Upon Reading Her Books

I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be whether we find them attractive company or not.  Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 A.M. on a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.  We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.
                                                                       --Joan Didion (on keeping a notebook)
                                                                         "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" (1968)

Joan Didion with typewriter--  Brentwood, 1988. Photo by Nancy Elison

Joan Didion with typewriter--  Brentwood, 1988. Photo by Nancy Elison

Recently my daughter surprised me with a box of my old notebooks which had been stored for decades in the attic of her childhood home.  I was gobsmacked to discover an enormous number of diaries, yellow pads, journals, calendars, artist’s sketchbooks and single pages dating back to years before I married her father or she was born. But here was the body of proof: prima facie (“on first look”) evidence of the girl I left behind.  In those days I was working as a legal secretary by day and aspiring writer by night, burning the candle at both ends because I was in my twenties and could, which explains why there are so many Latin legal terms jotted in the margins of my memories.

However, for all the experiences I was convinced I wouldn’t survive (survival is a theme writ large during one’s twenties) here I still am and gratefully so.  As for all those heartbreaking leaps in the dark, romantic obsessions and daring misalliances, the majority of them have faded in their passionate intensity, leaving only such literary reference notes as a git lower than whale-shite on the bottom of the ocean and His knuckles scraped upon the sidewalk as he tried to walk upright… wisdom gleaned, no doubt, after a few evenings of Margaritas and nachos with sympathetic girlfriends.  Other life experiences left behind reluctant ragged edged lessons or losses so deep they’ve scarred over and I’m not going back there again.

Nevertheless, those scribbled passages I did managed to lasso and rope to the page bring me curious wonder.  One declaration, in particular, from Saturday, March 29, 1976, could be just fluky coincidence, ornery stubbornness or mysterious clairvoyance, an art I had not yet realized was in my personal bag of tricks:

“I have decided to take radical complete control of my life and go after what it is I want. This year I want to write.

 And that, as they say, was all she did, from that day forward.  Write.


But I didn’t become a writer on that day, because declaring to the Universe your intention and wishing to be a writer is not the same as completing a project and becoming one. A writer is someone who completes the act of writing: a poem, play, short story, novella, novel, non-fiction narrative, biography, essay, script, feature article, a blog post.  One really bad page.  A terrible paragraph.  Even a sentence.  Heaven knows, I’ve spent more time than I can even remember working an entire day on one sentence: putting a comma in during the morning, then taking it out in the afternoon. (Thank you, Oscar Wilde).  It doesn’t matter whether you get paid or not—paid, of course, is preferable—but that’s not going to happen for a long time, so you need to accept it, hence the legal secretary’s gig. In the beginning you’ll have to do a lot of work “on spec”, (which means the editor is a bit interested in the idea, so write it on your own dime and then we’ll see what comes of it).  What matters is that you do it. Write.  Show up on the page and keep a disciplined schedule so the Muse knows where to find you.  Then, finish the damn thing, whatever it is. Turn it in and begin another. 

The dreamer keeping this notebook tells me: “I have the following goals. To finish my play on Bernhardt, to write “Mock Memoirs,” to write at least the first draft of the Irish novel and to earn at least a living wage from writing.”  I love this Swell Dame’s moxie, although she hasn’t a clue yet about the discrepancy between Chronos and Kairos, earth’s time and Divine dispatch.  God knows I wish I’d understood this spiritual truth earlier because it would have made things easier. Or I think it would, at any rate.  However, she will learn her way, the hard way, the long way, the only way she knows how, on her knees beseeching, Writers Tears on her lips and down her cheeks and falling asleep over the pink typewriter, which explains the black carbon crease on her forehead in the morning.

Still, when she does finally take a backward glance,  all the hard scrapple years of naïveté, disappointments, detours, wrong choices, bad timing, bungled efforts; all the threadbare years of struggle, loneliness, failure, second guessing and despair it took to get her to the right moment at the right time  (a publisher’s “Yes” after 30 rejections, 5 years work, and a whopping advance of $22,000), it will only seem like a blink of an eye because she has truly discovered, as you will too, that success only comes after striving and struggling, even in the dictionary.

However, forty years later, I can report the results:  She did finish and have produced her one woman show on Sarah Bernhardt entitled Quand Même, the famous 19th Century French actress’s favorite retort because it suited any situation such as “Even thoughReally? Despite.” The play ran for a month but was so viciously panned the playwright couldn’t get out of bed for a fortnight.

The first draft of the Irish novel on yellowing, curled foolscap from the Dark Ages, with its one carbon paper copy is in a file cabinet on the way to me from England. Let’s hope that like the original Queen of Denial, Cleopatra, age has not withered, nor custom staled her infinite “perhapsability.”  I vaguely recall abandoning that one when I ran out of rent money and had to pawn that gorgeous pink typewriter. 


Regretfully, I haven’t a clue what “Mock Memoirs” is or was, but it sounds like a delicious romp, so let’s dwell in grateful possibility. But finally, the most difficult and harrowing lesson of them all: it would take her 20 years to achieve the last goal of 1976, to be able to earn a living as a writer.

I’m so grateful that Heaven operates on a “Need to Know” basis. It’s one of life’s most overlooked blessings.

Still, the question that fascinates me today is how did she do it? How did she become a writer? And why did she become a writer? She certainly had no inclination to do so. The woman I’m on nodding acquaintance with wanted to be an actress.  She didn’t go to college. Her Mother forced her to attend secretarial school to become employable while she took acting lessons.  She couldn’t find steady work as an actress in New York.  So she went to London to act.  But the only job she could get was as a secretary for an American producer trying to rebuild Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. When that job ended she needed another quickly so she answered an ad for a fashion copywriter, created a portfolio over a weekend and walked out of the interview with the job on Monday, feeling like she’d pulled a fast one.  That Swell Dame had charm, she had cheek, she had pluck but she was incredibly shy and the bravado was all show, as her natural inclination was solitary, even reclusive.  I guess I could act after all and so I lived in London, Paris and Ireland for another three years writing about fashion and beginning my play on Sarah Bernhardt.  

Eventually she came back home and she taught herself to write by reading and studying the most incredible woman writer of her generation, the incomparable and incandescent Joan Didion.   

Joan Didion burst on the scene in 1968 when her first book of essays written for magazines were collected into an anthology called Slouching Towards Bethlehem.  This was during the heady days of “New Journalism”—the American literary movement that pushed the boundaries between what journalism had been and what non-fiction could be.  It combined the research of journalism with literary technique and narrative storytelling.

Tom Wolfe coined the phrase (author of The Right Stuff and Bonfires of the Vanities), Truman Capote copied it (In Cold Blood) and Gay Talese’s elegant prose cemented the genre in his blockbuster The Kingdom and the Power about the New York Times where he had worked for 12 years as a journalist.

But Joan Didion.  Joan Didion was revelatory. Joan Didion was unlike anyone I had ever read before or since; she was more a composer creating arias or an illusionist performing sleight of hand magic than a mere journalist using words instead of mystical incantations. The emotional tension inherent in her sentences suspends the reader on a tightrope of tenacity, intrigue and innuendo. If any writer has ever lived between the lines of her work, it’s Didion who creates a cozy, confidential, even conspiratorial sojourn with her reader, hinting at self-revelation without the slightest intention of disclosing anything whatsoever.  Yet what she does reveal is breath gasping in its piercing honesty that stops you in your tracks.  As you shake your head and read that paragraph again to make sure she just said what she wrote, suddenly, like a phantom she’s vanished, leaving behind an intoxicating aura in her wake; disappearing in a fragrant fog of unforgettable poetry that's prose. 


And therein lies the magic. The alchemy. You read Joan Didion and somehow you believe you are reading about yourself. 

Just the memory of reading her for the first time while sitting at the bar in a Capitol Hill hangout, the Jenkins Hill Saloon and the flush of excitement she triggered all floods back.  Usually, my Sunday ritual was reading the Sunday New York Times at the bar with two Bloody Marys and Eggs Benedict and then home to a nap.  (I really knew how to treat my girl good back then).  But that Sunday, at the bookstore where I picked up my papers, I caught a glimpse of a book called Slouching Towards Bethlehem. The cover was rather psychedelic and I was most definitely not a flower child, but any book that borrows lines from W.B. Yeats for its title is by a writer I want to know.  And then I read:

“Once, in a dry season I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself…The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others—who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation, which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, is something people with courage can do without…That kind of self-respect is a discipline, a habit of mind that can never be faked but can be developed, trained, coaxed forth.

Joan Didion taught me the meaning of the Latin verb Vocare – to answer a call, which usually describes life in a religious order but also means to hear or recognize “a Voice.”  This Voice is distinct and like no other. It invites you to follow it. To peek around the corner of your life or open an old notebook with a stain on its cover or to starting taking notes.  Reading her was effortless, which means, of course, that she worked harder than any other writer in the world.  Writing is not supposed to show.  You’re not supposed to see the brushstrokes on the canvas.  Like Sherlock Holmes’ admiration for the beautiful, mysterious adventuress Iréne Adler, always and simply known as the Woman as revealed in A Scandal in Bohemia, Joan Didion became the Writer to me. I wanted to learn how to write, not like Joan Didion, but like Sarah Ban Breathnach. 

Joan in 1977. Photo by Jill Krementz

Joan in 1977. Photo by Jill Krementz

After winning Vogue’s famed and prestigious Prix de Paris essay contest in 1956 (which promised college seniors a shot at winning a week in Paris and an entry level job at Vogue), Joan Didion began her writing career on the bottom rung, at 21 writing fashion promotional copy.   

In the marvelous Netflix documentary "Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold” directed by her nephew Griffin Dunne, we get to see the woman behind the half century of her work.  The entire film is such a wondrous experience, but I’ll just recount Joan’s anecdote about working with her Vogue editor Allene Talmey, who would go through her copy with violent slashes, a huge aquamarine knuckle ring sparking like flint against a rock as her pencil raced across the page, crossing out and calling for “Action verbs! Action verbs!” and then Talmey’s trick of asking Didion for a 350 word paragraph on something, only to tell the young writer when she turned it in, to now cut it down to 50 words.  I couldn’t stop laughing because I’ve had some harsh editorial episodes like that in my career and it all comes back to you—but you really do learn how to write.  A few years later, the understudy will get her big break, when a cover story article commissioned by Vogue from another writer isn’t turned in but the cover is already set. Joan is asked to write in 48 hours an essay called “Self-Respect: It’s Source, Its Power” and down to the character count allotted she pulls off this enormous feat like the stunning star she truly is with panache, verve, style and piercing insight.

Even though in the documentary the Self-Respect essay (August 1961) is cited as Didion’s first Vogue break, it’s really her second.  My favorite part of writing is research, and I heard a whisper on the internet that Didion had written a cover story on Jealousy: Is It a Curable Illness (June 1961) so I searched and finally found a copy on eBay.  Life often makes one feel like the poor oyster with a piece of irritating grit instead of grace, but discovering a Joan Didion’s lost pearl is worth the price.

Vogue, June 1961

Vogue, June 1961

Cover of "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," the book that started it all

Cover of "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," the book that started it all

As to my original thought for this reflection: on notebooks,  learning how to write and upon reading her books.  Here’s what I did.  I recognized a distinct voice in Joan Didion, which was music to my ears. I realized that music is the mathematics of the spheres.   So I would write down a paragraph and then copy it as if I was learning to write for the first time. Joan Didion confesses that Ernest Hemingway taught her how to write a true sentence.  We all learn from someone else.  We’re all taught.  We are never alone as long as we can find beauty and truth in the amazing, astonishing combinations of only 26 letters. Think of that for a moment:  only 26 letters and what we can do with them.  The wonder of it all.  The magic and the majesty. We are our own Code-breakers.  We are our own ciphers seeking our authentic selves.

Copy book after copy book, I wrote out her words in my hand, hearing the cadence, the melody, the harmonies. Feeling the rhythm. The intake of breath, the exhalation.  I read her out loud. I heard her music. And then I began writing/composing my own words/musical notes.  Gradually, I discovered my own beat.  I fell in love with the words; I read dictionaries for pleasure. And by the time I began writing Simple Abundance a decade later, I had found my own voice.  No longer a copy or an imitation but now an adagio of solace, one singular sensation, a solo for soul and pen.  Why do I write?   To find out what I think and feel and know.  To lay it all on the line, all of the time. Because the Great Creator loves a page-turner.  And when I do that, read it aloud, I notice that a chord might be missing, so then the rewrites begin, over and over again until it makes me cry tears of joy, surrender, acknowledgement, gratitude. Sheer delight.  For at long last, finally, I have found her.  I found the woman I’ve been searching for my entire life. She tells me stories of where we've been and where we're now going--the Territory Up Ahead.  I am not alone.   She promises she'll always be with me on the page and to keep us company, Joan Didion will be in my pocket.

Joan in Vogue, September 2005. Photo by   Annie Leibovitz

Joan in Vogue, September 2005. Photo by Annie Leibovitz

Thank you dearest Joan Didion for the gift of your unfathomable grace.

More notebooks to go through Babe, and more of my favorite women writers to recommend on our journey to Wholeness.  Because if you read her once, you will love reading her again.

Sending dearest love and always blessings on your courage,