“I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder.”- Joan Didion
In Joan Didions collection of essays Slouching Towards Bethlehem, she uses her skills as a journalist, as a prose writer and as a memoirist to illustrate a distinct form of “New Journalism” that steps outside of any conventional writing style. She uses precise accounts of people, places and situations that invite the reader to come as close as possible to that moment in time. She does not ask the reader to see things her way, but instead she wants the reader to be close to the actual event; close to the voices that have already been heard but are to be heard again. She is so authoritative in her perspective and her recounting of certain times and places that you go along with her without questioning her credibility.
The wonderful thing about Didion’s writing is that she has extensive notes on all the experiences she recounts. Didion knows that memory is fragmented and uncertain, but her notes are often the central guiding line, and she fills in the rest through memory. If she cannot remember something exactly, she simply explains how she remembers it. It is actually impossible to remember something exactly how it happened because our brains are selective. Some things may be left out but others might be highlighted in a certain memory.
In her personal essay titled On Keeping a Notebook, she recounts a woman that she saw in a bar. She first describes her appearance by saying “She is wearing a plaid silk dress from Peck and Peck and the hem is coming down.” Then she goes on to describe who she thinks the woman might be, what her background is and her purpose for being in the bar. “All she can see are the viscous summer sidewalks and the 3 a.m. long distance calls that will make her lie awake and then sleep drugged through all the steaming mornings left in August (1960, 1961?). ” Didion questions her own memory, but her description of the woman in the bar is so beautifully posed and lifelike that the reader does not question for a moment that Didion has known this woman all her life. This is part of the beauty of Didion’s writing, it is unsure yet so certain.
Didion says that even though at first she only has a general notion of why she was in that bar and what year it was and what state the bar was located in, she definitely “remember[s] being there.” For Didion and the reader, this is all that matters. Her notes presumably have some importance to her (since she decided to write them down in the first place), but she questions why she writes down certain things. “Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why keep a notebook at all?” She suggests that people who keep notebooks are a different breed, “lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents.” Didion takes notes in order to make sense of a world that might otherwise be considered senseless. Her notes and her memory give relevance to her experiences purely because of the fact that she is thinking and writing about them.
Her first notebook entry was when she was five years old. She wrote about a woman who believed herself to be freezing to death in the Arctic, only to wake up to find herself in the middle of the Sahara–doomed to burn in the intense heat. This first entry does reveal a predilection to the extreme that undoubtedly followed Didion into her adulthood. Although the story was completely made-up, she says that “If I were analytically inclined I would find it a truer story than any I might have told about Donald Johnsons birthday party or the day my Cousin Brenda put kitty litter in the aquarium.” In this sentiment, she suggests that our minds often fabricate our memories, so who is to say that a memory about a birthday party is any less valid than a story about a woman roasting in the desert?
Didion says that “the point of keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking.” For her the facts do not matter as much. Her memory will certainly lie to her, obscuring the actual truth. She instead abandons the need to be truthful and says that “not only have I always had trouble distinguishing what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters.” So what are her purposes? Why doesn’t the distinction between fact and supposed fact matter to her? Here is where Didion gains her inarguable authority as a writer. It doesn’t matter if her accounts are entirely factual, because that moment in time has already come and gone, and no one can reclaim it or hope to actualize it. The only way that a moment from her past exists is in her own mind, and she is here to tell the reader how she thinks it might have happened.
“Perhaps it never did snow that August in Vermont; perhaps there never were flurries in the night wind, and maybe no one else felt the ground hardening and summer already dead even as we pretended to bask in it, but that was how it felt to me, and it might as well have snowed, could have snowed, did snow.”
Didion exists as a reporter and a writer of prose simultaneously. Sometimes when reading Didion, it is difficult to believe that an event she is describing happened many years ago. This is partially because a lot of her experiences that she writes about were documented and her many conversations taken down. The reader feels a closeness to her because her writing is very close to what she was feeling or experiencing at the time. When she writes about the dusty Mojave or the messy curls hanging out of a hippies headband, it is because she was so immersed in the moment that we get immersed in it as well.
When does writing become a relevant act? Joan Didion is fascinated and frustrated by this question. For Didion, writing has been part of her life since she was very young. Her mother gave her a notebook for her to record thoughts and experiences. Maybe that is why her writing seems so natural and consistent. Events that Didion describes are the lifeblood of her writing. She has a great need to “remember what it was to be me.”
She can capture a moment in her writing like taking a video with a camera; she uses her grammar and vocabulary to change the angle and fit it to her exact meaning. To continue the metaphor, Didion uses this lens to partially separate herself from the events that she describes. She is somewhat objective, but there are still hints of purposeful stylistic choices. She crafts her voice, changing her tone, adding inflection, similarly to a skilled interviewer or even a Broadcast reporter.
This is a distinct and unique style of writing. She writes with a tense and unsure chronology, while also picking and choosing what to describe and what not to describe with precision. In this way, her writing is what a good essay should be, or at least attempt to be. However, Didion is meticulous in her stylistic choices. She chooses to remain in the moment, giving her personal account like any good reporter. One of the reasons Didion’s writing is so authoritative is because she is reporting through prose. Reporting is inherently trustworthy, that is, worthy of the the readers full trust. So we go along with Didion as she brings back all the feelings or non-emotion of an exact moment or string of moments.
Unlike the conventional reporter or journalist, Didion allows herself to not only inject her opinion (which does not exist in AP style or reporting in general), but to let her opinion be a major guiding force in her writing. She keeps some distance when describing a person or place and doesn’t say what she thinks outright. Her opinion comes through her present tense, in-the-moment style. She describes a young panhandle girl in the moment she saw her. “The boots do not look like an affectation, they look like she came up off a ranch about two weeks ago.” She writes as if she is narrating and commentating on her own life and experiences. That is one reason her style makes the reader feel close, without giving too much away.
In her writing, Didion focuses on the odd specificities that both blur and illuminate the universal. Life for her is full of substance, even when the lives that she is documenting are legitimately bleak or not exemplary. Her style sometimes verges on the pessimistic, but in most cases she writes as a realist. For her, meaning is ominous and unclear. She searches for meaning in the 24 hour casinos where you can’t tell what time it is and everyone’s eyes are baggy and glossed over; she searches along the dusty road where signs advertise “Cheap weddings, witnesses available.” She searches in the old drafty warehouses where joints are being passed around. Didion searches to make sense out of the apparent nothingness of existence.
Didion’s writing seems to prove to itself that every moment in life is worth recording, reflecting on, and referring back to. Why is Didion able to write as if the moment she is describing is happening in simultaneity with her thought, her experience and her reflection? It is because for her, every moment is worth experiencing, and every moment has a huge impact on her life. So why is it necessary to write, and what gives writing relevancy? For Didion, writing is imperative to anyone who wants to understand themselves and society.
Instead of being a reporter, she was a keen observer of life. Her experiences show the many “triumphs over nothingness” of people who are not larger than life. Her perception is one of her greatest tools. In her title essay Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion explores the counterculture of the Haight-Ashbury District of San Francisco. Didion is incredibly knowledgeable about the topics that she covers. Not only does she do extensive research (a skill no doubt acquired from her career as a journalist), but she brings the reader directly into the moment that she is describing.
Didion describes scenes and landscapes so well that it seems that she has interviewed them as well as the people that live there. The reason Didion is able to wield her subjectivity with such power and grace is because she knows that there has to be a voice in her writing. Didion said that people are “uneasy about a story until we know who is telling it.” When reading Didion, we know the voice that is on the page, we feel her presence sitting in the corner of the room with a notepad and pen. Her descriptions are so accurate that it seems like they are beautifully written notes taken at the moment of conversation or observation.