There is a distinct comfort in knowing that certain people are still around. A reassurance in knowing that there are people out there who see the world in ways that seem familiar to oneself. A relief that there are those who are able to put into words those things that at the time you are not capable of doing. When we lose these people, known intimately to us or not, then we are left with a certain empty feeling; not simply as a result of the physical yet metaphorical ‘hole’ they leave behind, but also the emptiness of knowing that we are losing a certain viewpoint on the world, one which we found to be sound, wise and safe.
I am reliably informed that a request to write this piece arrived shortly after the news broke, during which time I had received several messages from friends, enquiring as to my wellbeing and sending me love. Due to my complete ignorance of the current facts this was strange, but it being the 23rd December, a welcome addition to the festive period. Six days have since elapsed in which several paragraphs have been discarded after numerous failed reworks; my only success coming in the form of a few (potentially) throwaway sentences. Instead, on this, the sixth day, I have reread two collections of essays; Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, in the full knowledge that it is only once I feel comforted that I will be able to find my own words.
Several times over the past week I have been posed with one striking question: How does one go about writing a tribute to someone who is so immortal? Although I will gladly take any opportunity to crowbar the name ‘Joan Didion’ into any conversation, I have been consistently struck these past seven days with the futility that lies in trying to write about her life. She did it for us. If you require an obituary, read Where I Was From. Social critique: Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Intimate glances into the author’s psyche: The White Album. Advice on how to grieve such a loss: The Year of Magical Thinking. When talking to a friend yesterday there were three words I returned to over and over and over again: she’s eulogised herself.
I am unable to tell you anything about Joan Didion that Joan Didion has not already told us. It is impossible to write a legacy without simply using her own words. I do not mean that the odd quote here and there is useful in understanding her life, rather I mean it quite literally. Everything she wrote is so well crafted, so intimate, so personal and so subtly powerful that it would be wasteful of me to attempt anything new. Her legacy is a unique one, in that it is she who lays the most claim to it.
Five years ago, I experienced a grief so intense I felt I had lost my personality. I knew there were many things I had just lost in the space of three days, perhaps most importantly to me, a unique viewpoint on the world. Upon my uncle’s death there were certain people who wrote about his life, his work, whatever legacy it was he had left behind and I hated it. I do not remember much from those first few weeks and did not put pen to paper aside from once; in the haze of my memories I distinctly remember writing down how strange it is that when one dies we no longer have control over who we are. How it is so easy to be interpreted, reimagined and redefined. This scared me. The only thing I wanted was for him to be able to speak for himself. To lay claim to his own legacy. To fashion his own eulogy.
Joan Didion taught me about grief. The Year of Magical Thinking was avoided for as long as I still had other Didion to read. There was something within my being that knew that once I began her account on how to navigate unimaginable loss, the one I had felt would have some more finality. I knew that through the reading I would be moving closer to some kind of acceptance. It took me three years but it made me feel sane. I was acutely struck by the moment in which she is urged to remove John’s clothes and shoes, a task she logically understands but is unable to comprehend and therefore do. What will he do when he comes back, she wonders, as upon his return he will most certainly need both his clothes and his shoes. When you know exactly how this madness feels, someone writing it down and having the courage to publish makes you feel the sanest person in the world.
It was my closest school friend who introduced me to Joan. (Not personally, although it’s often felt that way.) As I’ve shared before, he had taken a work-related trip to the States and returned with an edition of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, which he promptly leant to me uttering the words, “you’re a woman who can’t help but include herself in her writing, you’ll like her.” At the risk of cliche, our first encounter was transformative. I didn’t simply like Joan Didion, as my friend had suggested, I was completely enamoured.
The first words I ever read of Joan Didion’s attributed suicide, divorce and prickly dread to the Santa Ana winds. She said they worked on the nerves, disrupted your breathing and helped hillsides to spontaneously combust. We are being told this as a prelude to a story about Lucille Miller, a thirty-four year old woman who was tried and convicted of murdering her husband on Banyan Street in the middle of the night via their 1964 Volkswagen. This is extraordinary journalism and even in my ignorance, with that first paragraph I was able to see that for her, place matters. It influences everything; lives, language, loves. It determines our attitudes and our destinies. It soothes us or it works on the nerves. It shapes our identities. It is not a mere backdrop for the players on this stage, rather a character within its own right, an integral part of the action, a plot device waiting to pounce.
Time and time again Joan’s own words have been used to describe her: a place belongs to the person who claims it the hardest. Although she is using this in relation to James Jones and how for her, he lays claim to Hawaii, the words unsurprisingly are the only ones that can do justice to what she was to California. I have never been to California, but in the California of my mind’s eye it is Joan Didion’s. It is sun-kissed, sixties hedonism and it is the Manson Family Murders. It is Jim Morrison arriving late, or not at all, to record with the Doors. It is San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sacramento and inevitable wildfires. It is a land where rain is a mystery, water a fascination, rattlesnakes a certainty. It is endless highways, the Pacific Ocean, car travel and the Beverly Hills Hotel. It is synthetic light, migraines, dinner parties and endless absurdities. It is one Pan Am flight from Honolulu and it is the final frontier. It is now, thanks to Joan Didion, one of my greatest obsessions. A mystery so intimate to me I wonder if I ever need go.
For days I have been attempting to vocalise how Joan’s writing actually makes me feel. I have come up with nothing aside from feelings of being overwhelmed. I am always overwhelmed by emotion, neither sad nor happy. As I write I come to realise that she encapsulates a certain melancholy; a word that for me evokes feelings of desolation, emptiness and heartache alongside a certain comfort or reassurance.
I have turned to Joan’s writing for consolation many times over the past two years. More frequently than not, the center has not been holding. I have turned to Joan as her work reminds me that there is a universality in chaos, in dread, in the impending sense of the end of the world. Generation after generation has stood on the precipice of the world collapsing in on itself and remarkably, every time, it does not.
There is much uniqueness in Joan Didion’s writing but there are two things I find particularly striking. The first is her ability to explore some of the most mundane things with such intricacy that they become the most exciting and enchanting things in the world. The essays Holy Water and Bureaucrats are excellent examples of this. In one, she visits the Operations Control Center for the California State Water Project and in another Caltrans, the California Department of Transportation’s Operation Center. Neither of these are particularly exciting places yet as Didion notes the minutiae in their workings and how her own thoughts and feelings interact with these places they become sensational. I knew when I was gripped to an essay on ‘the 42 mile loop’ that I was reading a writer like no other.
The second is her capacity to include so much intricacy in the sensational that they in turn become mundane. As in Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream, (the story chronicling Lucille Miller and the death of her husband) where we are told that after Miller has given birth following her incarceration her elder daughter came to take the new baby home in a white dress with pink ribbons. We are consistently brought back down to earth. Told something suddenly, in an often offhand manner, that changes the whole feeling. This could happen to you. This could happen to anyone. One day you sit down to dinner, and life as you know it ends.
Reading Joan Didion did not make me want to become a writer. Reading Joan Didion assured me that I am a writer and taught me why. Why I Write is one of the most sensible things I have ever read. Why I Write taught me to unlearn everything I thought I knew about grammar. Told me to treat each sentence as if it were a melody, adding the rests and the short notes wherever I felt they should be. She taught me that writing is an art form, and that whenever I shift the structure of a sentence, I change it in the same dramatic manner as taking a photograph from an entirely different angle. She spoke to us often of her own doubts and reassured us that everyone has the feeling that they are sometimes simply passing as the person they think they are or would like to be.
In the preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem Didion claims that there is one thing we always need to remember: ‘writers are always selling someone out.’ I reread this yesterday and, as always, was amused until I began to wonder who is it I am selling out by writing this piece. I still don’t know. Sometimes I wonder if it’s Joan, I’m selling out what she actually meant, what her true point was through some well-meant misinterpretation. I am, however, more inclined to believe that in this instance the person really being sold out is myself. Never will my (currently unfinished) novel land in the aged yet eccentrically expressive hands of the remarkable Ms Didion. Never will I be able to express to her how it was she who helped me make sense of my burning desire to work things out through the written word; that need to grasp a permeance in the midst of chaos.
Maybe I am selling myself out through what I now feel has become some kind of intellectual love letter to a woman born generations before myself, on the other side of the world, in a place I have never been, with whom I feel I have such a strong connection purely due to her exceptional command of the written word. Joan Didion taught me that there is a place in fact for women’s voices and that there is a place in journalism for the personal essay. Order can be found in the deepest disorder. Life is always there, even in the midst of grief. Nothing objective is interesting.
Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.
Saffron Rain lives and writes in Stockport. She was born and raised around Manchester, only moving away to get her degree and subsequent MA in English Lit in Sheffield. During this time she wrote ardently on the North, particularly female writers and filmmakers.
Her preferred form is the personal essay and she enjoys writing about topics that she connects to on a personal level. Some of these have appeared in independent publications and she shares longer pieces on her own blog. She loves to read, particularly women, and will take any opportunity to crowbar Joan Didion into a conversation.