On reading Joan Didion for the first time
by Paul Tamburello
Why I write.
That was the title of the first article I was required to read in the first writing class of my writing career. After reading Joan Didion’s essay, I feel compelled to write a sequel:
Why I don’t write.
I don't want to write any more because Joan Didion just killed me. She killed me with her intellect, she killed me with her imagination, she killed me with her keen sense of observation, and she killed me with her ability to structure a piece that, like a Charlie Parker solo, started off with an expressed idea, hurtled off into impossibly twisting and turning tangents, and then miraculously landed on its feet where it started. The murder weapon had the fingerprints of “voice” smeared all over it.
How could she do that? Or more to the point, how could I ever in my lifetime even come close to writing like Joan Didion. I just don't have the required tools.
Joan wonders about everything. Joan sees a woman walk into a room and she gets an idea to write not just an article on, say, the effect of exotic perfume on bystanders, but an entire novel. And it’s not like she sees some broad outline, but she nails descriptions, details, and a whole chapter. I look at the same woman striding into a room and see hips, legs, arch of the back in relation to arc of the bosoms. Hopeless. Joan wonders “why she was in the airport and why Victor didn't know”. I wonder what’s her phone number. Hopeless.
I don't mind that Joan admitted that she stole the title of the essay from George Orwell. All writers steal, they’re an incestuous lot. I should know from my other career. I'm a teacher. We steal ideas from each other regularly, then, like blue jays homesteading in the nests of other birds, we transform them into our own. I also get ideas from reading the news, columns in the newspaper, listening to the radio, and looking out the window. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Nothing’s new under the sun. Writing something worth reading...well, that’s another matter entirely. Even if you do it with a purloined idea.
Joan says writing is an aggressive act, “an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.” Then she unleashes a dazzling display of literary firepower, leaving a trail in my writer’s mind like a tank rolling through a corn field. Her writer’s voice is as strong as a nuclear reaction. If Joan Didion were a country, George Bush would be declaring war on her for creating a weapon of mass destruction, causing developing writers to shrink back to their intellectual borders and not even think about penning a piece of literary journalism and signing it.
And I'm not fooled by that Brutus like disclaimer that she drops on page 18, saying that she doesn't consider herself a writer because she doesn't think in the abstract. About ten words after that, she tosses off a phrase like “I found myself contemplating the Hegelian dialectic and would find myself concentrating instead on a flowering pear tree outside my window and the particular way the petals fell on my floor.” The lady doth protest too much. Since when do you cite Hegel to prove you’re not an abstract thinker? I felt like she flipped me her literary middle finger and smirked.
She says she never took drugs but when she says she wanted “to write a novel so elliptical and fast that it would be over before you noticed it, a novel so fast it would scarcely exist on the page at all.”, I rolled my eyes and said, “Yeah, right.” I can just see her in her tiny Berkeley apartment, toking up on some really good “tops” from Nepal, and riffing with her classmates about “a book in which anything that happened would happen off the page”, and seeing the really deep and connected nature of the universe. She’s just one of the lucky ones who could wake up the next day and actually remember those riffs with enough clarity to write them down.
Whatta grandstander. If she were a football player she’d be spiking the ball into the end zone abut every fourth paragraph. Take the bevatron for example. When she first gratuitously drops that name in the fourth paragraph, I thought it was something you sat on to get yourself cleaned up up after going to the bathroom. Is there any good reason why a bevatron should show up in this essay, other than to embarrass the rest of us with our ignorance of the contraption, whatever it might be.
Just about the time I decided to get up and leave the class, having had my vote canceled by the sheer virtuosity of the first three pages of this essay, I read the sentence “It took me some years to discover what I was. Which was a writer.”
It dawned on me that Joan might not be trying to kill me after all, but was offering to rescue me from giving up my desire to pound on the keys. By the time I finished the essay, I realized that Joan was telling me, with extended metaphors and her intellectual “A” game, what I knew from reading Donald Graves, Don Murray, Annie LaMott and others who have the compassionate habit of writing in plain English, that writing “tells you, you don't tell it” . And that you learn to write better by writing often. And probably taking a class and getting ideas from other fledgling writers.
So I guess I won’t drop out of class and sign up for cooking. I’ll keep writing , even though I know I have a ‘shaky passport” when I put my fingers on the keyboard. I’ll just keep plunking along so I can, like Joan, find out what I already know. But please, someone show me the door if I so much as breathe anything about a bevatron.