s greatest writers.  Can Vidal even compare?  Has he written anything as profound or beautiful as Women in Love?

D.H.-Lawrence-006I’ve been reading and re-reading Lawrence for years.  He can definitely be excessive and melodramatic, but his soaring prose always moves me, and so does his grasp of human psychology and his understanding of how passion can shipwreck us. Lawrence’s depth of feeling, his imagery, and his rhapsodic voice always blow me away when I return to his fiction.

I’ve never revisited any book of Vidal’s and I’ve never wanted to. The New Yorker piece quotes some of Vidal’s work but it left me as cold as the anecdotes of his studied hauteur. I’d happily read a new biography of Lawrence, though.  And it’s probably time for me to go back to Women in Love, which I’ve read a handful of times.  Or perhaps some of his wonderful short fiction.  Or his pungent, quirky Studies in American Literature.  Or The Fox.  So many terrific choices….

Lev Raphael is the author of The Vampyre of Gotham and 24 others books in many genres which you can find on Amazon.  You can follow him on Twitter at

Why Writers Believe in Ghosts

It’s because all of us writers are haunted.

Not by reviews that sting or that never even happened. Not by interviews that went sideways. Not by book tours that flopped or by books whose sales figures were disappointing.

No, many of the specters clustered around our desks, laptops, and tablets are the books we started and gave up on. They’re in our dreams, and their presence lingers no matter what we complete and publish.

We have unfinished chapters, abandoned proposals, piles of research we’ve boxed, notes we scribbled and filed and can barely decipher any more.  Even shelves’ worth of reference books we’re gathered together, read or skimmed or never got to.  There are also characters we fell in love with but we couldn’t get around to giving them life.

And then there the ghosts that are somewhat more insidious.  These are the ghosts inside the books we’ve written: the plot twists we changed and regretted after the book came out, the scenes we axed for one reason or another, the narrative threads we cut for expediency or coherence but later wished we hadn’t.  And sometimes a book is haunted by what you wanted it to be, and what you couldn’t accomplish for any number of reasons: a deadline, mischance, falling ill, or just not being ready.

I’ve got a full file drawer for just one novel alone that never grew past a first chapter I’m crazy about.  Every time I’ve gone back to it, I’ve thought the research involved would take too long, plus I’ve doubted the book’s marketability.  It’s a novel about a murdered American artist and I’ve got all sorts of juicy material about him and his family, including a rare book of poetry published by the killer.

For all the time I spent living and dreaming that book, it’s stuck in the land of What Might Have Been.  The further away from it I get, the less inviting the whole project becomes.

I’m not alone: I know we’re all ghost writers of one kind or another.

Lev Raphael is the author of The Vampyre of Gotham and 24 other books which you can find on Amazon.  You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/LevRaphael