Joan Didion, and a Mystery
One day, after I'd slept over at her house, her father told us about a friend of his, someone who had known or been friends with or was in some way connected to Joan Didion. Anyway, this guy, a writer or maybe just an intellectual or an adventurer, would arrive in a town, sit down at the local bar, strike up a conversation, and end up moving in for days or weeks with whomever he happened to find interesting. Eventually, he'd move on. My friend's dad told a story of this friend dropping in on him once and taking him out to a very fancy party. They didn't have invitations. They didn't have tuxes. He thought that would be the end of it, but his friend had ambitious plans. One by one, they walked in backwards - with so many people coming in and out, the doormen only see you for an instant. If you're facing out, they think you're leaving, they turn to someone entering, and you're in. And they were.
The story lost all its magic in my re-telling, maybe because I was only 16 when I heard it, and that was a long time ago. It captured my imagination. That summer, or maybe the next, I happened across Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a collection of essays by Joan Didion. I read and liked them. It wasn't like anything else I'd been reading (and we had a pretty off-beat and liberal high school humanities curriculum). I didn't understand all of it; she wrote about that time period just before my birth which was neither history nor current events, and about places I'd never been and classes of society about which I was only dimly aware. But I liked it.
Last week I read The Year of Magical Thinking, and I remembered why I liked Joan Didion's writing. It's so spare, and matter-of-fact, and yet she gets away with using wordy little phrases that subtly shift the meaning of her sentences, but would just be wordy when used by the rest of us. Her husband died suddenly, and her daughter was very, very sick:
In August and September, after the Democratic and Republican conventions but before the election, I wrote, for the first time since John died, a piece. It was about the campaign. It was the first piece I had written since 1963 that he did not read in draft form and tell me what was wrong, what was needed, how to bring it up here, take it down there. I have never written pieces fluently but this one seemed to be taking even longer than usual: I realized at some point that I was unwilling to finish it, because there was no one to read it to. I kept telling myself that I had a deadline, that John and I never missed deadlines. Whatever I finally did to finish this piece was as close as I have ever come to imagining a message from him. The message was simple: You're a professional. Finish the piece.
It's a beautiful book. At first, you think, how awful, but I don't know these people, this is a meditation on death and grief and sickness and loss of control, but it's not my grief or my loss of control... and then you find yourself wet-eyed as she revisits her daughter's childhood, little stories and memories, and keeps returning to certain phrases, dragging you into her numbness, disbelief, and self-pity.
Reading this brought to mind that old story, made me wonder who the character was who crashed fancy parties, whether the story was true, how much of it I'd even remembered correctly. If anyone has any clues, tell me, please. Perhaps I dreamed the whole thing, except that I know Joan Didion was mentioned because it made me buy her book.
It made me want to track down my friend, send her an email; once upon a time, we promised each other that when we turned forty, a million years from then, we'd still be friends and we'd write each other's autobiographies. It was my slip of the tongue, autobiographies, but that's how we put it from then on. In any case, I couldn't find her. I'll call her parents the next time I'm home, maybe.
And it made me want to take a writing class. I've only ever taken poetry and fiction-writing classes, but all I do nowadays is non-fiction. Reading someone who treats this as a craft makes me want to learn and polish, and take all this writing to another level.