'The Wind Shows Us How Close to the Edge We Are': My Month With Joan Didion
More than most things and just as much as everything else, this piece is about snakes and hostile Indians.
“The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.” - Joan Didion speaking about the effects of the Santa Ana winds in California.
I used to become discouraged upon rereading a piece I’d recently written only to realize how much my work sounded uncannily similar to the author whose book I had just finished reading: the rhythm, the structure, the mood. Could I not find my own style? Was I just a mimic of whomever I was enamored at the time? I recently bought the book Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett for the sole purpose of self-sabotage. The plot on the inside flap which I perused at random could have doubled as the excerpt of a different inside flap, that of the novel I am currently working on (one chapter written followed by a rough outline and haphazard death scenes but still, years of work). I panicked and bought the book.
There is a well-circulated concept which I have come across a few times and quite like, but not until that moment in the bookstore holding Ann Patchett’s book sweating and confused, had it occurred to me that this concept could work counter to my creative endeavors. This concept is a feeling many artists experience at some point or another: traveling in like a swarm of locusts usually in a somewhat inconvenient and inopportune time, a sweep of inspiration as if a gust of wind blows an idea into their presence with no warning and often no invitation, a bubble drifting up and popping on your nose. I am talking about the concept of genius, as a noun. Genius in ancient Greece and Rome was a god or spirit-like being. Back then everyone had their own genius who flew around and paid them visits; some more active and enthusiastic than others I presume, but no human was characterized as “a genius” in their own right, they simply were the lucky receiver of their genius’s will and power. I imagine the fairy god-mother-like figures flitting about, flicking ideas and inspiration with the same frequency and casual indifference that Zeus hucks his lightning bolts. To snatch one of these ideas meant you were paying attention, you were listening, you were deserving. The idea was yours if you’d like it, but if you passed up the chance, the smug little creature would zoom away, sticking the little spark back in her satchel to find someone else with open arms and a blank canvas.
This image haunts me.
Am I ready? Have I missed it? Are these shards raining down and piercing my skull sparks of inspiration or lightning bolts? Is there even a difference? Maybe my little creature sat perched on my desk night after night watching me write and erase a couple of ill-conceived sentences, waiting for me to just spit it out already, only to become so bored and impatient that she slipped out the door never to be seen again. Are all my ideas taken already? Did someone smarter, more established, or simply a faster writer, lay claim to the conceptions I’d been carefully cultivating for years? Did the genius peering over my shoulder finally give up hope, walk out the door and slide the flame surreptitiously onto Ann Patchett’s more qualified, more promising desk?
Most likely this did not happen. But I have not always been so sure.
Genius then relies heavily on the importance of being in a certain place at a certain time. I am hesitant to use “right” place and “right” time because I do not always think the placement and the timing are inherently right, if anything at all is inherently right. “I had better tell you where I am, and why,” Joan Didion states as an introduction to her essay Sojourns. “We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for divorce.” She and her husband - and their daughter along for the ride - are on a Hawaiian island, and from her perspective, they took this trip instead of ending their marriage. I do not see any amount of “rightness” to her time and place, it is simply where she is while she is writing. But why include it? She isn’t writing about divorce or saving a marriage or islands in the Pacific, but to understand anything anyone says or does it is imperative to understand what their life looks like, how it’s going or not going. I don’t remember how I first heard of Joan Didion or what made me buy her book, but I know I was 25 years old and I know this because I read The Year of Magical Thinking the summer it became clear that my brother was about to die. It was summer, I was 25, I read a book about grief in its most basic form largely by accident, but it’s effect on me would have been very different if I had read the book a year earlier when the cancer in my brother’s body was not yet running the show, in which case I may have happily skimmed the book without fully ingesting much of its brutal reality, or if I had picked it up during the fall after the funeral, in which case I may have thrown the book against the wall after page one and left it there to this day to rot. But those situations did not happen because I was 25 and it was the summer.
For this reason, Didion never writes without introducing herself as a character in her reporting, always including the “I” in the scene, wanting the audience to know physically where she is standing during her interviews, who she’s writing, in what city she is spending her time, the mood of that city.
The inclusion of herself as a character takes out most of the abstract, makes it palpable and believable, and, as her as the author, trustworthy. She criticizes sources, news sources in particular, who claim to be objective for she does not believe objectivity in writing exists, and how could it? If one truly wishes, biases and the judgement of right versus wrong or good versus evil can largely be hidden and consciously omitted, but to be purely objective as a human being is impossible.
“That was the year, my 28th, when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, and that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.” Joan Didion wrote that, in her 28th year in New York when she came to the realization for the first time that it is “distinctly possible to stay too long at the fair,” however, those words could have come out of my own mouth, albeit in a less organized and elegant way, and had in fact been swimming in my subconscious for some months. I am also in my 28th year, it is the winter, and I am understanding that time moves fast and all my promises both long term and short will certainly not be kept, that I’ve procrastinated many nights and that while I do not yet wish to leave the fair, it is nearing dinner time of the day that is my soccer career. Who do I want to be? Forget “be.” “Be” is the future. “Be” allows for further procrastination. What am I trying to do right now?
I got into the habit of drinking a cup of instant coffee right as I start writing each afternoon. It serves a few purposes: it helps me stay rooted at my desk and it delays the moment I pour a glass of wine. I crack the door next to my desk that leads to the balcony so as to let in the noise from the street. Restaurants have recently been re-opened for indoor dining in Oregon, a new president has stepped in, the country, specifically Texas, just froze for a few weeks but the sun is out once again and there are voices. People, all those people, chatting and strolling and having quite the time of it at the bustling brewery below my apartment give me a jolt each night, possibly jealousy mixed with the forced awareness which is “no thank you,” you have procrastinated long enough, stay put tonight.” Whether it is the right or wrong choice is almost besides the point.
And who possesses that power to judge morality anyway?
“You see I want to be quite obstinate about insisting that we have no way of knowing - beyond the fundamental loyalty to the social code - what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong,’ what is ‘good’ and what is ‘evil.’ Didion expresses this position throughout her time reporting on the hippies and addicts and drug culture and murders. She hands out no judgement when standing face to face with a five year old child in San Francisco who is singularly focused on licking the acid off her lips, because what purpose would that serve besides stripping the reader of the opportunity to make an assessment themselves? “It’s a tricky thing, acid,” was the snippet of dialogue she jotted down and let lay for the reader to digest. Didion holds the philosophy that we are not here to judge, not here to categorize situations and people and events and ourselves as “good” or “bad.” By falling into that trap, we stumble into line of the commonly held beliefs of the public, the popular opinion, social expectations, joining the joyful and carefree ruckus at the brewery. But by placing ourselves in the narrative, observing what we see, striking down that expectation of objectivity - moral and otherwise - we can begin to understand ourselves.
Even her novel, Play It As It Lays, feels like an instruction manual for just this. The visual whiteness on the page is striking: snippets of words and paragraphs surrounded by space. She includes just enough to take the reader along for the ride, while forcing us to have our own feelings, wonderments about what might be happening off the page, behind the scenes and when we’re not around, and what it all means. “It was going to exist in the white space...it was going to exist between the paragraphs, between the chapters.” In a way, Didion herself exists in the white spaces. The scenes flash by her like words on the page: people, dialogue, action. She sits with Linda Kassabian, one of the accused killers of the “Manson” murders of Sharon Tate and company, and as Linda feeds her child like any mother does, Didion watches and listens to the normal acts of human beings, and it is not until she sits back down to a blank piece of paper to digest her day and her life that she attempts to reflect on what she experienced. In an effort to learn how to type, Didion copied out the beginning scenes of Hemingway’s Farewell To Arms. Whether she learned to type or not, I do not know, but Hemingway became an author whom she admired and studied. “There was withheld information in his sentences.” Withheld information, things left unsaid, white spaces. Time and opportunity to wonder what is happening behind the scenes, what they aren’t telling us, and how “good” and “bad” could never be as concrete as the common platitudes promise.
And I am unconvinced that truth for truth’s sake was ever the aim of Joan Didion’s writing to begin with. “..for not only have I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters.” She never wrote for others and yet somehow much of what she wrote connects to each of us personally. Maybe because her intentions through writing were never to tell anyone solely what she witnessed. “Had I been blessed with even limited access to my mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” She wrote to understand her place in the madness, the chaos and the culture, and if we as the readers happened to glean some never-before-known understanding, some deeper connection to the world, then all the better for us, but by that time, having reconciled the pieces she needed to put together in her own mind, she was already on to the next thing.
“So novels are also about things you’re afraid you can’t deal with.”
“Do you have snakes?” Joan Didion asked her nephew during the production of the 2017 documentary about her career and life.
“I have no snakes.” He responded. “I’m not a big fan of snakes.”
“Well how do you know?”
“I just take a rake and kill it.”
“Killing a snake is the same as having a snake.”
I had watched this documentary somewhere in the area of fifteen times by the time I copied down that first snippet of conversation; but it was not for research purposes or anything as spectacular and ambitious, but mainly because I had suffered a concussion and couldn’t do much else besides lie on the couch with my eyes closed without getting a sharp stab above my right eye and a stomachache. I chose the documentary day after day because I am going through a bit of a Joan Didion phase, but also in this particular documentary the images - old pictures of her house in Malibu, her daughter’s Christening, and most of the other visuals added to complement the voice-over interviews and excerpts read from her books - were more or less besides the point. The words were what mattered.
“Snakes appeared in my later work because they were always on my mind. You had to avoid them.” Though it took me a while to jot this conversation down, I had not failed to notice the prevalence of snakes in her writing, and perhaps it is not all too impressive that I’ve honed in on her biggest fears, the thoughts that emerge in her quiet moments, the dread that fends off sleep at 4a.m; if fear is based most commonly in the subjects we do not fully grasp, then of course she writes about them, for she writes to understand what she has not yet grasped.
Snakes never fully disappeared from her work because her fear of them never went away. There was nothing to understand about snakes, nothing to ponder and overcome, you simply had to avoid them. They were tangible and if you were careful, avoidable. Tangible is where Joan Didion is comfortable existing; the abstract, like its effect on most people, troubles her. And even while speaking about abstract ideas like falling in love, she does her best to break down the sensations into feelings she can understand. “I don’t know what falling in love means,” Didion said to her nephew in an interview, “It’s not part of my world. But I do remember having a very clear sense that I want this to continue.” Memories, on the other hand, tangible while fresh, do not remain constant and concrete the way the snake on the sidewalk will always remain the snake on the sidewalk. “Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.”
Writing was the way Joan Didion placed herself in the context of the world, how she worked through the seemingly meaningless events until she could make some adequate sense of them, to dig through her fears and try to understand them. While the fallibility of memory itself haunted her, it becomes hard to determine whether understanding the fear of lost memories, or an attempt to preserve them was her true motivation.
Her earliest memory or the earliest memory she shares publicly and consistently during interviews on the origin of her writing, begins with a Big 5 Tablet and her mother telling her to “stop whining and start writing.” The seemingly random or casual presentation of the notebook and subsequently the short story the five year old Joan Didion produces - that of a woman on the brink of death in the arctic only to wake up dying from the heat of the desert, the first glimpse of what she calls her “predilection for the extreme” - seem to be the two details at the focal point of the memory. But the instruction from her mother as she sent her daughter out from under her skin is what strikes me most as I wade through her work, because in that moment, Joan Didion started writing and she would never whine again.
I’m drawn to characters who let situations evolve as they will, let hardships speak for themselves, and hands play as they are laid. Didion writes herself as that character. She is the passive participant of life, observing and listening and taking notes, her actions come from her writing, the slow understanding of what it was exactly that she had witnessed and then, later as she sits alone at her desk sipping her Coca-Cola, what exactly she felt about it.
She grew up in Sacramento, California, her descendants having traveled across the continent with the soon-to-turn cannibal Donner party, but instead of taking the inevitably deadly shortcut like their unfortunate travel companions, Didion’s family made it safely to the Golden State. While the rest of California claims “Eureka - I Have Found It,” she ignores the possibly false optimism of the motto and tells us how she sees it, which is not the feeling of “this land is the place we’ve always been searching for”, but rather, things “better work here,” because if California doesn’t work, save for the Pacific Ocean, there is no further to go. Where others attribute the arrival to California to perseverance or divine intervention, Didion takes what is handed her without attaching forced praise or criticism, and moves on. Not everything has to be good or bad, some things just are. It is ok to be indifferent. Sometimes you take trips in lieu of filing for divorce, sometimes accused murderers have to feed their children, sometimes it’s ok to just let things sit the way they fall, play hands as they are dealt because most of the time we have no choice anyway.
But not only could Joan Didion allow herself indifference where others assign positivity or judgement, she was able to assign situations their “proper weight.” In a story she tells about a family crossing the country en route to California, a girl watches as Indians flood into their camp. The Indians did not end up being of the “hostile” variety, a detail which the girl in the story is quick to point out as nothing more than “fortunate” for herself and her family. Didion goes on to explain that to go through life honestly is to know that Indians usually are hostile, that it is not “unjust that the way to free land in California involved death and difficulty and dirt,” because things worth having usually were.
This outlook on life, instilled at the moment her mother told her to stop whining and start writing, the recognition that success involved hard work, Indians were usually hostile and if she happened to survive, it was fortunate for her, did not in any way ease the fears and insecurities in Joan Didion’s life. In fact, she reminded me frequently of Esther Greenwood and her years floating about in the Bell Jar, watching herself slowly loose grip, realizing just how close to the edge she was, but while Ester crawled beneath the house to die, Joan Didion stood at the edge, being whipped by the Santa Ana winds, and wrote.
I make her sound flat, passive, unimpressed and unaffected by the world around her, but it is the opposite; she feels and cares deeply for the things she writes, otherwise she makes it clear she wouldn’t have written them at all. She hates interviewing people, she hates phone calls, she doesn’t work for a sense of duty, but to strengthen her grip on the world.
To Live on a Rock in the Sea
And what does this all have to do with me sitting at my desk staring at that Ann Patchett novel, with a mug of instant coffee, meandering about the fairgrounds hoping some neon sign will catch my eye, pointing me towards another ride? I will tell you.
Joan Didion speaks longingly of Alcatraz, in the time after it was a functioning prison and before it became a tourist destination, when a husband and wife and dog alone inhabited the rock, as “a ruin devoid of human vanities, clean of human illusions, an empty place reclaimed by the weather where a woman plays an organ to stop the winds whining.” This is how I picture the world in which she wishes in her heart to exist, but I wonder, and I think I know the answer: if she had lived on a rock in the middle of the sea would there have been a need for her to write and in so exist at all? For we who “tell ourselves stories in order to live,” we who exist in the white spaces, the compulsive note takers and the “lonely and resistant rearrangers of things”, those of us with a “predilection for the extreme,” and who are drawn to the idea of raising a family on Alcatraz, it becomes clear that if we do board the little boat and head to the rock where there are no snakes and no Indians, to lay down roots and to play the organ to drown out the wind, we would find no reason to pick up a pencil at all.
I ultimately did read the first few chapters of Truth and Beauty and it is, of course, entirely different from my novel for the simple reason - I did not write it.
And yet even with these realizations, the moments of comfort and clarity and self-assurance, we stand so close to the edge always wondering whether the genius will show, deciding if we should gather our things and leave the fair, wondering if what we are doing is worth it, if anyone cares, if our ideas and dreams are even our own, and with a tiny little breeze or the Santa Ana winds, a bad night sleep, or the inside cover of an Ann Patchett novel, we are set teetering, peering over to glimpse the jagged rocks below. The truth is, no one does care if you snatch the genius. No one cares whether you sit at your desk trying to determine what it is you saw or heard, what you are afraid of and what it could mean, or whether you drop your pencil and walk down to the brewery slipping back into the masses. That is except for the only person who matters, which is me. And I see now that no one is doing this alone. Didion studied Hemingway and I copy them both; we join the web of authors and books and artists and creations who do care and did care, those who mimic and will one day be mimicked themselves. No artist stands in solitude. The life of the author at the time and place she puts pen to paper matters just as much as the life of the reader at the time she opens the book at random, and a connection between them is formed, a continuum of people who have that predilection for the extreme, a tradition of those who believe in extravagance, who realize they could just play the organ to drown out the wind but choose to let it whip through them even if they don’t know why, and they stretch their hands down to hoist the next members up, inviting them into the white spaces.
So that breeze, or gust, or hurricane comes and we sway on the edge but we don’t fall, not today, at least, not yet. Mainly because we already know the most important thing there is to know, and we have known it all along: the Indians will be hostile, there will always be snakes to avoid. So we stop whining and we start writing.
This part is difficult. The notes I took in no obvious or attentive manner throughout the month of February are strewn across flashcards stuck in the seven books at random, used as bookmarks. It would have been wise to keep track of specific articles, interviews, or page numbers, or at least book titles next to each note, but I did not. All the information I am pulling from came from one of the following:
Play It As It Lays
Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Let Me Tell You What I Mean
The White Album
After Henry (only half I’m sorry to say - February is too short)
The Year of Magical Thinking
A few interviews on Youtube
Many articles in the New Yorker
The 2017 Netflix Documentary, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold
Hopefully no one gets upset that I cannot be more specific than that.
- Emily Menges