I’ve been revisiting Joan Didion lately—as have a lot of people, I guess. At first I didn’t understand why, and I’m still not completely sure. I’d read her early work back in the day, Slouching Toward Bethlehem (essays) and Play it as it Lays (novel) and The White Album (more essays). I was impressed by her writing and fascinated by the stories she told, but wasn’t sure what to make of it all.
There is a resurgence of interest in her now, a new book (haven’t read it yet) and a documentary on Netflix (not great, but pretty good). I guess what caught my eye this time was one of her famous quotes being endlessly repeated: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I believe that more and more, and yet less and less do I think it is a good way to live—since it also seems true to me that we tell ourselves stories to distract ourselves from what’s actually going on, and if that’s what it takes to live, well, that’s a pretty dismal view of life.
So I started re-reading the early essays, and the writing is more astonishing than I remembered—and the message more obscure as well. Pellucid, jarring, elegantly crafted descriptions that leave me more baffled than ever about what I was just looking at.
So why is it somehow important to me to keep going back to her, rather than putting her on the shelf and moving on? Today someone quoted a bit of “The White Album” (the essay) and now maybe I get it.
We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.
Aha. This is the trap that mindfulness meditation is trying to escape, to set aside the narratives and see things as they actually are. No surprise that what you end up seeing is unrecognizable, and baffling. But keep looking.
This is a pretty good take on what Didion may be trying to do in her writing. And the Netflix documentary is worth 90 minutes of your time, if for no other reason that the filmmaker was family (nephew Griffin Dunne) and she is way more comfortable and frank with him than in the usual interview. Also—and this may sound weird—Didion is a remarkable physical specimen, fascinating to watch. She is in her early 80s, weighs almost nothing, veins bulging on nearly fleshless arms. Still sharp as a tack. Hands gesturing in the air as she talks, but with no relationship I could discern to the words she is saying. Absolutely without pretense. Not at all the sort of weird I expected—but still weird, just a very different sort.