Thoughts on Selected Pieces by Joan Didion (Slouching Towards Bethlehem)

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Photo: Tonya Rice

There’s a new documentary of Joan Didion coming up this month on Netflix, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, directed by her nephew, actor Griffin Dunne (“Who’s That Girl”, Frasier: “The Friend” – one of the best episodes), that I can’t wait to see. As my tribute, I’m posting a few of my thoughts on her essays from her rightfully, highly-acclaimed Slouching Towards Bethlehem this month. These were from my grad school classes, so a few may have other works I discussed, but for the most part, it’s all Didion.

I’ll have some from The White Album, her other collection of essays, later… just finally started on that recently. She’s one that keeps me motivated.

In “Marrying Absurd” of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion opens with a Kodachrome-tinged setting of Las Vegas in a detached, sardonic tone and leads us to couples who married there in many circumstances at all hours. The initial rhythm is journalistic, a steady beat of facts; her subsequent longer sentences and quotes soon imply opinion. The tongue-in-cheek disposition takes over and the investigative report about the town’s thriving wedding industry becomes more entertaining. The account of the family at the end of the piece presented more of the tragic and pitiful than glee. A Southern Gothic feeling. I didn’t think it was to be a comedic article; however, its incredulous air sets it on the border.

As a classic film fan, I found “California Dreamin’” to be an interesting cavalcade of Hollywood’s Who’s-Who and a 1960’s account of celebrity sociological influence. Didion’s tenor is less mocking in this piece, yet her dark wit keeps her in it. Her research and quotes allowed the article to properly inform the reader about the institute, corporate masterminds, and their affect on the country’s culture. There was a statement from a patron at the conclusion, which could leave one engaged to pursue more about the institute or simply baffled by the words alone: “These sessions are way over my head, but I go out floating on air” (Didion 78). With that, I loved the way Didion allowed the reader to make his own conclusion about the institute.

Didion’s “On Going Home” reminded me of some of my journal entries, particularly

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Joan Didion, photo courtesy Pinterest

those expressing a passage of time and place. It produced an odd notion to publish some of my own personal pieces. I understood that longing, the tug and pull, between then and today. Recognizing her husband’s disconnection from the place she’d called home long before they made their own. Of falling back into that home’s ways, that were “not my husband’s ways”; of being back in the presence of the place “filled with mementos quite without value to him” (164). Of falling into the familiar with others who are a part of that familiar and wanting to be there – alone with them and not the present that doesn’t understand. It was raw, unflinching, so personal, and no longer private. It was lyrical, beautiful and I envied her ability to share it so.

My professor’s question below allowed me to expound a bit more – something I have little trouble doing:

Prof.: Why is [the idea to publish some of your own personal pieces] an odd notion? What specific qualities does it take to make personal pieces or journals successful for publishing?  What traits do you think they need to have?

Me: It’s an odd notion for me since I’ve always been more comfortable sharing my fiction. I’m able to narrate or give a narrator the opportunity to explore experiences which may or may not include real life events (altered a bit anyway) along with those imagined.

As I began reading James Conaway in Patti Sims’s book, Literary Nonfiction, I noticed he provided a sound answer to your questions during the introduction ahead of his piece: “The best approach to autobiography is, paradoxically, a story about someone else to whom the writer is attached emotionally…”. I agree. Memoir should be compelling and relatable to the reader. Those that have reached me were those focused on specific experiences and the effects on the writer. My understanding, attachment and some sense of connection maintained my interest. One example for me comes from Patti Smith’s Just Kids, which wasn’t just a powerful and emotional elegy to Robert Mapplethorpe, it was a love letter to the craft of art and writing. It was a rally cry for me to get off my butt and answer that call as well.

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