“Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up. Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.”
– Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem
It’s nearly impossible not to look for signs of yourself in the things that you read—always, but especially when you’re a young girl working to patch together some kind of identity…that voice thing that everyone’s always referring to. Sometimes these glimpses are like a warm nudge, an “ah, yes” moment that’s not striking, but simply, a familiar reminder of what you already know you think—the scent of your favorite home-cooked meal in linguistic form. These moments are fairly common, given the endless experiences that capital-h Humanity shares and then puts words to.
But there’s a special strain—the phenomenon of which is heavier, usually sweet but harder to swallow—that is more rare. These are the sentences which stop you on the page, forcing you to look up or elicit actual noise, because a truth which you’ve played around with—sprinkled briefly on your tongue but never fully absorbed–has now been made entirely clear. You’ve been handed a thought which, in some sense, you already carried, though now it is free of ambiguity, and usually parsed in a way that you could never live up to. It’s a puzzle piece that you’ll hold on to, carrying it into your future with whatever else comprises who you are.
Joan Didion has given me many of these moments, and some of the most significant. It’s almost expected now that a young female writer idolize her, but I can’t deny it simply because it’s cliché. She may well be the Sylvia Plath (beloved, particularly, by seniors in high school and freshmen in college) of female twentysomethings, and well, so what. There’s a Didion world outside of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, one that’s less often explored by said-fan girls, but one that should be if the Joan picture is to be complete.
I was lucky…spoiled by my parent’s good taste—and I’m speaking strictly of books here (ok, that’s false humility, they’re pretty cool). My dad, especially, had all the original Didion greatest hits sitting on his shelves in their faded, simplistic covers (an unfortunately nostalgic style that Lena Dunham’s recent book cover takes cues from). The White Album, with its direct-from-the-flag colors of red, white and blue, practically pounced on me—that cover had an authority that the more obscure, small-font Nabokovs and Bretons lacked. It was about Los Angeles, to boot. I was dating somewhere who lived there, and, like anyone who’s in love for the first time, was hungry for any and all information even tangentially related to his life. The result was unexpected—truly unlike anything I’d read before—a seamless weaving of current events with memoir, facts with potential fictions, a soft-edged journalism that thrilled me.
It was a weird first choice from her repertoire—an asshole term, if there ever was one. I would eventually read Democracy, one of my favorites, over a gloomy summer during which I forced myself to read a book a day to ward off existential dread. I loved Inez (who was essentially a shadow of Joan herself), despite, or perhaps because of, her aloof characterization. Slouching, which is all essays, was read in France, and was so absorbing that I finished it in two days. Slyly and at the lowest volume, it turned many idealistic depictions of the sixties and seventies on their heads, rendering the supposed freedom and excitement of the time in a somewhat darker shade. It was transportative, a document of history, but one laced with eternal truths—realities still faced, day in and day out. Much of her writing, really, still feels contemporary. The Year of Magical Thinking, a more recent work, was a life raft for me the summer before I left for college, when my Grandfather was dying from cancer at a surreal speed before my eyes. It was my stepmom’s perpetually sullen face—usually cheery and unemotional—that stung me most. Everything that I could say felt—and probably was—useless, in light of her father dying. I didn’t fully understand her pain and I knew that—but this book helped.
Joan’s always giving me tools like that—helping me, always, to reframe, or occasionally escape (Play It As It Lays), when need be. Reading her work both takes me out of myself (to eras that would be otherwise unknown, or textbook-colored) and reminds me that my various neuroses are not unusual—that they’re okay. Writing is her fuel, and it eventually grew to be mine. Writing is her priority, sometimes to the detriment of other experience, and it is now, also, mine. She lived that, she is evidence that it can be done, that—despite the isolation, the over-thinking—it is worthwhile. She’s a kindred and an idol, a woman to learn from with a breadth of work to aspire to. She is always there asserting that, yes, Jessica, you should just keep going.