Listen to the podcast of Joan Didion, interviewed by Chris Lydon here (or download as an mp3).
“Joan Didion wore a purple scarf and her trademark oversized glasses last night at the sold-out Harvard Book Store-sponsored event at First Parish Church in Cambridge. She was in town to promote her new book, the heartbreaking “Blue Nights,” which concerns the death of her daughter and which can, and likely will, be read as a macabre follow-up to 2005’s deeply affecting “The Year of Magical Thinking,” about the death of her husband.”
“‘Blue Nights’ (is) a searing recounting of the death of her daughter, Quintana Roo, and Didion’s own struggles with aging and illness…So it seems only fitting that her nephew, actor and director Griffin Dunne (with Susanne Rostock), would at her request turn his camera on her to produce a mesmerizing glimpse of the writer. She can be seen reading from her new work in what Dunne describes as an “audiobook for the eyes” filled with family photos.”
— From “Joan Didion: Video of ‘Blue Nights’ and Daughter Quintana” on The Daily Beast.
I have reached a point where I cannot tell whether I feel like Maria Wyeth because of the book, or if I feel like Maria Wyeth because some part of me has always felt like Maria Wyeth.
There’s nothing like Play It As It Lays.
This is the post I have been promising to write for days, but then, you’re not here to hear me pontificate on any number of problems that have come between me and my self-imposed literary duties.
So, it will be different. Stylistically-speaking, that is. I have learned that even when I don’t know what I’m writing, the most important thing is to start writing. The whole thing sorts itself out in the end.
Didion is known for her high style, and in reading the essay “On Morality” from Slouching Towards Bethelehem, there are a few things that literally jump out and grab the reader by the throat. The thing to remember with Didion, though, is that it’s not the crazy, overwrought, overly violent image that grabs you — it’s something much more nuanced, something with the heft of surprise behind it. Her transitions are striking, but not in an overly obvious way. I can say with some surety that certain phrases that I may have blindly overlooked before now reach out to me, like the seemingly harmless “As it happens” or seemingly obvious “Let me tell you.” But these few words, these seemingly benign phrases, completely transform the whole thing when placed within the context of the piece.
Take the first sentence, for example:
“As it happens I am in Death Valley, in a room at the Enterprise Motel and Trailer Park, and it is July, and it is hot.”
Which brings me to another point — the extended use of the comma. Some people have railed against comma use. I understand that. But Didion makes it work. So much, in fact, that her profuse comma usage has been permanently stamped in my brain as a Didion-esque hallmark, therefore having an obvious impact on the way I write. Did you count my commas? There are many. But not as many as Didion, who, in the first sentence of “On Morality,” uses three. In her first paragraph of four sentences, she uses nine commas.
This says something about the way the brain works. There is much to appreciate of well-polished sentences that punch to the gut with very little grammatical fanfare (here, Hemingway comes to mind), but at the same time, I am a sucker for things which replicate life — specifically, things that replicate how minds work, how memory works. In that, I feel that Didion has somehow bridged the gap between both worlds. Her prose often borders on over-the-top grammatical choices and a seemingly endless sequence, but because her words are — for lack of a better word — so damn well-chosen, it works.
And so there you have it: a well-polished thought with particularly placed words and carefully crafted phrases that bounce and lap into one another like small waves, carrying you through a sentence that deceptively seems to mirror how our brain might process a thought. You start with one thing, and three commas later, you’re in a wonderful (albeit unexpected) place. That’s part of the joy I take in reading Didion — despite having heard critics describe her writing as expected, guarded, or even boring — but then, my response would be this: you’re not reading close enough.
And my 19-year-old reader self, as much as I love her — well, she just didn’t pay enough attention at the time.
As it happens I am in Death Valley…
“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.”
When I read that first sentence, I knew I was reading what, for me, was a perfect essay for the time.
I was especially struck by it because I’ve been wrestling with turning my thesis, which I finished this summer, into a relatively workable manuscript — with very little luck, I might add. The first part of the problem is “missing” stuff — the things that are necessary to form what will eventually be a book, but that aren’t written yet. But the other part, and mostly why that initial sentence knocked me beautifully breathless, is the fact that I don’t know how to end it. More specifically, I don’t know what the end is.
But neither does Didion, really. Or at least, that’s what she tells us. Endings are difficult things, often unclear, hiding themselves in the rather fuzzy haze of experience. And so instead of providing a clear one in her essay, she explores the meaning of an ending, and more importantly, the elusive nature of them.
That’s not to say that the essay is merely extrapolation on an abstract topic. It’s easy to assume, though, if you’ve only read that first sentence. For most writers, beginning an essay with a weighty generalization on something of an interior, philosophical idea is dicey territory — but Didion sets it up so that the narrator’s experience of coming of age in New York City illustrates the concept in a way that’s accessible.
And a coming of age essay is essentially what it is. The narrator recalls the moment she stepped off the train in NYC, telling us what immediately hit her, what still stuck with her, the scents and smells of the city, describing what would be “home” for the next eight years. There is no moment of textbook climax, wherein the narrator is faced with a horrible trial or devastating experience. Instead, the change that occurs is internal, making it all the more difficult to classify. There wasn’t some crucial, cliffhanging moment, she says. It was much different than that. One day, she thought one way; the next, she thought differently. It was all about the shift in thinking, really, or the evolution of beliefs — or, if you listen to how Didion tells it, the replacing of one with another.
Can she pinpoint the moment when everything internally changed? No. But the ambiguity makes the essay all the more poignant — and it is poignant — because for many of us, these shifts of belief happen almost unknowingly. We wake up one morning, and the suddenness lies only in the realization that something inside of us changed.
One might argue (and Didion doesn’t really get into this, but for the moment, I will) that this type of subtle suddenness of the mind is more jarring — and more frightening, if you will — than a devastating outside experience. I say this because when some “external” crisis happens to you, part of its impact is partially absorbed by those around you. You have support system of people who, in some way or another, are there for you, who make life easier. When the change is internal, the resulting crisis of realization is all the more terrifying when you have to face it yourself.
With that, I leave you with the essay’s ending paragraph, which just pierces my heart with its gorgeous melancholy:
“All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young any more. The last time I was in New York was in a cold January, and everyone was ill and tired. Many of the people I used to know there had moved to Dallas or had gone on Antabuse or had bought a farm in New Hampshire. We stayed ten days, and then we took an afternoon flight back to Los Angeles, and on the way home from the airport that night I could see the moon on the Pacific and smell jasmine all around and we both knew that there was no longer any point in keeping the apartment we still kept in New York. There were years when I called Los Angeles ‘the Coast,’ but they seem a long time ago.”
Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That,” written in 1967, was published in her essay collection “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”
Today, I give you a phenomenal essay and thinkpiece on the intersection of Didion, Kanye and the self from writer friend Brian Oliu. In fact, it is way more than that, and the only way to know, truly, is to go read it on Flip Collective now:
This, of course, is a classic. When being introduced to Didion for the first time in my class on the essay, we started with the Preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem and none other than “On Keeping a Notebook.” Apparently, this seems to be an academic ritual of sorts, a common practice: a friend of mine, who teaches creative writing at a university, mentioned that he always starts his class with this essay.
For good reasons, of course. I remember feeling this sense of illumination, of self-discovery and validation, with each sentence of the essay – She wrote in notebooks, too? It thrilled me to read the words, “ I have felt compelled to write things down since was five years old.” It flooded me with wonder, excitement, and relief to know that this was a common thing amongst writers big and small, and I felt privileged even, as if I had unwittingly gained entry into this world I always knew I wanted to be part of, and because it was so unwitting, that somehow made it all the more authentic.
Here are notes I made in an early reading of this essay a few days ago:
— Use specifics to unite, e.g., “Estelles”
— Estelle becomes window to understanding others
— What specifics can I use to unite? Who am I uniting?
For those unfamiliar, the “Estelle” of the essay – which, I should note, becomes into “the Estelles” of us all, or at least many of us – is the “other woman” that’s a cause of separation. Didion, who is sitting at a bar in Wilmington, Delaware, hears a woman tell this to the bartender, who’s heard it before. But Didion’s attention is sharp, and her eye is drawn to another woman at the bar, or more accurately, “a girl”:
“She is talking, pointedly, not to the man beside her but to a cat lying in the triangle of sunlight cast through the open door. She is wearing a plaid silk dress from Peck & Peck, and the hem is coming down.
Here is what it is: the girl has been on the Eastern Shore, and now she is going back to the city, leaving the man beside her, and all she can see ahead are the viscous summer sidewalks and the 3 a.m. long-distance calls that will make her lie awake and then sleep drugged through all the steaming mornings left in August (1960? 1961?). Because she must go directly from the train to lunch in New York, she wishes that she had a safety pin for the hem of the plaid silk dress, and she also wishes that she could forget about the hem and the lunch and stay in the cool bar that smells of disinfectant and malt and make friends with the woman in the crepe-de-Chine wrapper. She is afflicted by a little self-pity, and she wants to compare Estelles. That is what that was all about.”
But beyond that, and despite my diligent notes, the essay ended up highlighting something else for me entirely: the thought that the things we write about, or the things we choose to write about, or the things that choose to be written about say infinitely more about ourselves than they do about anything else. Most importantly, it defines who we are versus who we are not – Didion shows us this with her parallel of opposing worlds as personified by Mrs. Minnie S. Brooks and Mrs. Lou Fox.
In that sense, then, she seems to begin making an argument that notebooks are self-serving, self-indulgent things; essentially, a way to cope with the very fact that, as adults, we cannot be seen as self-indulgent, as it’s not acceptable. But this argument is lessened in the face of the fact, which is that all human beings, no matter what their stage of life, are self-indulgent:
“But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I.’”
With that aside, she seems to christen the notebook as a time machine of sorts, a way to “keep in touch” with our former selves, a vessel through which to channel them and, after time, even attempt to reacquaint ourselves with them:
“It all comes back. Perhaps it is difficult to see the value in having one’s self back in that kind of mood, but I do see it; I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”
The notebook, then, is a guard against that. And with that, I’ll finish with a few more of her lines:
“It is a good idea, then, to keep in touch, and I suppose that keeping in touch is what notebooks are all about. And we are all on our own when it comes to keeping those lines open to ourselves: your notebook will never help me, nor mine you.”
Take a moment and try to remember: you’re a kid in grade school, and your teacher starts to talk about writing. There’s no doubt that she started you, first and foremost, with the sentence. I can hear the echoes in my head: “A sentence is a complete thought.” It’s easy how, as adults, we writers can forget that.
Personally, I have to admit, I’m a huge fan of the sentence fragment. I realize that it’s one of those things that’s not always acceptable – and to be honest, it’s not good to use them all the time – but when done in an artful way, I am certainly a supporter. I love that, when used effectively, it’s evocative of poetry, of song; it carries a certain music to it, creating a longing within the piece that may not have existed before.
But Didion – well, let’s just say she was paying attention in class when her teacher laid out the rules - “A sentence is a complete thought.” Indeed.
A few literary friends of mine were discussing Didion the other day, and so I’ll highlight something that stuck out to me. Peter Campion mentioned he was reading The White Album (I honestly don’t know how he gets through that collection in a night when I struggle to fit one essay in, but that’s the mark of maturity and ability, I guess) and wrote, “You could do a parody of Didion’s Hemingway tics and blurred paranoia,” using the following passage as an example:
“Those years we woke up in apartments and ate cereal. In a notebook from those years I find sentences like this: ‘180 calories with one cup of milk.’ To count calories gave a semblance of control. Those were the years that families were waking up and counting calories and eating cereal and walking into their lives and all truths in those years were touched with this one truth that cereal was in a box to be eaten and one morning the Menendez brothers woke up and slaughtered the parents who for years had fed them cereal. I have trouble remembering those years. It is if as if everything had milk spilled over it. Except there are sentences I wrote in notebooks. I was writing in notebooks, and I was, as much as the parents of the Menendez brothers, a parent who woke up in the morning and fed children cereal.”
In addition to the “Hemingway tics,” she’s prone to the long, glorious sentences punctuated with commas, semicolons, and emdashes – a less-flowery Nabokov, a style akin to what you’d find The New Yorker.
In addition to the blogging end of things (it’s obviously getting me in the habit to write even more), it’s helping with the thinking. Most specifically: the way in which a writer processes material. If you think about it, this is the most crucial step – before pen is set to paper, before any words begin to form. You have to take in what you’re experiencing, what you’re seeing. And you have to really let it hit you, but at the same time, remain inquisitive. Form questions, form hypotheses. And remember this, this which may be the biggest thing for me to have to learn, narcissist that I am: remember that although the thing may be happening to you, the thing is bigger than just you, and is happening to everyone else, too. Keep the lens wide enough to see that.