Joan Didion died 3 days ago; I’m posting this paper out of my deep respect for her writing life, and so I can share ideas with my friend Doug Imbrogno. Anyone else who wants to share in celebrating Didion’s life and work is welcome to join us. — EDG
Advisor: Carter Sickels Fall 2014 Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program West Virginia Wesleyan College
“Reading Joan Didion on any subject is like tiptoeing across a just-frozen pond filled with beautiful sharks. You look down and pray the ice will hold. Meeting her is not a vastly different experience.”
— Boris Kachka
The term “intimacy” triggers a cascading range of images: closeness, nakedness, engagement, connection, romance, mutuality, participation, shared revelation. Though not always an overt expectation, some degree of authorial intimacy is what readers of personal essays and creative nonfiction seek. We know when it’s present in the work, and we feel its absence when it’s not. We want our narrators to be smart, aware, intuitive. We need them to be able to show us something about the human condition through their personal experience that we can’t see without their “I.”
I’ve been told I don’t need other writers to define intimacy for me, but the reality is that I do need help. I’ve spent many years identifying “intimacy” as topical, by what is being shared. I’ve thought it “intimate” to write about sex, death, grief, love. By making intimacy a subject, I’ve missed a core concept available to improving my writing: reader inclusion. After examining the theory and practice of writers Joan Didion and Stacey
D’Ersamo, I know that for any work to have gravity, it has to consciously deal with including the reader in an experience or an emotion. It’s not show and it’s not tell. It’s include. Joan Didion achieves literary intimacy with multiple techniques, but always through a pattern I call, “See. Think. Confirm.” She includes the reader in her thoughts rather than simply relaying them. She relies heavily on her own thinking and perceptions, and much of her writing is about what is happening inside her mind. She observes, considers, and runs that play again but always ends with a confirmation. This is the see/think/confirm pattern or loop.
In memoir and personal essays, the narrator owns her truth, but some truth must resonate in the reader as well. If the narrative manifests as only an individual truth, the writer’s work will be mediocre at best. Creative nonfiction can build connections beyond unique experience to the links we have with all of humankind. In my own work for the past three semesters, I have strived to evolve my essays beyond well-turned descriptions of my own experience toward language that more fully connects to the reader. It’s become clear to me that I have a natural intellectual distance from the reader that I must overcome if I want my work to have lasting relevance to other people. I want my writing to shine a light on things I’ve experienced that also offers value to how readers think about their own lives, not simply to how they may think about my life.
In this critical essay, I will examine how Joan Didion establishes literary intimacy in her nonfiction. Specifically, I am interested in how a writer many people perceive as cool, distant, and hyper-intellectual creates narratives that include the reader in powerful experiences of loss. (When I name Didion an “intellectual writer,” I mean that her work is almost entirely fueled by her own cognitive perceptions. Rarely does she expound on detailed physical, sexual, or spiritual experience without braiding the observation or experience into what she is thinking. She negotiates her emotional upheavals with her rational mind.)
Considering Joan Didion’s Personal Story
Strangely, Joan Didion has an almost absent “bio.” In an age when authors are reducing themselves to digestible biographical paragraphs it is somewhat amusing to find very little succinct information about Didion’s life. It helps to have some framework, however limited, for understanding who she is and how her past informs her literary style. Thinking about Didion’s origins and influences helps me think about how my own shape my style. Didion’s work gives me a lens for considering my own writing, what I do well and what I need to do better to connect with a reader.
At age 21, Didion graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and won an internship at Vogue magazine in New York. By way of prestige, this same internship had been held a few years earlier by the poet Sylvia Plath. It was in New York City that Didion met and married John Dunne. She left the east coast with Dunne to return to her native California and began a career as a freelance writer covering hippie culture. Emma Brockes of The Guardian describes Didion’s writing evolution as a kind of clever trick, as something Didion herself tried to downplay. Afraid of the telephone, suffering from migraines and nervous breakdowns, Didion has a combination of “physical frailty and juggernaut intellect (that) has acted as a kind of structural irony” informing all her work. Didion covered many “hot topics” in her 1960s literary journalism career, such as the Charles Manson murders, drug and hippie culture, Vietnam politics, and the music scene. She did this, however, with a cool head. Many of her journalistic peers became caught up in the passion of their subject matters, while Didion remained calm (Brockes).
Didion has a strikingly individualistic mind, and yet she defines her work as collaborative. Discussing her play based on The Year of Magical Thinking she notes, “. . . I was struck by the extent to which the audience becomes part of the play when it was in performance. The audience was very strongly a part of what went on on the stage. And I think that is also true when you are writing. . . .If you aren’t aware of the reader, you’re working in a vacuum” (Heti). Knowing this about Didion, how she defines and depends on a connection to the reader, is crucial to appreciating her achievements with literary intimacy.
The Year of Magical Thinking: Didion’s Pattern and “The If”
In her book, The Art of Intimacy: The Space Between, Stacey D’Erasmo asserts that the sense of being included is what produces the feeling of being intimate (10). A writer must create places in language, a kind of linguistic landscape, which “produce(s) not only opportunities for intimacy, but also the actual sense of intimacy (12).” This necessary collaboration is an art space between the self and others that the reader “longs” to be in (10). Literary intimacy may be the idea of the reader meeting the writer “in the if,” or the idea that art allows us a connection to others that may not be possible in real life (13).
Didion is well-known for her “grief memoir” about her husband’s abrupt death, The Year of Magical Thinking. Some consider this book to be Didion covering new subject matter, but in fact there is a pattern of intuition about loss in much of her work: Loss of loved ones, of her self-perception, of physical strength, of place, of cultural comprehension . . . all of these and more appear frequently in her writing. Didion has a compelling ability to draw the reader into her understanding of what is lost.
The Year of Magical Thinking offers a fine example of how Didion braids cool observation with analysis, concluding with confirmation. This is a reliable pattern in her style. With her daughter Quintana gravely ill in the hospital, she asks, “How does flu morph into whole-body infection?” Then she looks as her sick child. “. . . her fingers and face swollen with fluid, her lips cracked by fever . . . her hair matted and soaked with sweat.” When her husband John kisses their daughter, he utters a line from a movie that the family loves, “I love you more than one more day.” She then notes, “We asked if the decrease in delivered oxygen meant that she was getting better. There was a pause” (68-69). Didion frequently displays discomfort lingering in the space where she is not thinking or getting answers to her well-reasoned questions; but clearly reason alone is not everything. The family communicates with favorite movie lines, for example. Didion both acknowledges that the doctors are trying to brace her for the end and persists in reconsidering the question. Her avoidance of the necessary confirmation that her child will die makes her human, but the reader knows that she will confirm her daughter’s death at some point. It’s her pattern.
The Year of Magical Thinking is a tribute to D’Erasmo’s intimacy of the if. Didion uses the past perfect tense in her early recounting of her husband’s unexpected death to strengthen the reader’s perception of her personal grief. The past perfect expresses the idea that something occurred before another action in the past. It can also show that something happened before a specific time in the past. Using this tense repeatedly keeps the living moments with John closer to the present than they would be if she used past tense.
Part of Didion’s quest is to review and catalogue what happened when John died from a heart attack, and to seek evidence that he either did or did not actually die. (That she even had this question to explore after authorizing his autopsy is introduced early in the book and anchors her personal thesis that she was slightly out of her mind during her grieving period.) Early in the narrative, Didion begins a review process of the timing, events, and conversations that preceded John’s heart attack. In some lines, she uses the past tense when describing her investigation. “Eight months later I asked the manager of our apartment building if he still had the log kept by the doormen for the night of December 30” (19). This is a fact she affirms: She asked about the log. Her language shifts when she hears details from the log that she does not expect, and so the narrative is thrown back to a new “review what happened” phase when she writes, “I had not remembered that” (19). This sequence is a terrific example of Didion’s reliable pattern of observing something, making sure she has the facts right, and moving toward acceptance.
By alternating her language from past to past perfect, Didion keeps the reader’s focus shifting in time along with her own. Later, Didion lists things she knows and accepts by using the past tense: “I considered these questions . . . I thought about PSA . . . It occurred to me . . .” (49). When Didion uses the past tense, we know she is not in a questioning mode, but when she changes tense the reader knows she is back to her review process and her investigation as to whether or not she knows, for sure, that John is dead. “We had seen Quintana in ICU . . . . We had noted the numbers on the respirator . . . we had held her swollen hand” (62). John had done this, John had done that. Didion deliberately puts the narrative back to when John was living, and by using the past perfect tense she keeps the question of whether nor not anything is “over” with his life active and engaging for the reader.
Didion’s back and forth verb tense gives her final words about her husband, written in past tense, phenomenal impact and power: “He told me that. No eye is on the sparrow, but he did tell me that” (227). She is choosing to accept John is dead, but the reader has had to wait to experience that acceptance with her, even though we know rationally that he’s gone. This moment of including the reader in a moment of acceptance is what allows us to share Didion’s grief process. As readers, we have had to understand John’s death as still under review, in question on some level. We read about his death in a past perfect tense, and as such have to share Didion’s state of mind even if it is against our rational will. We read about John as not entirely in the past, until the end. Then we again are included in the awful moment of acceptance. He is gone, and no benevolent God was ever watching over him; nor, by extension, is such a power certain for us.
“On Self-Respect” and Blue Nights: The Intimacy of the Dark
Literary intimacy sometimes means “meeting in the dark,” or in realizations that are less than pleasant (D’Erasmo, 49). Didion seems most vulnerable and inclusive when she needs to talk about death and failure, surely considered two of the least pleasant universal human experiences. In her essay “On Self Respect” from Slouching Towards Bethlehem, for example, Didion recounts her reaction to not being elected to Phi Beta Kappa. She notes it as both predictable and yet a shock: “I had not been elected to Phi Beta Kappa. This failure could scarcely have been more predictable or less ambiguous (I simply did not have the grades), but I was unnerved by it; I had somehow thought myself a kind of academic Raskolnikov, curiously exempt from the cause-effect relationships which hampered others” (142). By comparing herself to Rodion Raskolnikov, the protagonist in Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment, Didion confesses that she had thought herself above common people, destined for greater things and answering to an ethical code or universal force that had predestined her to receive certain things that she did not deserve. This kind of elevation of oneself above others tends toward narcissism, and narcissistic behavior drives a lot of dark behavior. The reader knows this is true. Didion’s vulnerability in this moment includes the reader, as most of us can relate to the uncomfortable surprise that we just aren’t quite as smart, or good-looking, or witty as we assumed we were.
In all literature, the reader must consider questions, often ethical and moral, when faced with a narrator’s or character’s confessions. The key to creating intimacy with this technique, again, is the inclusion. “. . . the reader will not be allowed a cozy seat in the anonymity of the confession booth as confessor. Instead, the reader is continually dropped into various uneasy roles as voyeur, enabler, terrorist, and confidant to secrets that are very uncomfortable to know” (D’Erasmo, 94). Readers may experience unintentional complicity in dark and destructive things simply through our desire to turn the pages and to continue to have interest in and bear witness to a writer’s grief and loss. “We know that something has gone missing, something both dearly loved and deeply feared by the narrator, who will now never be able to get it back” (74).
Though this particular comment by D’Erasmo about narrator loss is not to Didion’s work, it could very well refer to any number of Didion’s essays and memoirs. Whether she is noting a generation’s loss in her essays on California in the 1960s or telling a singular tale of personal grief, Didion brings the reader into her dark spaces, into her confessional booth. She wants to tell you about it, but more than that, she demands that you hear what she is saying. Her repetition is part of her need to make the reader accountable for what he has been told; and once accountable and included, he becomes responsible for that knowledge. Deliberately collaborating with the reader now, Didion is no longer entirely alone. We know what she knows. We are included in her knowledge of herself. We’ve become part of the process and her pattern. Indeed, arguably we’ve become part of Didion.
Didion’s Dislike of Lawrence: When Intimacy Fails to Win the Reader’s Trust
One reason I’ve avoided addressing literary intimacy head-on is something Didion’s work helps me understand. I’m not attracted to the kind of literary intimacy of a writer like D. H. Lawrence. Well-known for his presentations of sexual and physical human connections, Lawrence is considered by many to be a master of intimacy on the page. Lawrence was particularly concerned with the physical body and its importance as equal to or superior to intellect in revealing truth. Didion, however, highlights an important distinction between what may be considered intimacy between people in a narrative, and intimacy with the reader. When asked about her literature major at Berkeley and her study of D. H. Lawrence, Didion says she was “not high on” Lawrence.
“He irritated me on almost every level. And the writing was so clotted and sentimental. It didn’t work for me on any level” (Als). One can just see Lawrence not even earning an eye-roll from Didion. I imagine she might have had the energy to offer him a rude gesture, but perhaps he wasn’t even worth that in her mind.
D’Erasmo notes, “intimacy found or lost is a sure thing” (78). She likens it to corn syrup, filling out vacuous narrative spaces with easy, tasty bits of story line that mimic something significant but don’t satisfy in a lasting way. Lost lovers, sick children, dying friends, forced separations from objects of a character’s or narrator’s affection — all can become predictable and clichéd underneath, even when they seem to be telling a compelling story as they go. D’Erasmo notes that writing damaged intimacy can leave the writer “coloring in the outlines with more or less wit and with greater or lesser degrees of empathy” (82).
It’s this “coloring outlines” that Didion eschews, and it explains in part Didion’s early dislike of D. H. Lawrence’s style. She perceives him as becoming lost in coloring in the pre-fabricated lines of stories he wants to guide the reader through emotionally. Her style avoids telling the reader what to feel, or setting up narratives that only allow one way to feel about what she is telling us. Didion can be interpreted as being armored-up against anxiety through over-thinking her vulnerable moments, but she avoids this trap through her inclusion of the reader in her thought process.
Blue Nights: How Image Facilitates Intimacy
When Didion talks about physical experience, it tends to be a well-reasoned mental examination of such. In Blue Nights, she allows the reader intimate access to her experience when she combines physicality — or thoughts about physicality — with what D’Erasmo calls “meeting in the image.” D’Erasmo explains, “Somewhere between the world itself and the possible worlds of the subjunctive is the image. It is a flexible and expansive place for characters to meet, one that doesn’t even require the characters to be physically in the same room or to talk with or touch one another; they can be united in the capacious mind of the author, brought together by simile and metaphor” (39). Didion establishes intimacy with the reader through detailed descriptions of a seemingly random folding metal chair and how it elicits fear in her. The early implication is that Didion’s frail body is in danger of tripping over or falling out of a chair that fails to support her aging frame.
Blue Nights has been called a companion grief memoir to The Year of Magical Thinking. It is in fact less a grief study than a reflection of deep personal self-questioning and a meditation on aging. The unexpected and sudden death of her daughter Quintana Roo at age 39 triggers Didion’s deep examination her own mortality.
Didion uses the image of a folding chair and her responses to it to convey various concepts in vulnerability. There are various literary devices used to achieve this goal, but the folding metal chair is a standout case.
Didion confesses a free-floating dread that is rather inexplicable early in the narrative but clearly present and triggered by a folding chair. She writes, “We are moving into another summer. I find myself increasingly focused on this issue of frailty” (106). She feels unsteady, unbalanced, and notices that friends are asking more often about how she is doing. She talks about telling true stories for the sole reason “to prove that I can. That my frailty has not yet reached a point at which I can no longer tell a true story” (109).
One might reasonably conclude that the chair is a one-time image, and yet the reader knows that Didion is prone to repetition. If it’s worth her attention once, it is likely worth her attention at least one more time. And we do see the chair again several more times, always in a reference to not being able to identify her fear and to her growing awareness of her own frailty. By this point one might say The Chair presides over the entire narrative. It is always with us. In Chapter 21 we hear directly what we have intuited: The Chair is fear of an unnamed thing. “When I tell you that I am afraid to get up from a folding chair in a rehearsal room on West Forty-second Street, of what am I really afraid?” (117).
At this point the reader understands that though Didion has already suffered two tremendous losses in the deaths of her only child and her husband of decades, there is more to be lost, or at least the fear of such. Didion now introduces humiliation — fast and fierce — beginning with Chapter 27, and The Chair is always a question in the background. By casting her own confusion about her feelings triggered by The Chair, Didion assures the reader this question will be picked back up: “I mean, think back: what about that business with the folding metal chair in the rehearsal room on West Forty-second Street? What exactly was I afraid of there? What did I fear in that rehearsal room if not an ‘emergency’? Or what about walking home after an early dinner on Third Avenue and waking up in a pool of blood on my own bedroom floor? Might not waking up in a pool of blood qualify as an ‘emergency’? All right. Accepted. ‘In case of emergency’ could apply. Who to notify. I try harder. Still, no name comes to mind” (185).
Didion confesses in this last chapter that The Chair is her realization that the only person in the world who “needs to know” she is in trouble is now dead: Her daughter, Quintana.
The memoir ends with Didion’s admission that, “The fear is not for what is lost . . . The fear is for what is still to be lost. You may see nothing still to be lost. Yet there is no day in my life on which I do not see her” (188). Quintana’s memory will vanish when Didion dies. Or it may vanish before then. She fears not so much the end of her life and of her memory for herself as for the reality that when they go, so goes the last of Quintana as her child.
All this from The Chair.
The metal folding chair first appears as a literal concern about falling and being injured, but Didion also uses her anxiety about The Chair as an unanswered question, a physical representation of her fear. By holding her on-the-page analysis of The Chair until the very last lines of the narrative, Didion allows the reader to resolve the mystery as did she. We are active and collaborative in this pattern, included. There is dread and premonition and a lack of clarity that takes time to see. As a reader I wrote “mystery” after the last lines. Only after re-reading them several times did I understand the terrible truth of what Didion came to understand. Even after all of this loss, there is yet more. By introducing the symbol of The Chair, but leaving it undefined until the close of the narrative, Didion permits the reader the closest of intimacies. She allows the reader to fully enter her cognitive, emotional, and psychological experience. She allows us to fear and grieve with her. The reader is not simply told about fear and grief, the reader is included in the experience.
Blue Nights: Engaging the Intimate Space Between Writer and Reader
D’Erasmo defines “one of the most complex and mobile intimacies produced on the page” as “that between reader and writer” (91); there can be a kind of open space that expands and contracts between the two.
In Blue Nights, Didion directly addresses the reader at key intimacy-building transition points in the narrative. It’s a fascinating what I will call point of view (POV) technique, in that the balance between addressing the reader and shifting to second person POV is not always clear. Is she talking to us, or to herself? Does it matter?
Blurring that line is part of what makes Didion a master of the merge. One barely knows it has occurred before Didion shifts gears back to where she was, and the reader is left dazed by the sense she has been Didion for a moment. Few experiences are as intimate as losing oneself in another.
Didion writes most of Blue Nights in first person POV, but after a third of the narrative she introduces the “you”: “If someone chose you, what does that tell you?
Doesn’t it tell you that you were available to be ‘chosen’? Doesn’t it tell you, in the end, that there are only two people in the world? The one who ‘chose’ you? And the other who didn’t? Are we beginning to see how the word ‘abandonment’ might enter the picture?” (60-61). The reader is suddenly included in this narrative. He is asked to contemplate the troubling questions Didion came to, not simply to hear that she came to them. This technique requires the reader to connect with the narrator in a new way and on a more intimate level. We are now in her head thinking the same thoughts. This particular use of “you” is fluid enough to cover a direct address but also to suggest a universal question to all humankind.
Chapter 17 contains the first unequivocal direct address to the reader, and it draws us into an even deeper connection with Didion’s confession and pain. This new level is so intimate that it would not read as sincere if it were not preceded by the “you” references previously mentioned here. In this chapter (83), Didion describes her young daughter’s arrangement of “sundries” into a box she has marked for different categories of items: “There are certain moments in those first years with her that I remember very clearly. These very clear moments stand out, recur, speak directly to me, on some levels flood me with pleasure and on others still break my heart. I remember very clearly for example that her earliest transactions involved what she called ‘sundries.’ She invested this word, which she used as a synonym for ‘possessions’ but seemed to derive from the ‘sundries shops’ in the many hotels to which she had already been taken, with considerable importance, dizzying alternations between infancy and sophistication. One day after she had asked me for a Magic Marker I found her marking off an empty box into ‘drawers,’ or areas meant for specific of these ‘sundries.’ The ‘drawers’ she designated were these: ‘Cash,’ ‘Passport,’ ‘My IRA,’ ‘Jewelry,’ and, finally — I find myself hardly able to tell you this — ‘Little Toys.’ Again, the careful printing. The printing alone I cannot forget. The printing alone breaks my heart (emphasis added).
This scene and the direct address for her confession imbue the information with significance. Didion is beginning to tell the reader her most closely-held pain and regret. We begin to connect with her self-questioning, how hard it is for her to look at the ways some of the choices she and her husband made may have harmed their child. It should be clear to most readers that Didion and John Dunne did as well by their child as anyone can, but the self-blame will also be familiar. Didion is a thinker, and she cannot resist replaying events and conversations, naming them warnings or signs that she was doing something wrong.
There are ongoing uses of “you” until the end of the narrative. Pages 124, 126, 134, and 149 continue Didion’s second person POV shifts; in fact, Chapter 25 begins with, “Let me again try to talk to you directly.” The narrator is not sure she is communicating what she wants to say, and time is running out. The story is almost told. Her life is drawing to a close. Her confessional tone becomes more present, and the reader senses his own investment in Didion’s success at saying what she needs to say. The reader is drawn incrementally closer, and the final revelation feels personal, like Didion is not making it to the world. She is making it directly to us.
Conclusions: Didion’s Mind and Her Influence on This Writer
Motherhood and marriage are life roles Didion once viewed as “extreme and doomed commitments” but came to understand as “a kind of salvation . . . from a loneliness, an aloneness.” The interviewer asks her, “Because the relationship was so intimate, or just the fact of the marriage?” Didion replies, “Just having another person, answering to another person, was very — it was novel to me, and it turned out to be kind of great” (Heti). Answering to another person. This very simple set of four words speaks well to Didion’s approach to creating intimacy with the reader as well as to her inherent expectation of that reader. Show up. Hear me. Be accountable for knowing what I’m telling you. See. Think. Confirm with me. I want to include you in the stories of my life. I need someone to answer to. It is perhaps no coincidence that Didion’s second wave of professional writing success took hold after her husband, her well-established intimate partner, died. I imagine she was at that point freed to take her need to “answer to another person” to a new level of intimacy with the reader.
From the first time I read Didion, in The Year of Magical Thinking, I connected with her style. I share her inclination to prioritize my thought process above all other experience. Of course I have physical, spiritual, emotional, and sexual experiences that inform who I am and how I interpret the world; but I’ve rarely considered any benefit to others from elements of my life beyond my thoughts. This comes from two places, both difficult to overcome. I put a premium on the mind, on a capacity to analyze and understand human experience. I also consider the mind a potentially public realm, while other aspects of experience seem distasteful to me when shared or overshared in another writer’s work. What I have realized, however, is that this is really a skill-level issue, not a topic or even a type-of-experience issue. Writers can mistake addressing a sensational topic as the skill itself. I don’t want to read about someone’s sex life or his gut-wrenching grief unless the person is sharing it with a clear intent that includes me in some greater understanding of the human experience. Didion’s process helps me appreciate that much of my early writing is steeped in “see, think” without the “confirmation” piece. When this step is missing in other people’s work, it tends to leave me cold.
In my second semester I had what my advisor called a kind of “breakthrough.” It was the moment when I understood that what I write about is almost insignificant. What does matter is how I write. This critical essay demonstrates the powerful role reader inclusion plays in all writing, but especially for someone like me who is most comfortable in headspace. Didion confesses she went through a period of losing her patience with the conventions of writing. “Descriptions went first,” she says. “I just got impatient with those long paragraphs of description . . . I’m talking about description as a substitute for thinking” (Als). Didion also notes there are times when people think they are writing but that they are actually evading writing. An interviewer asks, “And what is the nature of the evasion? Not thinking?” to which Didion replies simply, “Not thinking, yeah. Not thinking” (Heti).
“Not thinking” for me is almost worse than not breathing, so I connected instantly with what Didion is saying. There can be a kind of contempt that comes with not thinking, because it does feel like evasion. It can feel like a refusal to do the work. More and more, however, I am learning that “the work” is different for different writers. Thinking is not always the work for me. Often, allowing myself to express and include the reader in my own vulnerability and failure can be very difficult, and even when I want to do it, it can feel unnatural compared to what flows more easily for me. Thinking about Joan Didion’s style, it helps me to consider that much of her work is grounded in sharing her vulnerability, but she shares and includes that on her own terms.
I have an essay, “Farm Dogs,” that received a 2014 honor for creative nonfiction by a literary journal I admire. I’ve been asking myself what it is about this essay that earned this level of recognition. At first, I focused on my revision process. This piece went through multiple professors and students in the workshop process and I received a lot of valuable feedback. I think I revised “Farm Dogs” more than I have ever revised a single essay, and I have no doubt that commitment to several revisions and being open to criticism played a large part in the ultimate success of the work.
But there is one element I worked through with this piece that keeps coming up for me as I think about Joan Didion and her literary intimacies, how she does what she does. It’s the end of “Farm Dogs,” the very last paragraph and in fact the last sentence. For several drafts I clung to some pretty lines I liked very much that neatly and handily expressed how I wanted the reader to understand what I had just told him. First one person said I didn’t need those lines, then another said the same thing. Nearly everyone who read an essay draft said, “You don’t need those lines. You should just cut them. You should end it here.”
There were two problems for me to wrestle. The first was that I liked the lines my critics wanted me to cut. But the second was the bigger issue for me. In “Farm Dogs” I walk away from someone who is elderly and living alone. She is someone who was a positive part of my childhood who may have deserved better than I offered her. I make a decision that I would not have her in my life going forward. The line where people wanted me to end the essay is, “I never went back.” I think now I didn’t really just want the other lines in there because they were pretty. I wanted them in there because ending with, “I never went back” is a confession. Those words leave me vulnerable to the reader, and I have no control over what the reader will think of me. Once I end with that, I can’t keep spinning my choice in hopes I will be forgiven.
I know now that the reader doesn’t want or need to forgive me or damn me. The reader wants and deserves to be included in a hard, true story from which she may find understanding about the human condition. When I read Didion, I often have to sit with her endings. Even after allowing time to process what she has shared with me, I find myself re-evaluating and re-considering what she has seen, and thought about, and confirmed to me. As my own life unfolds and I have new experiences, I revisit Didion’s words as well as my own.
Success with our readers means including them in our experiences, not just describing those experiences by telling them about what happened or how we felt. Inevitably it means walls have to come down. My walls won’t be the same as another writer’s, but all of us need to step back and spend some time asking ourselves what we are keeping from the reader and perhaps even from ourselves. To be blunt, deliberately keeping truth out of creative nonfiction is selfish and paternalistic, not to mention egotistical. It is certainly nothing Joan Didion would ever do.
There is nothing condescending about Didion’s approach to sharing her stories with the reader. She presumes you can understand what she is telling you, and while avoiding condescension is attractive, there can be a sensation that she is testing the reader’s smarts. It’s almost as if her disinterest in explaining things is a test. As a reader, you want to pass the test, and there is a dance on a thin line between this trust and this test.
Didion’s willingness to collaborate with the reader, to offer the opportunity to meet her in her stories, is a component of the intimacy she creates with us.
Didion understands intimacy, not in spite of her always-thinking writing process and comfort in solitude, but because of it. Nothing is by accident with her. She understands very well every place she sets up and takes the reader. When we find ourselves alone with her, the literary door closed, it is often shockingly intimate because we are with her thoughts and our thoughts, her feelings and our feelings, in an inescapable mutuality. That kind of inhabiting of another person’s mind and heart is the most profound and difficult to achieve kind of literary intimacy.
In creative nonfiction, it is never enough for everything to be technically correct. Nor is it enough for the narrative to expose an unexpected truth. Laser sharp prose and detailed recounting of facts, even when about a fascinating story, can fall into commonality if the writer fails to establish intimacy with the reader. Worse than common, a lack of intimacy can make a narrative rich with possibility blatantly distant from the reader.
As I move into my thesis semester, I am thinking about revisiting some early essay drafts I believed in but that never really took off the way I hoped they would. This critical essay project as helped me consider why material I considered vibrant and compelling has not yet gelled in the literary sense. It took three semesters, but I am finally ready to look at those essays again and consider them as seedlings, ideas that may have meaningful literary narratives waiting to come to life through my willingness to be more intimate with the reader. It won’t always be about sharing more, it may be about being willing to share differently and to let the ends of things fall where they truly should fall. I retitled my newest essay several times, landing on “Refracted.” This idea of refraction seems to hold a lot of value for reconsidering some of my earlier work, building more vulnerability, but doing it on my own terms.
See. Think. Confirm. Go all the way to the real end, not the end you wish you had. Tell a true story, and be smart and honest enough to know where it truly ends. Stop where it ends. I learned that from Joan. She did tell me that.
Als, Hilton. “Joan Didion, The Art of Nonfiction No. 1.” The Paris Review: Spring 2006 No. 176. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5601/the-art-of-nonfiction-no-1-joan-didion. Web.
Brockes, Emma. “Interview: Joan Didion.” The Guardian: December 15, 2005. http://www.theguardian.com/film/2005/dec/16/biography.features. Web.
D’Erasmo, Stacey. The Art of Intimacy: The Space Between. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2013. Print.
Didion, Joan. Blue Nights. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Print.
___. “On Self-Respect.” Slouching Towards Bethlehem. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968. Print.
___. The Year of Magical Thinking. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. Print.
Flanagan, Caitlin. “The Autumn of Joan Didion.” The Atlantic, January/February 2012. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/01/the-autumn-of-joan-didion/308851/3/. Web.
Heti, Sheila. “Joan Didion, Writer.” The Believer: Online Exclusive, December 2011. http://www.believermag.com/exclusives/?read=interview_didion. Web.
Kachka, Boris. “I Was No Longer Afraid to Die. I Was Now Afraid Not to Die.” New York Magazine, October 16, 2011. http://nymag.com/arts/books/features/joan-didion-2011-10/. Web.