On Joan Didion


‘We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.’

I really would love to be that person that reads this line and just gets it. I, however, am the person that had to google at least two of the words, which didn’t fill me with confidence, as this sentence appears on the first page of the first essay in Joan Didion’s The White Album, a collection of essays compiled in the 1970s. 

In terms of complexity, the majority of Didion’s themes are much the same, across Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album; she writes on ubiquitous American topics, like the motion picture culture of Hollywood back in American cinema’s golden age, life in California, etc. Despite the distance between our two worlds, she writes with such wonderful wit and a beautiful clarity that I quickly read both collections, one after the other. I could not put them down. 

When I did eventually understand the sentence above, I felt an odd contentedness with the idea that I can now read on the page the notion that my mind had previously grasped only fragments of, at random points, whence I had questioned ideas of and around writing. She really is wonderful when it comes to inclusivity with those almost polarised corners of creative thinking. 

Consider this, from ‘On Keeping a Notebook’:

"But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable “I”. We are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful pensées; we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker."

I cannot describe how much I feel this, on every level. This concept of the ‘implacable “I”’ is so important. When we keep a notebook we move through this earth foraging for tiny observable moments of clarity, of tenderness, of beauty, like the sight of a flower box on someone’s windowsill tied up with string, the effort that somebody has gone to, to keep nature in their eye line as they sit at their dining table. Like the smiles exchanged during accidental eye contact. Like an exchange between two people that you happen to overhear that is both bizarre and lovely. We look everywhere for these things, we read them in fiction, we read them in diary entries, we see them every now and then. Didion, in her perfect way, has captured this notion for us; that we look for them and we remember these fragments of a moment that we may or may not have embellished for our own sake, perhaps writing down the most memorable that no one else will see or even truly understand. She has given voice to the idea that the notebook is an extension of ourselves, our ‘mind’s string’.

Whilst A. A. Gill wonderfully captures the irony of Brexit, George Orwell truly does know how to write about socialism and Roland Barthes killed the author once and for all, Joan Didion seems to get it - she gets the ideas of meaninglessness and searching for meaning, marrying those ideas seamlessly on the page. What's more, she gets it with wit, elegance and eloquence. I could not recommend her more.

image: Julian Wasser