Like many of her fans, I was excited to hear about the release of a Netflix documentary chronicling the life of Joan Didion and quickly blocked off the release date in my calendar.
My first memories of Joan Didion and her writing were early on - in a family of NOT readers, I loved that my maternal grandparents had a room in the home they'd built that was referred to as their "library." And that's exactly what it was - an entire room, with the best view in the center of the house with built-in bookcases made by my grandfather. The wood panel walls made the room cool and dark, even on the hottest summer days and even though much of their reading choices felt too stodgy and heavy for my taste, it was my favorite room to spend an entire day, nibbling on snacks, futzing with the record player and riffling through drawers of the desk they shared.
Their collection was just as eclectic as their other interests; gardening, photography, Lady Di, cartography, mysteries. Occasionally I'd forego thumbing through the more interesting looking heavy volumes and pull a random, slim paperback from the shelves. I still remember the times that I grabbed one of Joan Didion's books. The covers did not interest me - too abstract, too drab but on many of the covers, there she was. Joan. She stared back, unflinching and intent, sometimes managing to be so with her eyes hidden behind sunglasses. In this staring contest, I always lost. This woman, so unlike any other that I knew, drew me in and over time I began to read the bios and eventually snippets of the books here and there. Even as a fourth grader determined to someday be a writer, I only had to do a quick assessment (fluorescent geometric sweatshirt with a spot of spray cheese, permed hair and paint splattered Cons) to come to the conclusion that not only would I never be a writer like Joan Didion, I would never be a woman like Joan Didion.
In the years that followed I proved my premonition to be correct and I became what I can only describe as a Silly Girl. I belted out Whitney Houston songs with everything I had into my bedroom mirror, I stopped reading the rich, challenging books my grandparents had recommended in favor of Sweet Valley High and The Baby-Sitters Club, all full of simple plots and dialogue dripping with a heady combination of saccharine and banality. I passed notes and obsessed over aloof, uninteresting boys and essentially lost myself in a world isolated from reality. Even by junior high, when I was reading Didion's books as an aspiring writer I was definitely not thinking about emulating Joan Didion.
By the time I popped up for air I was confronted with some starting realizations: although I had been vaguely aware of my transformation to a Silly Girl, my life was fraught with problems that were not funny at all. In the couple of years that followed I didn't really think much about meeting the writers and artists I had assumed I'd someday call colleagues or mentors and I now consider it one of the mind's greatest self-defense mechanisms, the psyche's version of adrenaline, to not allow me to consider what my ignorance and complacency had cost me. I no longer thought about what I'd say to Joan Didion, which would have amounted to something along the lines of, "I'm a huge fan! Three months ago I was an aspiring writer in my senior year on the Honor Roll, now I'm a drop out working in multiple coffee shops who occasionally has to sleep in my car." I don't think Joan would have been able to relate. It was easier to just keep moving in the direction I imagined to be vaguely "forward" and forget about what had almost been.
In my early-twenties I was starting to defrost a bit and picked up someone else's dog-eared copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem (my personal favorite) at a used book store. Mine had been abandoned somewhere along the way and I hadn't really thought of it until I'd spotted a copy tucked deep in the stacks. Muscle memory helped me flip right to "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream" and it was just as I remembered it. Joan's voice came through resolute and trustworthy, her signature blend of curiosity and detachment coursing through each sentence. I found that trying to read the title selection, "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," about San Francisco in 1967 sent a cold shiver down my spine. I was growing up, becoming empathetic, and the stories of others' misfortune, especially those involving children, struck a chord. I bought the book and was, once again, firmly under the spell of Joan Didion.
From then on I wore my appreciation openly, commenting to boyfriends that I was a "Didion fan" when we passed her books and then, seeing their confused looks, went on to explain why she was significant, which selections I thought they would like best. I also found myself in the company of those who, upon learning that I was familiar with her work, gave a look of smug approval and I started to notice that those who bowed down at the altar of Joan Didion were often the kind of women who, unlike me, still held out hope of one day becoming her. And what, exactly, was it about her? Her coolness, both in the sense of style and temperament? Her intellect? Her ability to find the kind of juicy, dangerous material usually reserved for men? The way she could take her subject, roll it around in her hands like a jumbled Rubik's Cube then, just when you were sure she had no hope of solving it she would flatly pass it back to you, the mystery solved like neat little colored squares, all in a row. I think Joan answered the question best in an interview with New York Magazine when she said, "I don't lead a writer's life. And I think that can be a source of suspicion and irritation to some people." In the piece, Joan was speaking about her life's conventional core but I think she also leads a very non-scholarly life by way of it's apparent glamour. A simple Google search will turn up a treasure of photos of Joan (chin out slightly, eyes fixed right into yours, shoulders squared) that give the presence of a Hollywood icon, not someone with a pencil tucked behind her ear, ink stained fingers clacking away at a typewriter. If there's a photo of Bob Woodward perched on the hood of a Stingray, I've yet to see it.
It wasn't until I read The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion's book about the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne and the illness of her daughter, Quintana, that I realized I had been reading Didion's work all wrong. I had started with her non-fiction pieces and when Joan commanded that we pay attention to what the subjects said (or didn't say), I obeyed. She ran us through the facts, she did her homework, she got to the bottom of the thing. And so I followed along in her detachment, looking only at what she put in front of me. I had so long ago dismissed being a fan girl of Joan Didion the person that I looked only at the final product, the work itself. And The Year of Magical Thinking was different. I read it as a wife and a mother, as a person who has already arrived where they are going, not someone on their way. I looked around at my own life and felt like any chance of soaking up some of her genius by osmosis was really, truly gone and I was suddenly the Silly Girl all over again because I hadn't realized I'd still been holding out hope.
Once I saw Joan Didion as a person again, my assessment changed. I started to think more about what her actual life must have been like, the kinds of fights that can only be had between two creatives who share every aspect of their personal and professional lives in close quarters. The stress that parenthood can bring for any mother. The way that alcohol and excess can act as lighter fluid for tensions and hot temperaments. There may have been glamorous experiences, but no, there was no glamour.
We asked Joan Didion to be the women who went into the room to get the story on our behalf. We asked that she ignore a lot of what went on, that she be unflappable, that she be detached and distant. And so she was all those things, even when the story was her own. So read Joan Didion's work whichever way suits you, as an appreciator of the writer or a fan of the woman because I can vouch that there is value in both.
"To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves - there lies the great, singular power of self-respect." - Joan Didion
When Everything Changes by Jonathan Van Meter, NY Mag
Didion & Dunne: The Rewards of a Literary Marriage by Leslie Garis, The New York Times
How Joan Didion the Writer Became Joan Didion the Legend by Lili Anolik, Vanity Fair
Joan Didion Is Ready for Her Close-Up by Dana Spiotta, Vogue
The Year of Magical Thinking