“I don’t know what I think until I write it down.”
― Joan Didion
I was wondering what I’d write about today for my #nerdlution post today. I didn’t write yesterday, and I was determined not to miss today as well. I’m reading The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, and I’m really enjoying it, but I’m not ready to write about it just yet. Then I thought about writing about this article in New York Magazine that I read last night about Stephen Sondheim. I love Sondheim, and I usually like Frank Rich, but I just didn’t have anything compelling to say about THAT either. I liked the article, but as a Sondheim-phile, I didn’t really learn much. It reaffirmed what I already thought about him (so smart! so complicated!), but I didn’t have anything really new to add.
Still, I didn’t want to let a day go by (nooot a daaaay goes byyyy…get it?) without blogging, so I was half-heartedly drafting a post about the Sondheim article.
But then I discovered that today is Joan Didion’s birthday. And I knew exactly what I’d write about.
I love Joan Didion. I first read her wonderful essay “Goodbye to All That” when I was in college and, I’ll admit, I was unimpressed. As a freshman in love with New York City I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to live anywhere but Manhattan. But here Didion was, saying that not only did she leave Manhattan but that at some point everyone leaves Manhattan. That it was a rite of passage. Clearly Didion didn’t understand my Manhattan.
I read Didion again, seven years later. I was planning the curriculum for a new course I was teaching, AP English Language and Composition, and was looking for essays to fill in the curriculum. Try “In Bed,” someone had said. “Didion’s syntax is really interesting in it.” As I began to read, I was stunned by Didion’s description of a life with migraines. As a long-term migraine sufferer I was amazed by the vivid way she was able to describe something I had experienced a thousand times before but had never been able to describe adequately to non-sufferers. (The BEST description of migraine I’ve ever read is in Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Read it if you love someone who gets headaches.)
So I checked out “Goodbye to All That.” I must have misremembered it. She couldn’t have hated Manhattan, right?
Well, yes and no. I didn’t misremember it; Didion really did leave Manhattan, and she did say that everyone leaves Manhattan at some point. What was different was, of course, me. I was no longer seventeen, thrilled to live on my own and explore the subway. Instead, I was married, living in New Jersey (New Jersey?! I could almost hear seventeen year old me exclaim) and suddenly I understood Didion. It wasn’t Manhattan she was saying goodbye to, it was the person she was when she lived in Manhattan.
I went on a Didion binge, later reading most of her short work. I culminated my Didion experience with The Year of Magical Thinking. I was a few months from getting married, and Didion’s memoir of the year after her husband’s death shattered me. I took a Didion break. It was too real. Her observations about being young and being a woman were too close. Her sadness was too palpable.
In the intervening years I’ve come back to Didion occasionally. My sister, who’d never read any of Didion’s work, asked me what to start with and I simply handed over my Everyman’s Library collection of her works, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live and shrugged. I haven’t read Blue Nights, her second memoir. I’m not sure I’m emotionally there.
But on this, her birthday, I’ve gone over some of my favorite stuff. I’ll leave you with this, one of my favorite quotes from Didion. I’m not the same girl who read “Goodbye to All That” on a bench in Washington Square Park, but it’s nice to remember her sometimes.
“…I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”
― Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem