Yesterday I started The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s memoir of the emotional aftermath following the death of her husband and the life-threatening illness of her daughter. I’ve not read much Didion apart from a few essays anthologized in various freshman composition textbooks I’ve assigned over the years, but what I’ve read, I’ve liked. In the essays I’ve read, Didion demonstrates a ruthless, unflinching refusal to turn from grim and difficult scenes. A “pretty cool customer” is how a hospital social worker describes Didion when hospital workers approach her in the Emergency Room waiting room to inform her of her husband’s death, and this “cool customer” tone resonates throughout the book as Didion recounts the experience of losing her husband while worrying about her comatose daughter.

As a writer, I relate to this “cool customer” aspect of Didion’s prose. I believe that when you’re writing about something emotionally charged, you have to separate the emotion from the words, allowing language itself to act like a twitch–a clamp attached to a horse’s lip to distract it during veterinary procedures–so you aren’t fixating directly on your own pain. If you’re worrying in your author’s mind about a particular turn of phrase or the peculiar echo of a repeated image, you’re less likely to be sucked under by the pull of pure emotion. Instead of writing about your own pain, which is an entirely subjective subject, your writer’s mind considers pain as an abstracted, almost Platonic thing: what universal elements of Pain does my experience point to, and how can I share that accurately with any feeling heart?

When you write about pain–particularly your own–the words serve as a sort of lifeline, something to cling to in the maelstrom of contradictory feelings and remembrances. As Didion’s memoir vividly illustrates, in the face of tragedy you can’t control your feelings, the tidal ebb and flow of grief, but you can control the words with which you describe your own emotional tsunami. When you write about your own pain, the act of crafting language becomes one way of making sense out of the senseless, a written version of Freud’s talking cure. Because Didion has such a long, illustrious history of being a “pretty cool customer” in her essays and fiction, her sights were honed to razor-sharp acuity when tragedy struck, every wife and mother’s worst nightmare happening while she stood with eyes wide open.

I’ve borrowed the title of today’s post from another classic memoir of grief, the journal C.S. Lewis kept after the death of his young wife. Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction: husbands die at the dinner table, daughters lie in comas caused by hospital-contracted infections, and wives die before their older husbands. There’s no sense to be made of any of these inexplicable realities: sickness and death defy the narrative arc of “happily ever after.” But as long as a writer’s eye remains open to her or his experience, even tragedy can be transformed into art, a pretty cool customer finding the kernel of truth behind events most mortals prefer to ignore.