What makes Joan Didion the quintessential writer for Pacific Standard Time isn't just her presence at the defining social movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
True, in her forty years of reportage, fiction, and most recently in memoirs, she has examined many of them. Whether she's with the hippies at Haight and Ashbury, in line with Huey P. Newton at Kaiser Permanente, with the Reagans at their “malevolently democractic” governor's mansion, or with morally bankrupt young money in New Hollywood, she is, to readers of a certain age, the authoritative reporter on postwar California, always able to separate the wheat from the chaff in the midst of white-hot intensity.
In last night's installment of the Library Foundation's ALOUD reading series (full disclosure: sponsored by LA Weekly), we learned that Didion, soon to be 77, fits with the mega-celebration Pacific Standard Time because she and the festival sponsors share the same fundamental attitude — that for even the most keen observers and thinkers, it may take something like a retrospective, or a memoir, to truly appreciate a moment.
Seated onstage at the former St. Vibiana's Cathedral, Didion tightly crossed her legs, and, with Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin, read from 1979's The White Album and her new memoir Blue Nights, and discussed a lifetime in and out of California. She is frail and advanced in her years but here, for a public, for her readers, she is determined and wound tight. (One audience member thanked Didion for her “fierceness.”)
Born outside Sacramento, educated in Berkeley, and scooting between Los Angeles and New York ever since, Didion still finds a kind of magic in the look of California. Asked about her favorite places in Los Angeles, she recalled sunsets at Dodger Stadium, hardwood floors in Hollywood and a night drive from LAX to South Central for a presidential primary.
“That drive, it's not all that beautiful,” she says. “But there was something about that night — I just remember weeping all the way from the airport.”
It's this fascination with peculiar, unforgettable images that has become the hallmark of Didion's writing career. While she once famously said that we tell ourselves stories in order to live, she is constantly looking for disruptions, searching for ways to complicate our common narratives. If she were a visual artist, Didion would be John Baldessari, isolating parts so as to call into question the harmony of the whole. As a performance artist, she might be Bas Jan Ader, trying to find the lies or untruths that are the fundamental underpinning of myths and stories.
Which is what makes Blue Nights so interesting. For the first time, Didion writes without a narrative to dismantle, instead choosing to let images freely hang together. Like the seasons of southern California, the jagged memories summoned by Didion arrive “so theatrically as to seem strokes of random fate,” suggesting not the passage of time but abrupt acts of violence.
It wasn't meant to be that way. To cope with the death of her daughter Quintana Roo Dunne, Didion says she started a more “researched” novel about children and parenting. Instead, she found herself writing about her child and parenthood — in effect, turning her famously incisive critical lens on herself. It was unfamiliar terrain for Didion, so famous for the inserting herself into her writing while avoiding self-evisceration.
“My favorite line of yours is 'writers are always selling someone out,'” Ulin tells Didion, quoting 1968's Slouching Towards Bethlehem . “So is your presence in your own living room against your self-interest?”
“Absolutely,” Didion says, her dry, measured monotone ringing in the hall, echoing inside empty confession booths. “I was tearing up the only person I knew.”
Unlike with 2005's The Year of Magical Thinking, written in the wake of her husband John Dunne's sudden death, writing Blue Nights was a struggle. That bestseller, which put Didion on the map of Oprah's book club readers, took her 88 days to write. This one, she says, took her six months. It's the difference between writing in the moment and writing with perspective, and while it's clear she does not enjoy the cognitive limitations of old age, she says the transition to a reflective, associative mode has invigorated her.
“The process of discovery has helped me when I wanted to abandon the book,” Didion says. “Nobody ever told me I was going to get old. It's novel to me.”
Reading from Blue Nights, Didion spoke with the kind of momentum and rhythm that she says used to characterize the way she wrote when she was young, like she was learning about her subjects only after she found the right tempo. Enjoying her descriptions of blue gym shorts and a black wool challis dress, the audience of 750 chuckled when Didion found the “invitations to the weddings of people who are no longer married.”
The past may be painful, memories may be burdens, but they remain fertile creative ground. Did she have any advice for young writers, for those who want to emulate her clanging sentences, her ability to write with authority?
“Don't be afraid to rewrite,” she says. And like that, the lights came up, and “Turn, Turn, Turn” filled the room.
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