A Tribute to Joan Didion: Sifting Out Who We Aren’t to Confirm Who We Are
It was three weeks ago that Joan Didion died. Three weeks ago when our world — the world of writers, readers, dreamers, do-gooders, no-goods, the breezy California and the gritty New York, the dusty states and towns, the roads in-between. The world of new wanderers, old Americans, those desperately and infuriatingly lost, those experiencing devastating and infuriating loss, and then those hoping to just experience anything; feel a feeling, move or be moved in any detectable way — these worlds of these people, us, we were hit where it counts.
Whichever world we’ve been inhabiting, we have been doing so while in dire need of a guide, a sort of compass or map, to pull out in an attempt to assuage the fear which tends to seep and soak with all that it’s got.
Joan wasn’t just a point on our maps or a coordinate to shoot for. She was the legend. The scale. The veins of water. She was every circled star reminding us that, in fact, we are here. Joan Didion was our map entirely.
I first heard her name when I was 19, in a Critical Thinking and Writing course I was taking in Brooklyn. Our class was assigned a handful of essays from her monumental collection “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” As a group, we were cracked wide open. I remember my baby self being astounded by what we’d read, our sets of wide eyes seeming to unanimously say, ‘But I didn’t know! I didn’t know things could be like this!’
I imagine toddlers eating their first taste of cake having a similar sentiment. As I’ve recently gone back through that essay collection, I’m now almost surprised we were so impacted. Not because the writing doesn’t hold up — the shelf-life of Didion’s work is one with no expiration date. But rather, I’d forgotten the challenge her writing provides — the heavy-hitting vocabulary, the intricately and impeccably laced sentences laden with references of both major and minor weight, places and locations in different shades of limelight, known and unknown events in American history, or maybe just Joan history.
Oftentimes, the names she squeezed in were done with such nonchalance I wondered if only they were known to her, if they were a neighbor or an aunt, a cashier she met once and never again. In other words, Didion’s writing requires the reader to work. It demands us to slow down. Her words need to be steeped.
Expecting an easy pour-over to provide anything rich or robust or lingering is a far cry from reasonable. So again, I wonder what our green-reader minds were taking in that first pass, in that first class. Were we understanding these essays? I’m certain we weren’t. But we were picking up on some frequency that rings and runs through all of Didion’s writing, one that will penetrate even the untrained ear. We knew it was special without understanding all the reasons why. We felt its weight, carried its importance with us long after we left that class, that school, that city. It was just the top layer of our first taste of cake.
I continued to read Joan Didion over the next decade, hopping from her novels to the essays, then over to the memoir. And while I found her books shattering, profound, the definition of impressive, it was how she thought of herself as a writer that read the most memorable. It made me feel like the way I have lived and live, my relationship with the pen, with language, was acceptable after all. When we read interviews with renowned authors, oftentimes they prattle on about how writing is their lifeblood. It is the passionate fever with which they are thrilled to be infected. And while it’s an incredible idea, an enviable one (I admit), it used to make me question my own connection to writing. If it wasn’t rooted in passion, was it as valid? If I wrote less frequently than a passionate writer, was I still a writer? Or was I just someone who writes on occasion? Am I simply talking about a hobby?
While these questions were originally my own, they were mirrored by the institution where I first started my studies. Fellow students told me I was probably in the wrong school, when I said I liked writing but also liked other things. The words “wrong path” were even used by one classmate. And so began a decade of jaggedly breaking away from writing. If I couldn’t do it the way I thought it was supposed to look, then I felt like I didn’t belong in the race at all.
I had spent many years thinking that who I am, who I was meant to be, was someone who just couldn’t make the cut. A lost someone who had a couple tricks in the bag, but not enough passion or direction to put them to use, not enough for a full set.
The power of suggestion is a power for a reason; I started to believe this idea so fiercely, I would tell anyone who would listen. And even anyone who wouldn’t. ‘I’m NOT a writer;’ If you’re thinking about all the energy it takes to campaign and soapbox, I can confirm; it’s exhausting. I wandered and tried things and hated things and gave up, over and over, and almost rarely took my own side.
I bounced around the country and took care of other people’s kids and restaurants and dogs and wondered if I would find a place for me. While I can’t credit Queen Joan entirely for shaking my brain still, her words on her own route have given me pause over and over, and then over again:
“During those years I was traveling on what I knew to be a very shaky passport, forged papers: I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was. Which was a writer.”
And just like that, I was stunned once more. ‘But I didn’t know. I didn’t know things could be like this.’
To read Joan Didion’s words on writing, on what being a writer could look like, has been crucial in cementing the rumblings and rumors that have made themselves at home in the back of my brain for the past 20 years. Joan was a sorceress on the page, but only admitted to simply showing up because she had to, because writing helped her make sense of things.
Her memoirs were crushing in a way that felt so good to feel, even when the feelings broke us.
Her reporting somehow carried such emotion that I would pour back over her sentences, trying to dissect the pieces to find the source, but never could. And I never will. Because that’s Didion’s magic power, and the literary world, all the worlds, were and are forever impacted.
I don’t pretend to put myself in any close proximity to this legend, of this scale, this untouchable ocean, but it is a true honor to find footing on the page knowing she was always doing the same.