Saturday, June 30, 2012

Doing What Didion Does

Joan Didion at Hartford Stage/photo by Anne Marie Cannon
I first read Joan Didion’s New Journalism in the early 70s when it really was new. She placed herself on the outside looking in at the counterculture. She covered places, such as the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, and people, such as actor John Wayne as one would expect -- the way a journalist reports -- and, as one would not expect – the way a novelist narrates That was  the new in New Journalism, which, for me, brought the accounts closer to what was true.
In some cases, brutally true. 

Now, over forty years later, I’ve had the opportunity to see Joan Didion interviewed at Hartford Stage a few days ago. Between then—four decades ago -- and now, I studied her journalism and then her more autobiographical essays.  I am being careful not to call her more recent books -- The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights -- memoirs. Onstage  she said she disliked the word “memoir.”

Maybe The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, should be called the New Memoir. Yes Didion focuses on her life story in TYOMT, after her husband of almost forty years, John Dunne, dies suddenly in 2003, and then again in BN, after her daughter Quintana Roo passes after a series of illnesses less than two years later. But to simply call these tragedies "life stories" would be as misrepresentative as calling the title essay in  Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem  simply a magazine feature story. The recent books do not just pass through the days that followed the two sad events. The accounts ricochet deeper into Didion's psyche, her stream of consciousness, and back out to the reader’s psyche. The culture's psyche. Over and over again.  Not your ordinary Random House memoir.

Neither was Joan Didion’s onstage presence an everyday literary event. Escorted to a chair next to the moderator, she looked fragile. She sat more steadily and seemed to warm up to the conversation with an admiring, well-versed student of her work. Despite the lapse of a memory or two, Didion carefully  thought through her answers, whether one word or a few, about people in her life and passages in her books.

When the format moved on to audience Q & A, she took question after question until there were no longer any hands raised.  Why did she pick us? one woman queried, as if we were a specially designated audience. Didion reminded us her husband was originally from West Hartford and, even more matter-of-factly, that she was  just doing what she usually does this evening– talking to people. Another questioner wondered about the compromises the author and her husband must have faced while writing screenplays for Hollywood. I can’t remember Didion’s exact reply, but she seemed nonplussed, explaining that she and John were in California to make a living – "writing well." From the way she did say,” It’s what we did,” I inferred she did not feel victim of or partner to any Screen Guild shenanigans.

One question and answer from the event resonates the most with me. A gentleman referred to a piece he had read last week in The New York Times that raised the question Can Women Have it All? He was fishing for a cultural quote from a cultural icon. Something that the audience could take home as the feminist voice of the times, not the single opinion of a writer/wife/mother/widow. But Didion didn’t speak for women everywhere. After expressing her discomfort with sizing up the gist of an article she had not read, she wound up speaking , instead, for everyone simply by saying, “But tell me. Can anyone really have it all?“


  1. Thanks for writing about what must have been a unique evening with Joan Didion.

    1. And thanks for listening Holly. The event was not highly publicized. I was on the HSC website for something else when I saw it.