Joan Didion Didn’t Offer Us Answers
It’s coolThe most used word to describe her is “Coca-Colas” and “cigarettes each morning”, as well as the Leotard, typewriter, scotch, and shawl. California. To make a living writing for moviesNotes for the DirectorThe short, tight dispatches of the South and West.
However, the term cool can also refer to the lack of strong feelings. She was exactly the opposite. I am a theatre person.She once spoke such a thing. A wholly penetrable surface—one might also call her—that she then attempted to reshape into language that was capable of penetrating the rest of us.
There’s nothing one can write about Didion that’s not already been written, that she wouldn’t or did not already write better herself.
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She is a tiny woman: People tend to forget my physical size, temperamental indiscretion, and neurotically inarticulate because I’m so small. She sat in wait until the moment, its ruptures and its textures—not the story, but the life that lived beneath it—declared itself somehow. The 5-year-old in white lipstick, high on LSD, in Haight Ashbury in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”: The five-year-old’s name is Susan, and she tells me she is in High Kindergarten. Living with her mother, she has some friends.
It was made of goldShe told Griffin Dunne her story in the documentary. The Center is Not a Holding PlaceAbout her life.
There’s an idea around writing that we do it to make sense, to give shape, but staying free of the assumption that there’s sense to be made was one of Didion’s most astounding accomplishments. Does that 5-year old girl have it all? She should have brought her home or called an adult? What to make of Didion’s psychological deterioration as described by her psychiatrist’s assessments in “The White Album”? Is she truly that sick? What was the extent of it all?
Of course what that essay shows us is that those questions aren’t answerable; not even particularly interesting.
Why is she so miserable? Some critics lamented, but if you spend any time at all in the world Didion was observing, the question also arises, why weren’t they?
The sad woman continued to write. Her husband died.In an instant, life changesShe was 39 when her baby girl arrived at home 20 months later.
To live, we tell stories to ourselves. When I hear the quote, it makes me prickly and defensive. The whole essay is about how stories are failing, how at various moments in most writers’ lives language feels slippery and useless, stories too sensical and coherent to have anything at all to do with the life we’re trying to hold. Even the words feel too blunt, much less than what you might hope.
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Didion was the first to know all this. It was something she taught us and changed our experience and observations until it became clear. She collided all the various contradictions built with other people’s stories—politicians, advertisers, movies—bastardized and broken with too much coarse and hazy language, and she helped us see it all more sharply, with the lacerating power that comes from never trying to make sense.
They called her cool because she abhorred sentiment–Broad strokes are preferred for distortion or flattening character and the reduction of events in narrative.–was wary of any mythology that might somehow anesthetize one’s ability to touch or feel what might be actual or real. This is her main complaint about New York, not the city but the story that obscured it, both in “Sentimental Journeys” and, much earlier, in “Goodbye to All That.”
It’s not difficult to see where things are going, but harder to see how they end. These are my two favorite stories about her childhood: Her mother, when she was 5, told her to stop whining. Instead, write a story. And then, just before her final semester at Berkeley, she won the story prize. MademoiselleThey offered to take the trip to Paris and instead offer to be guest fiction editors.
Her best-known books include a lot of reports she has collected over many years while trying to earn a living. There are also the grief memoirsBeautiful and bold. Grief has no distance. Grief can come in waves, paroxysms and sudden apprehensions. These afflictions weaken the knees, blinded the eyes and destroy the fragility of your life. Her best novel, Take it or leave it. was her first; the rest aren’t particularly great. Before she left the Reagan Republican party, she was an avid Reagan Republican. She was a truculent, sharp, and distant woman.
The only line in the book that stands out. Times obituary: she left no immediate survivors.
I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package, I’m just telling you to live in it. To live within it. To see it.
A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it so radically that he remakes it in his own image…
Our imperfection as mortals is something we are aware of. We were. We are not. We will never be the same again.