Friday, November 18, 2011

On Reading, Recommending, and Being in a Room With Joan Didion

When I was fifteen years old and a reluctant new resident of California, my favorite teacher put a warm photocopy of Joan Didion's essay Los Angeles Notebook in my hands. The essay is Didion's psychological inquiry into the phenomenon that is the Santa Ana winds, which were blowing (wafting, careening) through Southern California at the time. The piece, in stunning, precise, aching language, stated something that I deeply felt: these winds make people totally nuts. But it meant something more to me, too -- that this place that seemed like an amorphous sprawl of cloudless 70 degree days did in fact have some extremity to its climate, a collective lore, and for lack of a better term, a soul. I wrote an essay about that essay, probably pretending to do so begrudgingly but secretly thrilled and electrified by the opportunity to pick up and examine each piece of the language. My relationships with the winds, with California, with reading and with writing were never quite the same.

Ten years later, nearly to the week, I was lucky enough to hear Didion speak as part of the City Arts and Lectures series at the Herbst Theater on Tuesday night. I had read more of Didion's writing in the last 10 years -- mostly her essays, though I also spent a strange weekend with The Year of Magical Thinking, her memoir about the sudden and unrelated losses of both her husband and daughter (a difficult book to make it through, though I didn't realize quite why until she offered one explanation to the theater the other night -- "the sentences in that book don't track" she said, an effect she said was inadvertent and makes it hard for her to read them herself now, but which of course mirrors the way dealing with grief is like a constant strain to get from one feeling to the next, a clumsy armful of moments). But I hadn't given a whole lot of thought to the significance of her early influence on my reading, writing, and psyche until on a whim I gave my brother a copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem -- the collection that houses Los Angeles Notebook -- for Christmas last year. He was 18, had just moved away from California. It seemed timely. Since then, at the wise suggestion of a coworker who found me huddled in a corner re-reading the book when I was supposed to be shelving it, I've put Slouching Towards Bethlehem on our Staff Picks display -- and every time I see it sold, I hope it's been given as a gift.

(An equally timely digression: one of the best things about giving a beloved book as a gift is that the recipient is sort of obligated to have a conversation with you about it at some point, so the book is given back to you in the form of their re-telling. In this case, I was pleasantly surprised to get the call from my brother expressly to say that he loved it, and even more surprised that the essay he had latched on to -- On Self Respect -- was one I had practically forgotten was in the collection. I re-read it immediately, tickled and a little humbled by the rediscovery and the fact that it was my kid brother who'd pointed me to it.)

When Didion walked on stage at the Herbst theater, it all seemed to come together: that stapled printer paper that both justified my California malaise and forced me to examine it, the satisfaction of putting it in someone's hands to whom it might matter, the culmination of a decade of reading and writing in California that wouldn't have been the same without the tiny person on the stage below (she's really tiny).

Now that I've come to the part where I intended to recount key points of the talk, I feel it slipping from my grasp. Which is fitting: when talking about why she had turned down a request to do an interview for a blog speculating about the political future of our state earlier that day, she said that, not having written speculatively on the subject before, she feared it would be an incomplete thought -- "but that," she said "is the nature of a blog, I suppose" (zing!). In addition to reading from and speaking to her newest book, Blue Nights, she spoke matter-of-factly about when she doubts her own abilities as a writer ("every day") what makes a good relationship with an editor ("they think you're just wonderful") and ended every answer during the Q&A portion with the wry challenge "anyone else?"

But the part that stood out the most to me was her response to a question about what she hopes students get out of her work when assigned to read it in class. I scooted to the edge of my seat. "I don't know what they get out of it," she said. "I hope they get a sense of the possibility of language to tell the story all by itself."

Yup, Joan. That's what I got.

"Anyone else?"

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