Saturday, November 19, 2011

Joan Didion

photo credit: Gary Leonard

I didn't have a clear view of Joan Didion on Wednesday night when I went downtown to hear her at the historic Vibiana Theater. I had bought my ticket for $20 several months ago, before the publication of Didion's latest memoir Blue Nights, and it was general seating. The room was cavernous, a former church, I think, built in the late 1800s. About six hundred people sat in folding chairs in the grand room; a woman lurched over me to a saved seat about five minutes into the program. She apologized profusely and made a big production of sighing and sitting down. Didion was about the frailest speck of a woman I've seen in a long time, wrapped in a soft pale purple shawl, her long fingers constantly in motion as she spoke and read from her essays and books. The woman next to me literally typed and texted into her iPhone THE ENTIRE HOUR that Didion spoke. As you know, I've been in a mood of late, and I was unable to tune the woman and her phone out. Rather, I was constantly mindful of her and her texting, which completely detracted from the iconic writer, and I spent more time debating whether I should say something to the texting woman than I did listening to Didion. As my son Oliver said tonight when he lost in the second heat of the Raingutter Regatta at his Cub Scout meeting, EPIC FAIL.

I've read nearly all of Joan Didion's writing and admire her writing immensely although I've never felt particularly connected to her writing emotionally. Does that make sense? 

The first thing she read Wednesday night (and before I became completely and utterly distracted by THE TEXTER) was her famous opening line from The White Album:

We tell ourselves stories in order to live.

The White Album was published over two decades ago, and lays bare in the driest of tones and most beautiful language the culture of California in the sixties and seventies, yet that line rang through the crowded church as true as it ever had. Didion's two latest books, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights chronicle the respective deaths of her husband and her only daughter. It was difficult to imagine what stories Didion must have created in order to live through those deaths.

I thought, a bit, of those of us here, in blogworld, who write our stories in order to live, who craft with words in attempts, somewhat vain, to make sense of what will probably never make sense. I'm not sure why there's comfort in the crafting, but there is. Didion also stated that she always writes for an audience and never for herself, that the relationship between writer and reader is as intense as that between the actor and the audience in a theater. 

I'm still thinking of these things, two days later, and despite the fact that THE TEXTER (or my inability to ignore her) prevented me from really hearing much of Didion's talk, there was something in those few words that I did hear that will resonate for a very long time.


  1. You've nailed something I have felt for a long time but have never put into real words, even thought-words. That Didion, even as she lays her soul completely bare on the page, still has a remove, somehow, from my ability to FEEL her. She is more intellectual, I think, than visceral. Does that make sense?
    Which makes that quote about the relationship between author and reader even stranger.
    She does move me, however, with her cut-bone prose.
    Okay- as to the TEXTER- I think I would have exploded. On her.

  2. We a storytelling species, don't you think? I think the fascinating part is what stories we choose to tell, and how conscious or unconscious we are of the fact that we are always making a choice.

  3. I read "The Year of Magical Thinking" and liked it, but I cannot bring myself to read her latest book.
    I hear what you mean about the way you connect with her writing. She strikes me as a kind of clinical person, so maybe the writing doesn't invite a lot of emotional connection. She seems to have led a singular life, though she and her husband sound as if they may have been co-dependent, and practically joined at the hip, professionally. She sounded very isolated, and I couldn't see her as a joyful person, but more as a neutral observer of events, a chronicler. Not having read her other works, perhaps I am wrong about this, drawing conclusions from one of the hardest times in her life.

  4. Ms. Moon -- I would completely imagine that you would feel the same way as I do about this.

    Noan -- I agree. I think I pick the same story to tell over and over, yet it still doesn't make sense of anything. It does help me to live, though!

    Karen -- Exactly. There's something almost annoyingly patrician about her -- that she's the only person to have ever suffered such grief. It's interesting to think that one's skill at writing gives you this privilege. And I agree that she's a chronicler -- a brilliant one, at that -- but it's hard to feel any sort of solidarity with her. At the same time, she writes so beautifully, and I recognize myself in some of her thoughts.

  5. Her name didn't ring any bells, but those two books sure did.

    Gonna add them to my Kindle.

    And gonna rethink why I write. I've always told myself that I do it for myself...but perhaps that's always been a lie...

    But yes, there most certainly is comfort in the crafting.

  6. I think Joan Didion's distance is her gift.... she is able to write a personal narrative that is clearly reality, yet as you say and as I experienced when reading A Year of Magical Thinking somewhat unusually emotionally detached. How wonderful that you were able to see her...despite the annoying texter...

  7. I just wrote a really long comment and Blogger ate it. (Sigh.)

    Suffice to say I like Didion and I'm glad you got something out of the event, despite the dreaded TEXTER! (There's always at least one.)

  8. I frickin' hate texting because for some it's the new addiction. I got a plan this year because irregardless of how many times I call or leave messages for some of my clients parents they NEVER call back. If I text them, however, I get an immediate response. We have an entire generation of people who have no clue about social graces or communicating in a personal way. It is all part of the plot to desensitize society from human connection and it is proving to be very effective. Just saying.

  9. Elizabeth, you totally explained the way Didion strikes me. Brilliant writer, but I vaguely resent seeing myself in her writing because it is so very clear she doesn't see me. One feels in her writing that she takes as fact that she alone feels these things, and she is somehow deeper and more worthy than you are because she can feel these things. Does that sound petty? I love her writing, though. In my twenties, and still new to New York, her essay collection, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, was one of my bibles.

  10. She IS like this beautiful piece of glacial blue ice, isn't she? Her words cut so cleanly, but she herself doesn't really invite her readers into her deepest heart. That's okay, though! I'm happy to sit at her feet; she's incredible.

    I won't even divulge my feelings about the woman on her Iphone. You've said it all, and I'm afraid I would use the 'f' word.

  11. She IS like this beautiful piece of glacial blue ice, isn't she? Her words cut so cleanly, but she herself doesn't really invite her readers into her deepest heart. That's okay, though! I'm happy to sit at her feet; she's incredible.

    I won't even divulge my feelings about the woman on her Iphone. You've said it all, and I'm afraid I would use the 'f' word.

  12. Kindred spirits, we are. I saw Joan Didion on tuesday night in San Francisco. She is fabulous. She is so very small, she looked like a little mouse up there.

    Perhaps the reason you don't connect to her emotionally is the fact that she IS writing for an audience. She protects herself from the connection. And yet she lays it all out there in both A Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. Not sure how she accomplishes that.

    Her talent is beyond amazing. You know I studied her at UCLA in 1978 - she was only about 40 years old. My son studied her in college too 30 yeaars later. She is an incredibly gifted and disciplined writer.

    As for the texted, yeah, I would have said something. And the prose would not have been elegant at all.



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