In her quiet, matter-of-fact voice, writer Joan Didion mesmerized her audience as she read from her heart-shaking, best-selling memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, recipient of the 2005 National Book Award for nonfiction. As the 2006 Morgan Writer-in-Residence, Didion gave a public reading on February 28, packing Memorial Hall with people eager to catch a glimpse of the petite woman whose powerful narrative voice has captured millions of readers.
Writer Randall Kenan, Associate Professor of Creative Writing, who introduced Didion at the reading, proclaimed her one of “our living National Treasures.” In The Year of Magical Thinking, she recounts her personal journey through grief in the year following the 2003 death of her beloved husband, writer John Gregory Dunne. Kenan said the work “gives us observations on that undiscovered country, death” and declared that we can’t overestimate the “book’s impact on the hearts and minds of the American reading public.” The New York Times named it one of the “10 Best Books of 2005,” and it remained for weeks on the bestseller list. Didion is currently working on a stage adaptation of the memoir, which she will extend in time to include the 2005 death of her daughter, her only child.
Didion has been a prolific essayist, journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. She is the author of eight other books of non-fiction and five novels that taken together provide a unique chronicle of modern culture. From her groundbreaking essay collections Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979) to her five novels and other books of nonfiction, including Where I Was From (2003), Didion traverses and penetrates the cultural and political landscape of America with unflinching prose. In addition, she and Dunne, her late husband, co-authored several screen plays including The Panic in Needle Park (1971) and A Star is Born (1977). Her essays have appeared in The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and other major magazines.
While at Carolina as the Morgan Writer-in-Residence, Didion met with our creative writing students, offering sessions to discuss journalistic nonfiction, fiction writing, and screenwriting. In addition, she graciously spent time in informal conversations with students and the faculty. Students indicated their pleasure in meeting one of the major literary figures of the past half century. Student readers exploring her work for the first time were struck by its continuing relevance for their lives; Didion is well on the way to claiming a new generation of admirers.
Established in 1993 by alumni Allen and Musette Morgan of Memphis, Tennessee, the Morgan Writer-in-Residence Program brings writers of distinction to campus each spring to teach courses; meet with students and faculty; and give lectures, readings, and symposia. Their goals for the program are to help and inspire Carolina’s writing students and also to provide a way for the campus and town communities to join in a celebration of the literary arts. Didion’s visit emphatically fulfilled this vision.