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…