Friday, January 31, 2014

Some Writing a Writer Might Read: Joan Didion

Joan Didion
ca. 1967
Google Images

One of my students from the intensive essay-writing course that I taught this summer asked for advice on how to write literary essays, so I gave the request some thought. I could at first come up with nothing to recommend, not even a writer to read, because I've not really learned from any single writer, but the name "Joan Didion" gradually emerged from among the weltering clutter of things in my mind. I'm not sure why her name came up, since I've never read much of her writing, except I knew she had written a lot of essays, so I Googled her name and found a website, The Electric Typewriter, with links to several of her essays. One title leaped off the page: "Why I Write." I sat back in my chair and started to read, idly at first, just to see if the essay were worth recommending to my student, but soon with growing interest, for she was talking about herself in terms that could largely, though not entirely, apply to me:
I am not a scholar. I am not in the least an intellectual, which is . . . only to say that I do not think in abstracts. During the years when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley I tried, with a kind of hopeless late-adolescent energy, to buy some temporary visa into the world of ideas, to forge for myself a mind that could deal with the abstract.

In short I tried to think. I failed. My attention veered inexorably back to the specific, to the tangible, to what was generally considered . . . the peripheral. I would try to contemplate 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 . . . .

I had trouble graduating from Berkeley . . . because I had neglected to take a course in Milton . . . . [but] the English department finally agreed, if I would come . . . every Friday and talk about the cosmology of Paradise Lost, to certify me proficient in Milton . . . . I can no longer tell you whether Milton put the sun or the earth at the center of his universe in Paradise Lost, . . . a topic about which I wrote 10,000 words that summer, but I can still recall [from that time] the exact rancidity of . . . butter . . . and the way . . . tinted windows . . . cast . . . a grayed and obscurely sinister light. In short my attention was always on the periphery, on what I could see and taste and touch, on the butter . . . . During those years I was traveling on what I knew to be a very shaky passport, forged papers: I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn't think. All I knew then was what I couldn't do. All I knew then was what I wasn't, and it took me some years to discover what I was.

Which was a writer.

By which I mean not a "good" writer or a "bad" writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper. Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. (New York Times Book Review, December 5, 1976)
Not me to a tee -- I am, after all, a scholar, and possibly an intellectual. Not the best of these two categories, but a club member nonetheless. Like Didion, however, I am drawn to the specific and the particular, and I write to find out what I'm seeing, thinking, meaning -- as though writing serves to complete the self-referential circuit of awareness that enables me to be myself.

That's just me, maybe, but I recommended the essay to my student . . .

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