The magical thinking of Joan Didion, the patron saint of sentences who 'carves words in the granite of the specific'
'Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences,” Didion observes in 'Why I Write', which is part of a new volume of 12 old and uncollected essays, Let Me Tell You What I Mean.
Joan Didion, the stylish prose auteur, is the patron saint, among many other things, of sentences. The novelist, memoirist and essayist — the forebear of many modern-day novelists, memoirists and essayists — thinks a great deal about the arrangement of the words on the page, frets over the shape of her sentences. Grammar grooves her writing, and gets her into the writerly groove. Grammar is a piano she plays “by ear”. “All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed. Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences,” she writes in “Why I Write”, an essay based on her 1976 lecture, which is part of a new volume of 12 old and uncollected essays, Let Me Tell You What I Mean (Penguin Random House). The book was released earlier this year.
The arrangement of the words, she writes, can be found “in the picture in your mind”. It is this — the picture in her mind — which is the starting point for her whenever she begins work on a book. It dictates the arrangement of words. “The picture dictates whether this will be a sentence with or without clauses, a sentence that ends hard or a dying-fall sentence, long or short, active or passive,” she writes, speaking on behalf of most writers by resorting to the second person pronoun: you. The picture tells her how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words, in turn, tells her what’s going on in the picture. “Nota bene (Take Note): It tells you. You don’t tell it,” she writes.
Didion, 86, has been an incisive chronicler of the ebb and flow of America’s cultural and political tides, its upheavals and downturns — from the realities of the counterculture of the 1960s and Hollywood lifestyle to the subtexts of political rhetoric, social unrest and psychological fragmentation — for six decades. In her era-defining essays, Didion’s prose is marked by the use of ellipses, fragments, refrains and cadences. It is, however, also rooted in a series of seemingly arbitrary images. She writes in “Why I Write” how certain images, to her, seem to shimmer — like the cat in an illustration in elementary psychology book, drawn by a patient in varying stages of schizophrenia, with a shimmer around it: “You could see the molecular structure breaking down at the very edges of the cat: the cat became the background and the background the cat, everything interacting, exchanging ions.” The shimmering images, she writes, also have a parallel with the same perception of objects by people on hallucinogens. Didion is not a schizophrenic, nor does she take hallucinogens, but the images do shimmer. “Look hard enough, and you can’t miss the shimmer. It’s there. You can’t think too much about these pictures that shimmer. You just lie low and let them develop. You stay quiet. You don’t talk to many people and you keep your nervous system from shorting out and you try to locate the cat in the shimmer, the grammar in the picture.”
Locating the grammar in the picture, and making the sentences shimmer, seems to come naturally to Didion. She has done the same throughout the six decades of her writing career, which began in earnest with her stint with Vogue. “The consciousness of the human organism is carried in its grammar,” she wrote in A Book of Common Prayer (1977), described as a “shimmering novel of innocence and evil”, set in the age of “conscienceless authority and unfathomable violence,” and reflecting Didion’s “telegraphic swiftness and microscopic sensitivity”. Four years ago, when the world was steady, she published South and West: From A Notebook, which brought together two extended excerpts from her field notes, a melee of overheard dialogues, observations, interviews, drafts of essays and articles: the first tracing a road trip she took with her screenwriter and novelist husband, John Gregory Dunne, in June 1970, through Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama; and the second, from a different notebook, the “California Notes”, which began as an assignment from Rolling Stone on the Patty Hearst trial of 1976. Didion never wrote the piece, watching the trial and being in San Francisco had set her thinking about the city, its social hierarchy, the Hearsts, and her own upbringing in Sacramento, California. Writing about the South, which Didion sees as America’s “heart of darkness” — she dwells on the stifling and enervating heat (“all movement seemed liquid”), the almost “viscous pace of life, the sulfurous light, and the preoccupation with race, class, heritage”. In the second fragment lies her early conception about the West — its landscape, the western women who were heroic for her, and her own lineage. Incidentally, all of this had appeared in detail in her 2003 memoir, Where I Was From, in which Didion reassesses “parts of her life, her work, her history” as well as the “state’s ethic of ruthless self-sufficiency and its often tenuous relationship to reality”. The sharp-eyed pieces in the slim book (almost all of Didion’s books fit this description) give a glimpse into the mind and process of one of America’s greatest essayists.
The essays in Let Me Tell You What I Mean seem to do what South and West does: outline Didion’s thinking and writing processes. “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear,” she underlines in “Why I Write”. What makes these early essays — ranging from a 1968 report on Gamblers Anonymous, the romantic impulses of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1989), filmmaker Tony Richardson’s pursuit of magic (1993), a marvellous paean to Ernest Hemingway (1998) to an appreciation of Martha Stewart written in 2000 — particularly interesting is how Didion’s now famous cool and shifting perspective takes a backseat to Didion the Opiner, writes Hilton Als in the astutely observed Foreword.
Wide-ranging and razor-sharp, they articulate feelings, atmospheres and undercurrents in trademark Didion fashion, bringing into relief her art of description, juxtaposition and compression. They are observant and prescient. The opening essay, “Alicia and the Underground Press” (1968), is an ode to the alternative newspapers in the 1960s, like Free Press, East Village Other and Berkeley Barb, that reflected “the special interests of the young and the disaffiliated” and had the “virtue of speaking directly to their readers, and speaking to them as friends”. It is also a nuanced attack on traditional mainstream media outlets. “We have come to expect newspapers to reflect the official ethic, to do the ‘responsible’ thing. The most admired newspapermen are no longer adversaries but confidants, participants; the ideal is to advise Presidents, dine with Walter Reuther and Henry Ford, and dance with the latter’s daughters at Le Club. And then, heavy with responsibility, to file their coded reports,” writes Didion.
In another essay, “Telling Stories”, written in 1978, she writes about her years as an undergraduate at Berkeley in 1954, her learnings at Vogue and the many rejection letters to her short stories. She was among a dozen-odd students admitted to the late Mark Schorer’s English 106A, a kind of “writers’ workshop” which “met for discussion three hours a week and required that each student produce, over the course of the semester, at least five short stories”. Didion could produce only three. “I had, and have, no talent for it, no feel for the particular rhythms of short fiction, no ability to focus the world in the window,” writes Didion, who is convinced that short stories demand a “certain awareness of one’s own intentions, a certain narrowing of the focus.” When she wrote her first novel, Run River, about the wife of a hop grower on the Sacramento River (“an act of memory, and memorialisation,” according to Als), in 1963, she didn’t have it clearly in mind till the time she was finishing it, five years after she had started working on the novel. “I suspect that writers of short stories know their own minds rather better than that,” she writes.
At Vogue, which she joined in 1956 and worked there for 10 years, first as a writer and later as an editor, there was a great deal to learn. And Didion learnt fast: she learned “to play games with words, how to put a couple of unwieldy dependent clauses through the typewriter and roll them out transformed into one simple sentence composed of precisely thirty-nine characters.” She writes: “We were connoisseurs of synonyms. We were collectors of verbs. Relied on the OED, learned to write and rewrite and rewrite again.” It was at Vogue that Didion wrote her famous essay on self-respect. “To live without self-respect is to lie awake some night, beyond the reach of warm milk, phenobarbital, and the sleeping hand on the coverlet, counting up the sins of commission and omission, the trusts betrayed, the promises subtly broken, the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice or carelessness. However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves,” she writes in “Self-Respect,” which is part of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion’s 1967 report on San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury hippie culture and drug scene, in all its flower power and ‘groovy’ glory.
Her ode to Hemingway, “Last Words”, is the humdinger of an essay, in which Didion shines bright. Parts of the essay, as Als rightly points out, feel like a self-portrait of Didion herself. “The very grammar of a Hemingway sentence dictated, or was dictated by, a certain way of looking at the world, a way of looking but not joining, a way of moving through but not attaching, a kind of romantic individualism distinctly adapted to its time and source,” she writes. Hemingway was a man to whom words mattered. “He worked at them, he understood them, he got inside them.”
One could very well say the same about Didion, whose own writing follows the same level of detachment — a way of looking but not joining. The peculiarity of being a writer, she writes, is that the entire enterprise involves the “mortal humiliation of seeing one’s own words in print.” Writing, to Didion, is “the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind”. However, throughout her career, Als writes, Didion has lived or projected an “I” on the page, while maintaining a certain distance, a desire to disappear so the “pictures and people that make the story can at least in part tell it”. Didion describes writing to be an aggressive, even a hostile act. “You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with veils of subordinate clauses and qualiﬁers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions — with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating — but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space,” she writes.
Didion’s unassuming nature and her self-effacement stand in sharp contrast to the self-dramatising and bumptious, brawling and rambunctious male writers of New Journalism of the 1960s, like Norman Mailer, Hunter S Thompson and Truman Capote, all of whom employed literary techniques, hitherto deemed unconventional in the profession, and ecstatically upstaged stories they reported. Didion’s tone in her stories, on the other hand, remained passive-aggressive. The interiority of her writing holds an appeal for being spare, calm and unsentimental. “My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out,” she writes in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, considered to be a pioneering work of New Journalism, which was published a year after Truman Capote’s “non-fiction novel of investigative journalism,” In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and its Consequences. A year later, Norman Mailer published The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel/The Novel as History, another “non-fiction novel”, which recounted the 1967 March on the Pentagon.
“A peculiar aspect of Didion’s nonfiction is that a significant portion of it reads like fiction. Or, more specifically, has the metaphorical power of great fiction,” writes Als, who describes Didion as a “carver of words in the granite of the specific.” During the years when Didion was an undergraduate at Berkeley, she writes that she 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, she tried to think. However, she failed. Her attention veered inexorably back to the specific, to the tangible, to 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 would try to read linguistic theory and would find myself wondering instead if the lights were on in the Bevatron up the hill..., and how they looked,” she writes, adding that although she wrote 10,000 words about it, she could no longer tell whether Milton put the sun or the earth at the center of his universe in Paradise Lost. “But I can still recall the exact rancidity of the butter in the City of San Francisco’s dining car, and the way the tinted windows on the Greyhound bus cast the oil refineries around Carquinez Strait into 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, and the Greyhound bus,” writes Didion.
When she began working on her second novel, Play It as It Lays (1970), about the low lives of those living the high life, it was the way she began each of her novels — with no notion of “character” or “plot” or even “incident.” She writes: “I had only two pictures in my mind, and a technical intention, which was to write a novel so elliptical and fast that it would be over before you noticed it, a novel so fast that it would scarcely exist on the page at all.” What was going on in the pictures in her mind, including the night lights in the Bevatron that she says burned in her mind for 20 years? “About the pictures: the first was of white space. Empty space. This was clearly the picture that dictated the narrative intention of the book — a book in which anything that happened would happen off the page, a ‘white’ book to which the reader would have to bring his or her own bad dreams — and yet this picture told me no ‘story,’ suggested no situation,” she writes.
Didion borrowed the title of her lecture, “Why I Write”, from George Orwell’s essay on his imperatives as a writer. “Good prose is like a window pane,” writes Orwell in that essay. In Didion’s case, it is like the window itself — a window on the way the words work.
Nawaid Anjum is an independent culture journalist based in New Delhi. He can be reached at email@example.com
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