Who: Joan Didion
Where: New York Public Library
When: Monday, November 21, 2011
Why: Recounting my last literary adventure, I wrote of how David Sedaris piqued my interest in creative nonfiction. Once you enter that genre, it doesn’t take long to run into Joan Didion. Her work is mountainous – talked about with reverence by writers, recommended constantly by those who’ve read her. The essay topics range from politics to migraines to waiting for Jim Morrison to show up at the recording studio in the ‘60s. There is wry humor and details that make the pieces pop and perfect pacing and endless superlatives that I could lay at her insanely talented feet. But when I think of Joan Didion’s writing – I think of her writing. She wields words with a surgeon’s precision. Or maybe she’s more of a magician – getting the reader to look one way and then realize we’ve been led the entire time.
Magician, surgeon, whatever metaphor you want – she is one of the most brilliant writers alive and I was beyond thrilled to see her speak at the New York Public Library. Interviewed by Sloane Crosley, a young humor essayist, Didion was witty, honest, thoughtful, sometimes abrupt, and a total badass.
Didion just released Blue Nights, what she refers to as “an extended essay” on the death of her daughter Quintana Roo. This book follows The Year of Magical Thinking, a work chronicling the year after her husband’s death. Going into the room, I was expecting to be thoroughly depressed by the evening’s end. While the context wasn’t shied away from, I think the choice of Sloane Crosley helped keep the conversation about the writing aspect. Also, Didion shares enough of herself in her work so I doubt she wants to rehash the details in person. The only reading she did was a brief yet funny passage from the newest book in which she describes swallowing a very small camera.
This sprung from Crosley stating that people don’t seem to notice how funny Didion is, to which Didion replies that the humor “makes them uncomfortable [because the subject] embarrasses them.” Crosley also suggested that it’s because of the content (especially of the recent works) – people aren’t expecting humor so they don’t find it. But hearing Didion speak, her dry wit is readily apparent. While she didn’t have the audience crying with laughter like Mr. Sedaris, she garnered many laughs in response to her replies. Crosley was talking about the play based on The Year of Magical Thinking and being struck by one line. She asked Didion if she remembered it, to which she responded “I wrote it.”
She also administered some advice. Namely – you should drink before you edit your own work. It helps loosen you up. And as a writer, you should be writing -“whether or not someone is going to publish it, you can always write it.” Finally, always be observing and listening. She told of how one piece of overheard dialogue was the key to knowing “I had that book.”
One aspect that I loved was how Joan Didion did not waste time answering questions she didn’t want to. Or expand upon them in more than a yes or no fashion. Crosley asked her if she ever follows the trend pieces on what it means to be a women’s writer. Didion just said no. (Her work speaks for itself on what is possible for “women writers” in that we are writers). During the question and answer, some girl got up and tried to impress the audience by pulling out a Russian word from Nabokov. She asked if Joan Didion thought it could be applied to Blue Nights – she basically said no, not really and moved onto the next question.
Because she didn’t get bogged down in meaningless questions, the most fleshed out responses were those about the craft of writing. I don’t even want to couch it in my own constructions – I am tempted to type out a transcript of her words as I recall them. One of the most interesting insights is that she hates the term “memoir.” This surprised me as her book is labeled as such right on the back cover. She prefers to think of the past two works as “an extended essay… memoir seems a little soft to me. There are no facts in the word.” Reading her works, soft is the last word on my mind so I can understand the aversion to the term.
As her two most recent works are about the deaths of loved ones and are book length, people tend to group them together. Crosley even asked if Didion considered these to be companion pieces. The response was a firm no, saying “I think they’re totally different. The style is so different. Style to some extent is everything for me. These are such a different style; they work differently. I say that as a writer.” Reading her work, the intent has always struck me as being incredibly clear. She knows exactly what she is doing with her words.
Even if these two books are stylistically different, with different intent, the content is still incredibly painful and personal for her. This theme reoccurred throughout the conversation, and one thing she said made me blink furiously. Blue Nights was something she almost gave up on, but it wasn’t because it was too painful. She said “I didn’t think I could finish it because I wasn’t getting it right.” This did seem a little cold, but she explained further, saying “the work you’re doing is at some level separate from your life. It’s different. So you don’t feel, you can hold those two ideas…. you can hold those ideas without breaking up.” Meaning she can have both the brutal loss and the ability to write about it. Crosley tossed in the term catharsis, and Joan Didion said, “there is no catharsis for what they’re about.”
There is no catharsis. She just blew my mind and now I am trying not to cry in the New York Public Library. There are yuppies and hipsters everywhere and I am wearing too much mascara to cry. Seriously – people always blather on about writing it out, get your thoughts on paper. It will help heal you. I think Joan Didion is the first person I’ve ever heard call bullshit on the catharsis lie.
A young man asked her to expound upon this during the question and answer. His mom had died and he then read Magical Thinking. He spoke of the elegance in the book and asked her how she is able to write about such tragedies. “Because it’s something that happened. I want to understand it. In order to understand it I have to write about it.” He asked her if, upon finishing, “do you have that understanding you’re looking for?
She looked at him and said, “No. But you’re closer to it.”
Even if it seems futile or too hard or without purpose, you’ve got to try. Despite all of the terrible things and doubt that have plagued Joan Didion, I didn’t walk away nearly as depressed as I thought I would. The attempt at understanding through writing speaks of a human resiliency that is not easily extinguished. Or maybe I’m slipping into sentimentality; my own sort of blue night where “you think the end of day will never come.”