I went on a quest a week or two ago to try to discover what it is about Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking that makes it such a stunning book. That lead me to re-read a couple of Didion's essays from Slouching Towards Bethlehem prior to re-reading the memoir. Take this essay On Morality.
As it happens I am in Death Valley, in a room at the Enterprise Motel and Trailer Park, and it is July, and it is hot. In fact it is 119o. I cannot seem to make the air conditioner work, butYes indeed, her mind does veer toward the particular, relentlessly so. Asked by a respected publication to write on the concept of morality and what does she put on paper? Her global location, the temperature of the room, how she reacts to it, and who she is (someone asked by The American Scholar to...). A conventional journalist would give you the lede: who, what, where, when, and why. Didion roots the reader in her own concrete circumstances because her point of view is that of the artist. She covers the basics like a good actor, to root herself: who am I, where am I, what am I doing, what do I want? She does this for several pages while intermittently describing stories she has heard in the desert, one about a roadside accident, another about divers trying to retrieve bodies from an underground pool, all of which allows her to do her job, that is to reflect on the concept of morality, but as it impacts real people in real places, and the way that she knows its impact is by discovering through the act of writing how it impacts her.
there is a small refrigerator, and I can wrap ice cubes in a towel and hold them against the small of my back. With the help of the ice cubes I have been trying to think, because The American Scholar asked me to, in some abstract way about "morality," a word I distrust more every day, but my mind veers inflexibly toward the particular.
The widow of one of the drowned boys is over there; she is eighteen, and pregnant, and is said not to leave the hole. The divers go down and come up, and she just stands there and stares into the water. They have been diving for ten days but have found no bottom to the caves, no bodes and no trace of them, only the black 90o water going down and down and down, and a single translucent fish, not classified. The story tonight is that one of the divers has been hauled up incoherent, out of his head, shouting - until they got him out of there so that the widow could not hear - about water that got hotter instead of cooler as he went down, about light flickering through the water, about magma, about underground nuclear testing.Are you there with her? I am. This is someone who knows how to sequence words so that you can see, hear, touch, taste and smell. No wonder she worked in film. This film has the unsettled soundtrack and the bizarre lighting of a Twilight Zone episode. All that, so when she finally delivers the goods, you are with her in her "here and now," and can she can talk to you as a cohabitant in place and time.
You see I want to be quite obstinate about insisting that we have no way of knowing - beyond that fundamental loyalty to the social code - what is "right" and what is "wrong," what is "good" and what "evil." I dwell so upon this because the most disturbing aspect of "morality" seems to me to be the frequency with which the word now appears; in the press, on television, in the most perfunctory kinds of conversation. Questions of straightforward power (or survival) politics, questions of quite indifferent public policy, questions of almost anything: they are all assigned these factitious moral burdens. There is something facile going one, some self-indulgence at work. Of course we would all like to "believe" in something, like to assuage our private guilts in public causes, like to lose our tiresome selves; like, perhaps, to transform the white flag of defeat at home into the brave white banner of battle away from home. And of course it is all right to do that; that is how, immemorially, things have gotten done. But I think it is all right only so long as we do not delude ourselves about what we are doing, and why.Now she has come in for the kill. Doesn't mince words, does she? But she knows words as painters know color. ' Factitious' anyone? And it doesn't sound from this passage like much has changed since 1965, does it.
In the essay Goodbye to All That Didion begins by rooting herself, and by extension, her reader, in the here and now of memory.
It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was.Her creative process becomes clearer and clearer as I read, and what a pleasure to watch her work - as that is the experience I am having. I don't feel as though I am reading a finished product, rather like I am watching a story being made, making the acquaintance of both the writer and the story as I go. Like any story teller, actor, painter, Didion enters her studio, sits at her desk and sometimes she must ask: how do I begin. This is the ending place for many actors, painters and writers because, having no answer, they stop. Not Didion. She sits down knowing her assignment is 'the place where it ends' but all she can think of is the beginning, so she writes that. She tries to see ending in her mind's eye and she sees only the beginning and it makes her physically tense, and so she writes that. Didion knows her craft. Her craft is to write, to place words on paper out of her experience. To practice that craft you do just that. You do it with the experience you have right now, not the experience you wish you had.
Of course one could complain - but she is able to do that because of confidence, possibly even arrogance - she has many successes behind her. Perhaps. Sometimes past successes breed confidence, other times they breed anxiety. For all we know, she did it with tremendous insecurity, but words are put on the page nonetheless, until she arrives at some clarity about how she will do what she has to do. But she has not waited for that moment to arrive to begin the the business of writing, that she has been doing all along.
Part of what I want to tell you is what it is like to be young in New York, how six months can become eight years with the deceptive ease of a film dissolve, for that is how those years appear to me now, in a long sequence of sentimental dissolves and old-fashioned trick shots - the Seagram Building fountains dissolve into snowflakes, I enter a revolving door at twenty and come out a good deal older, and on a different street. But most particularly I want to explain to you, and in the process perhaps to myself, why I no longer live in New York.Now she doesn't merely use the techniques of film - she calls the reader's attention to that fact. I admire her voice so much because the art and the artist are one. The story I am going to tell you begins with the fact that I am I (as Gertrude Stein might say) and that I have to tell you a story. It is a little incoherent as I start, so I'll simply begin there, with the incoherence. I would do an exercise with my actors back when I was teaching acting that was developed by Lee Strassberg at The Actor's Studio. I used it continually with them, and whenever I worked myself as an actor. It is called "Speaking Out." All it asks is that the actor speak out of their experience of the present moment on a physical, mental, or emotional level. That is harder than it sounds, because one's present experience while creating work that matters to us isn't necessarily so pleasant to contemplate. It is full of anxieties around the pressure of appearing competent before an audience of your peers. It is full of the imperfections of which we are all composed: fears, needs, jealousies. Let's face it, when working under pressure at something that matters deeply to us, and when doing so in public as the actor's job requires, none of us are exemplars of anything. And let's be clear - speaking out of the experience of the present moment is quite different that speaking about it. One can speak about the experience from knowledge of it, and this usually comes with distance. To speak out of the experience means you are in it, right now, and whatever unattractive mess you are is what you expose with your words and actions. And if and when you find that the stream of words and actions flow from the 'you' of that moment, the skilled teacher will guide you back to the scene or monologue on which you are working, so that your experience flows into the reality of that moment. That is not because the story is about 'you,' which is so often the criticism leveled at the Method approach to acting, this is because this is an exercise in vulnerability. It is a relentless pursuit of the flow of human experience that is woven into one's practice of one's craft over time, the goal being to fulfill the character's relationship to their circumstances with human behaviors that have an inevitability and an authenticity that is like those we encounter in the world. It is often imperfect, as we are. It is often less than completely in- the-moment, but it is a place to begin.
This is just what Didion does. What makes The Year of Magical Thinking so remarkable, yes I am finally getting there, is the fact that she does this while being stripped to the bone by loss. Rather than making vulnerability the reason to do something else, she inhabits the moment of nine months after her loss, and relentlessly puts down one word and then another. The act seems, if anything, more determined than ever to write from the here and now. Just look at these words.
It is now, as I begin to write this, the afternoon of October 4, 2004.It is now. How bare can you get? It is not descriptive of loss or vulnerability per se, but it's an act of facing the present out of that vulnerability as well as Didion can at the moment (it is speaking out), and it is practiced in the medium of her art - words - instead of the behavior of the actor.
Nine months and five days ago, at approximately nine o'clock on the evening of December 30, 2003, my husband, John Gregory Dunne, appeared to (or did) experience, as the table where he and I had just sat down to dinner in the living room of our apartment in New York, a sudden massive coronary event that caused his death...Just the facts of his death over and over. That is where her minds dwells and so that's how she begins the writing process and, if we wish, we're along for the ride. Didion's act of writing leads to beginning the story telling task which, in typical Didion fashion, is the visible subject of the story until it can become the invisible means.
This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself. I have been a writer my entire life. As a writer, even as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish. The way I write is who I am, or have become, yet this is a case in which I wish I had instead of words and their rhythms a cutting room, equipped with an Avid, a digital editing system on which I could touch a key and collapse the sequence of time, show you simultaneously all the frames of memory that come to me now, let you pick the takes, the marginally different expressions, the variant readings of the same lines.The inadequacy of the medium to the richness of experience - if that isn't a well trodden theme for the experienced artist! How quickly has Didion evolved from mourner to writer, returning to the concerns of a seasoned artist - impatience with her medium - once setting pen to paper. As with her earlier work, the writing begins from wherever she is. Who she is, where she is, the thoughts, activities, or sensations that occupy her. Then she writes her way toward her task, whether assigned or discovered, until she tells the story of telling the story. In doing so she faces, from time to time, creative limits. Often, she then refers to film - another medium she has worked in, one with different advantages and limits. She seems to have created a career-long creative dialogue, but rather than creating a dissolve or an edit with words (techniques she can as has used) she puts the conflict between forms directly on the page. This experience of conflict with her medium, she says, this is the story. This is useful because in a moment in which she could be removed from her chief action - telling a story - she makes a technical aspect of that act visible so that the story may continue.
I thought I was going to write about The Year of Magical Thinking. I had lots of pages tagged that were examples of writing I admired but in starting with Slouching Towards Bethlehem this became a story about creative process and, especially, beginnings. This is a favorite theme of mine as an artist and a teacher of process, so I guess that isn't terribly surprising. When I think of it, the aspect of The Year of Magical Thinking that most impresses me is that Didion could begin writing at all, so perhaps that was my story, or at least it is. It is the story because that is what I wrote.
She consistently blows the top of my head off. I am excited (and also dreading) reading her next book about Quintana.
I know what you mean about the new book - it's like watching an accident. I'm not sure I want to look but I have to. She's unflinching.
Her article about Howard Hughes: stupendous. All of her California stuff is GREAT.
Ted, What a wonderful post about Didion's writing. She has been one of my favorites for many years, although I have yet to read The Year of Magical Thinking.
AC - Thank you! And the year of magical thinking is so worth it. This was my second time.
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