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Slouching Towards Reality: My Summer with Joan Didion

I discovered Didion when I was putting off writing. Not putting off being a writer, but the actual doing of the thing. Instead, I rewatched a documentary on Didion. And then, because it nudged me closer to the center she’d said was not holding, I searched #joandidion on Instagram and found a book club.

First I was drawn to Joan for reasons many women are. She’s cool, thin, sexy without trying, and so damn smart. She could write a piece not just down to the word count, but the character count. Her packing list included bourbon and aspirin. In pictures she is poised with a cigarette, confident as ever. She used to start the day with a cold bottle of Coke and a can of salted almonds.

But then I was drawn to her because by telling the truth, she infused feeling in her writing. Didion revealed the injustice of the Central Park jogger case and the ridiculousness of Nancy Reagan pretending to pick roses for a television crew. She taught me if you reported the facts, you didn’t need big, emotional words, or even adjectives. Instead of explicitly writing what you felt about what happened, you could just write what happened. If you wrote with enough details and sources, readers would know how you felt. Then, at the end you could surprise them, “tricking the reader into listening to the dream.”

I love emotional language. But in that summer’s storm of fake news and disregard for science (the pandemic, climate change…) Didion’s style calmed me. I learned there was even a name for it: literary journalism. The meeting of feeling and fact. The space I wanted to live in. Didion circled the drain to the story and once there, stood with us on the edge. Taunted us with the dangerous truth and then drew us back with her own discomfort: “bad nerves” and “a lost conviction that lights would always turn green for me.”

I played a game with myself, silently chuckling each time she wrote “It had (or had not) occurred to me…” It occurred to me that walking in air “unhealthy for sensitive groups” while listening to an audiobook of Didion desponding the death of her daughter was perhaps not the most uplifting thing I could do. But I wanted her to take me to the truth. Fall right into that center, even if it would not hold.

Everything I know about El Salvador, Iran Contra, and Michael Dukakis I learned from Joan Didion. But even this isn’t much, because when you start to read writers who share the unclouded truth, as Didion does, there’s always more to know.

In my favorite piece she writes, “We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for divorce.” When asked if her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, read that line she answered, “He edited it.”

That is why we tell ourselves stories (“in order to live”) and why I write them: To follow the spiral to a truth so worth telling not even a fragile marriage could fall through its center.

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