Events, Readers

Delve Seminar Summaries: The Nonfiction of Joan Didion

[by Patrick Findler]

Meeting 1

My fellow Delvers and I began our four-week exploration of Joan Didion by discussing our general impressions of her, gathered either from reading her works or from her public reputation. Some of us spoke of our “long love affair” with her, while to others she was just “part of the world,” or even a “mythical figure,” something unavoidable. She was praised as a “drop-dead stylist” and was characterized as having a “dark perspective.” For others, however, the experience of reading Didion was more personal: it sent one Delver “sliding right back into my childhood,” while another participant mentioned that a relative was reading her “to get to know Southern California.” Over and over again, the book Year of Magical Thinking was brought up as a focal point. Many of us had read it, either as an introduction to Didion or a way of rekindling our interest in her.

Our initial reading was the first half of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, which consists of essays that largely focus on individuals or small groups in the landscape of Southern California. Our Delve guide, Satya Byock, asked us to consider “How does Didion feel about the people in her essays?”

This question led us to a major theme we continually returned to: Many of us agreed that Didion’s characters were “hard to like,” or that the essays seemed to show a “slight disdain” for them; one of us went so far as to say that it was the landscape itself that functioned as the only character that Didion liked, not any of the humans. With the human characters, she appeared “engaged but detached” and performed a “tightrope act.” On this, we spoke about the degree to which we felt there was ironic sympathy for the subjects of her writing. We spoke of a “turn” or “twist” that many of us found in several of the essays—moments where Didion showed an element of sympathy with regard to a character previously treated with a kind of ironic disdain or even dislike. As one Delver noted, “Her sympathy sometimes takes you by surprise.”

We also spoke of the dream of California that seemed to be such a strong part of the essays we read and the idea that Didion was so often showing us the “underbelly of this dream.” When asked what this underbelly was, one of us thought it was “dread.”

Wondering what dreams Didion herself dreamt, we turned to the character of John Wayne, who of all the people presented in the first half of the book, seems to escape criticism. This was interesting to us as part of the myth Didion subscribed to. We reflected on the state of the country in the 1960s, at the time when Didion was writing. One of us spoke of the idealism about the United States that they grew up with around this time and how Didion seems to speak in another voice, taking a different stance in that time of illusion. This was echoed by another of us, who, referring to the cultural changes of the time, stated, “Everyone was reporting on this, but she gets underneath it.”

After having covered this ground, we closed our first seminar session with each of us reading aloud a single sentence that struck us, or a single line we thought was noteworthy, without context, one after another, forming a poem from this disconnected chain of Didion’s words.


Meeting 2

For our second meeting, we were treated to a special visit: Tracy Daugherty, the author of a new biography on Joan Didion, joined our group and answered our questions with humor, insight, and a command of Didion’s work that was both deep and wide, yet worn lightly.

We began by asking Daugherty what first interested him in Didion’s work. His answer was surprising but obvious in retrospect: He chose Didion, he said, because he wanted to see what gets a writer to turn raw material into art. Didion, he said, is very much the artist. We knew that Daugherty had been unable to get Didion’s permission to write the biography, and that Didion asked her friends and associates not to cooperate with him. Was that challenging?, we asked. It certainly was, he replied, but he knew when he started the project that Didion would be reluctant. And even though she wouldn’t cooperate, Daugherty said he got signals that she wouldn’t stop the book either. For instance, the photographer of the cover photo that Daugherty wanted would not allow it to be used without Didion’s explicit permission. Well, Daugherty thought, that’s that. I’ll never get permission. And then the photograph arrived one day. So it was clear to Daugherty that Didion was not standing in the way of his work.

We wanted to know a bit more about Daugherty’s experience writing the book. What inspired him? How did his views on Didion change through writing about her? What was the biggest surprise? We discovered that Didion’s writing holds special meaning for Daugherty: she is one of the writers who first made him want to write, from the moment he found The White Album in the late 1970s. It was her fragmented prose, jumping all over the place, that captured for him what life felt like. He had her voice in his head for decades, and he was inspired to learn how she did it. She wasn’t lying, exactly, but she was being very selective about what to put in and what to leave out. The biggest surprise for him was learning how deeply she was embedded in Hollywood; how much that culture influenced her surprised him. Finally, his respect for her as a writer grew because of her artistry. For those who say she leaves things out, he said, well, this is what an artist does.

This led us to wonder: Did he not think of Didion as an objective writer? He said he did not and that she never claimed to be one. She has long been a fan of underground presses, which don’t pretend to be objective. Daugherty believes Didion’s initial impulse, on the other hand, is to be a reporter. So for The Year of Magical Thinking, she is less a memoirist than a reporter, the difference being that she is not so much showing you her grief as reporting on it.

While on the topic of The Year of Magical Thinking, we wondered about Didion’s popularity, even celebrity. After all, she has such sophistication, she has money—how does it happen that she has such broad appeal? Tracy replied that her celebrity stunned him. He considered that her actual audience—those to whom her works really appeal—might be quite small and not reflected by her current celebrity status.

What about her ambition, we wondered, could he speak to that? Daugherty believes Didion is fiercely, ruthlessly ambitious. Her grandfather self-published books and her mother pushed books on her, so from that point of view she had early advantages as a writer. Daugherty does not believe Didion shares the feminist ideal of changing the world. She wants to be in the world as it is. She is a woman making it in a man’s world. Speaking of men and women, we asked if he

could he comment on her marriage? Daugherty said the early years were quite turbulent. Both Didion and her husband, John Dunne, were ambitious and competitive. This caused problems. They were both heavy drinkers. This also caused problems. But their marriage was a partnership. He was a great editor for her. They worked together. They often went places together, wrote together, and then decided who should write the book.

We asked Daugherty if he thought Didion was she religious. He said she doesn’t believe in a personal god or an existent soul, but she has mentioned that she thinks in geological terms, and that is what the phrase “world without end” means to her. She is interested in Zen Buddhism, not as a religious practice, but as endurance and an acceptance of suffering. She talks about spiritual practice in terms of daily rituals, cooking, and writing.

We wondered if being a woman in journalism added to Didion’s uniqueness. Daugherty shared that in the anthology The New Journalism, put together by Tom Wolfe in 1973, Didion is one of two women included. She was in a man’s world and very much aware of it. Most of her role models at the time were men (Hemingway, Mailer, etc.), and she had a complicated relationship with feminism. She thought: If it’s a man’s world, it’s a man’s world. This made us think of the essay on John Wayne in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, which we had found to be the least critical essay in the collection. Daugherty mentioned that this is a very unusual essay and a very important one. There is not a single ironic word in it. It gives not only her ideal of manhood, but also her ideal of womanhood—the pioneer spirit. We then wanted to know: Was her husband her masculine ideal, like Wayne or Hemingway? According to Daugherty, Dunne did fit a bit of the stereotype, but it’s hard to know about what happens between a couple, and the real love of Didion’s life may have come before Dunne—a man who was sort of a mentor to her, a hard-drinking writer.

As our time with Daugherty came to an end, we turned to broader questions. How did he feel about his work? He said his work would reflect the time in which it was written. For example, there are seven biographies about Willa Cather, and you can trace the development of mores as you follow these works out. The first is factual, very chronological. The second includes more detail about her personal life, which reflects a cultural shift; the personal became fair game to write about. Then there came feminist biographies and a biography discussing her sexuality. These works too reflect specific cultural moments, Daugherty said.

Daugherty’s final word to us summed up part of his thinking on Didion’s work: he said that in his opinion, all of Didion’s writing is ultimately about her daughter, Quintana.


Meeting 3

We began the third meeting of our delve into the works of Joan Didion by reflecting on our second, specifically the visit by Tracy Daugherty and our conversation with him. We spent some time appreciating him. We were amazed by his fluency and articulateness and his command of the material of Didion’s life. We found a close connection between our knowledge of Didion’s work and what we were able to learn from Daugherty’s biography. One of us thought that Didion’s work just slid into the biography. Daugherty also added a great deal, however, showing how Didion selectively omitted or dramatized stories. What pieces she withholds, he provides, and he reveals things she consistency fails to mention. We recognized that biographers write for different reasons and that this was not a critical biography—Daugherty was not seeking to undermine Didion.

We read The Year of Magical Thinking for this meeting. Opinions were divided on the writing style. Some thought it was less effective than the works we read previously. For others, it was fascinating how Didion let a sentence be a complete thought: it was intentional, effective, matched the rhythm of how you think. By that same token, however, it was more challenging to find memorable single lines and easier to read for longer stretches—less of an intellectual work. The artistry had a clean, simple character.

We wondered about the repetition of lines used in the work. Did their constant recurrence bear some relation to the process of grief? Or was it just a literary device, a “horse,” as we had heard this technique termed? If this repetition was to capture the progression of grief—to accumulate meaning around some repeated lines and to empty others of their meaning, to make them into repeated words shelled of their meaning—several of us had to admit that Didion nailed the process of grieving. One of us found the repetition to be like the depth your thoughts acquire in grieving, as you trace the same paths over and over. “I ran miles and miles thinking, where did this go wrong, I was looking for something.” The feeling of responsibility in this case is visceral, illogical, but it is the starting point. An element of that is, especially for a mother and a wife, the perpetual reviewing of one’s actions for one’s shortcomings: where did I turn my back?

We did not let Didion escape from criticism, however. Some of us found her a bit of a narcissist in parenting, telling her child “We need you,” rather than thinking she needs me. Some participants countered that this is a part of parenting: the child needs to know she is an important part of the parent’s life. But was Quintana important in that way? The image of Quintana all alone, pulling weeds in a California tennis court, came to mind. At this point, one participant stated it had just dawned on her how incredibly apt the title is: “I am never not engaged in magical thinking. Death is the loss that yanks you out and makes you confront your magical thinking.” Maybe the way Didion deals with this death is the only way one can. She sets it up as pathological, but it seems pretty normal. Conversely, some connected this work to Didion’s earlier essays and noted that magical thinking comes through in them, like she is playing pretend in her researching and writing.

But to return to the issue of repetition, which we could not seem to let go of—wasn’t it something other than true repetition? Wasn’t there variation in it? It had a liturgical quality.

We wrapped up our two hours with another chained “reading,” where each of us spoke a line or two that had especially struck us, without giving the context, one after another. And then we parted, to see each other again in a week.


Meeting 4

Our fourth and final Delve focused on Blue Nights, which many consider something of a sequel to The Year of Magical Thinking, focusing on Didion’s daughter, Quintana, the way that The Year of Magical Thinking focused on her husband. We knew already from our close reading that this did not reflect the fact that The Year of Magical Thinking was more than half about Quintana in any case, but we took a circuitous route to exploring this—beginning, as seemed only natural, at the end.

We found the last sentence of Blue Nights odd and confusing: “Yet there is no day in her life on which I do not see her.” We recalled that Tracy Daugherty, the biographer who visited our seminar previously, wrote that common sense suggests substituting “my” where Didion wrote “her”; but Didion wrote “her,” making the mother and the daughter indistinguishable.

We spoke about Didion’s need for Quintana, which she so variously expressed, but we found that Didion doesn’t go into the need. Even her desire for a baby is underplayed. But maybe that isn’t the point, one of us countered. If Didion talked about an inability to conceive, for example, then she would be talking about inadequacy. This might lead to the thought that Quintana was a second choice. Well, said another participant, if a child has abandonment issues, the right answer is not to say, “Don’t you know how much we need you?,” which is what Didion said to Quintana. But she questions her motives, said a third Delver. This is what saves Didion, for me, in the midst of all these hard questions—these questions of how Quintana grew up, as this little homunculus.

This was a whole different time, the 1960s, in terms of how a woman defined herself. Didion describes how she shifted, suddenly, into wanting a child. “She said, ‘I wanted a baby’,” one of us pointed out. But I never heard her say I long to be a mother. I don’t get that. It was like saying, “I got the perfect couch.” I got the perfect baby.

In terms of the use of repetition, we all agreed Didion is a poet. As a vehicle for grieving and mourning, the repetition is really astute. We compared the repetition in Blue Nights to The Year of Magical Thinking. In Blue Nights, we felt, the repetition was not a literary device, but really felt like someone repeating themselves, as if they were unhinged, trying hard but unable to stop saying the same things. In this way, the book seemed to be about Didion’s inevitable decline, we thought, as much as it was about the loss of her daughter. It felt like Didion was very concerned about seeming rational, even though she was falling apart. Her writing is not as polished in Blue Nights as it was in The Year of Magical Thinking, but this seemed entirely intentional to some of us. She was just writing. It was searingly intimate. We were touched by the sense that she was aging and moving towards death herself, and that she was sorry to be alive. She used to be afraid of death, we noted, but in Blue Nights she appears to be afraid of life as a vegetable.

Amidst all of this discussion, some of us mentioned that we would love to read a book on Quintana. We wondered about such things as The Broken Man, the figure that Quintana imagined until she was five. Or later, when she writes a short story involving pregnancy, we wondered if she was she trying to communicate that she had been pregnant and had an abortion. And what of the stories Didion tells about Quintana’s friend Tasha or Korshak the gangster? Why were they the most fleshed-out stories in the book? Perhaps Didion could write of Tasha’s life and death but not of Quintana’s? Grief, we felt, seemed to be hardest when there are so many unresolved issues between the deceased and the griever.

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