In her essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” Joan Didion writes:
“…perhaps it never did snow that August in Vermont…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.”
I’m writing a piece in which I wanted so badly to use these words, but I used another part of Didion’s essay, had to let go of this treasure for the sake of the whole fabric I’m making…but I love this passage. I love its cadence, I love the self-doubt and rumination. This progression from Fact toward How It Felt To Me is an important and rich one, and we dismiss it at our humanity’s peril. This has been on my mind a lot, sparked anew last night when I read David Ulin’s piece about redefining creative nonfiction, in which Ulin writes, “all art is a kind of hybrid, reality reconstructed, redefined.”
We get up each morning. Unless we are nudists, we put on layers, veils, makeup, clothing to disguise or hide or redefine something about ourselves. “Reality” is manufactured somewhere inside each human brain. (I am not a brain scientist; I don’t remember which part, but I have read about this, and I think this is true.) Things happen, there are facts, and facts are arguably “real” or “true”, but it seems to me the realm of literature, or art, is built upon everything else. The murk. How It Felt To Me. Even when I’m writing fiction, How It Felt To Me matters much in the making. Even if I am creating a world and pretending it doesn’t actually exist, even if I am telling Lies, How It Felt To Me can’t help but steer the making. (I could lie to myself now and say it doesn’t, but lying takes too much breath, breath I could instead be using to write, breath I could be using to stay alive.)
The fun is grappling around in the mess of these parts.
I just wrote a note to one of my students, and thought it blog-worthy. I don’t think you need any back story, except that my student is writing a novel and the protagonist has some things in common with the writer, both having lost a beloved. Here’s what I wrote:
If you are comfortable with it (or maybe even if you’re a bit uncomfortable–stretching is really important!), spend some time reflecting on paper about your experience and how it might shape your approach to the protagonist’s loss. I think acknowledging this will be a way to make the protagonist’s story deeper and more authentic. (Do you know about method acting? It’s the parallel that comes to mind right now–where an actor accesses past experiences and emotions to help portray a character. In a weird way, this is similar. I think about this a lot as a writer, and do it fairly often, sometimes without realizing that’s what I’m doing.) I would really like to see this in your proposal. This linking who we are as humans to who we are as writers is the kind of reaching and growing that seems very appropriate in a graduate level writing program.
If you were to sort of skirt around it or not really “own” it, it might not get to the richness that is possible by owning it.
Joan Didion gets at a related something in her essay, “On Keeping A Notebook.” Didion writes, “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive or not.” Otherwise, as she goes on, these former selves tend to haunt us.
Organizing my readings for fall classes, I picked a file folder from the stack I reuse at home. “Credit card info” was scratched out, and over it, written, in turquoise ink, “Tom Waits.” That’s what it did last time.
How was my life ever that simple? (And is it wrong to have a file folder entitled “Tom Waits”?)
(And what on earth did I file in that folder? Why can’t I remember?)
(To quote Joan Didion, “What kind of magpie keeps this notebook?”)
As I read Blue Nights, Joan Didion’s repetition of images and phrases hypnotized me, as did her peeled and still-peeling layers of story. As with The Year of Magical Thinking, here I felt Didion recounting memories in the way we actually experience them. As if she set out to articulate against the linear necessity of language: one letter, one word, one thought at a time, arranged tidy in a row, which is one way we make sense. The intentional fragmentation of narrative was accessible and didn’t fall off the page (or render me lost in the land of “what the fuck?”) because of Didion’s clarity. Because of her sentences. And perhaps because of the fact of what she was doing: the narrative act of slowing down, examining, opening drawers and closets brimming with iconic possessions. As Didion names these ghosts on p. 45: “The objects for which there is no satisfactory resolution.” The detritus of the lives of the people she loves best, and lost. As she opens each drawer and tells the stories of what she finds, she assumes the role of docent in the Joan Didion Museum of Loss.
(In the essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Didion writes: “Someone works out the numerology of my name and the name of the photographer I’m with. The photographer’s is all white and the sea (‘If I were to make you some beads, see, I’d do it mainly in white,’ he is told), but mine has a double death symbol.” I read that passage again after I’d read The Year of Magical Thinking, and could not avoid thinking of her life story’s foreshadowing in that moment, the double death that awaited her.)
In addition to the quandary about what to do with all that stuff (and my own eventual stuff, should I live long enough, outlive someone I love) I felt the writer’s grief and discomfort at the ache of questions she turns over and over, things upon which she shines a light, unable to avoid the vast shadows of murk.
Shadows which, despite the fact that some people, including me, happen to believe Didion walks on water, do not flatter her.
There’s something about that peeling, that sad onion, those haunts, her willingness to shine light despite what might crawl out, which makes me feel more human.
“Only the very young and the very old may recount their dreams at breakfast, dwell upon self, interrupt with memories of beach picnics and favorite Liberty lawn dresses and the rainbow trout in a creek near Colorado Springs. The rest of us are expected, rightly, to affect absorption in other people’s favorite dresses, other people’s trout. And so we do. 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 pensees; 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.”
–Joan Didion, “On Keeping a Notebook,” Slouching Towards Bethlehem, p. 136.
I just began reading Blue Nights. The passage above from Didion’s much older essay has been with me as I approach a still-too-tender writing project. It’s stuff I will write about some day, though more time must first elapse. I need perspective, and this is too messy and raw. Meanwhile I put bits into a jar (or notebook) to save, to turn over, to approach for the quilt when it’s time.
Meanwhile, merely typing Didion’s words (and reading her new memoir) is a comfort and a privilege.