In the introduction to her new book of essays, Not That Kind Of Girl, Lena Dunham writes:
There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman. As hard as we have worked and as far as we have come, there are still so many forces conspiring to tell women that our concerns are petty, our opinions aren’t needed, that we lack the gravitas necessary for our stories to matter.
It is easy to feel alone as a young female writer when you’re told, directly or indirectly, that you have no lineage. For this reason, I look to the women I admire to show me the way, to feel less lonely, and to situate myself in a literary history other than the male-dominated canon we’re all still taught in school. When I discovered a tradition of brave, intelligent women writing directly about their experiences, their minds and their world, I found a way of belonging. This all began for me with the work of Joan Didion.
Joan Didion was born in California in 1934. After graduating from Berkley, she won first prize in a Vogue writing competition and moved to New York to work for the magazine, developing her trademark precision and eye for detail by writing about the interiors of stylish apartments. She married writer John Gregory Dunne in 1964 and for almost forty years they shared one of the most enduring and successful literary marriages. In 2013, after decades of novels, essays and screenplays, and two best-selling memoirs, Didion received a National Medal for her contribution to American literature. She is now seventy-nine, lives in New York City, and is as stylish on and off the page as ever. In other words, Joan Didion was, and still is, an Amazing Babe.
Didion descended from a long line of pioneers, and though she was always physically small and intellectual, in her writing you can catch a hint of that pioneer perseverance— a strain of stoicism I associate mostly with cowboys of the Old West. She is a survivor. Her work displays an intimate understanding of her homeland, with its desert winds, canyons and coyotes, and captures that Californian anxiety – the sense of being ill at ease, but also at ease with this unease – the byproduct of living in that unstable paradise, always on the brink of natural disaster.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem was the first book of non-fiction I ever bought, at the age of twenty-three. As it always seems to happen with beloved books, I discovered it when I needed it the most. I was preoccupied then (and still am) with figuring out two things: my practice as a writer, and what kind of woman I want to be. I knew I wanted to write about the things that felt most real to me: my experiences, memories, love, complicated emotions. But I also wanted to be a Strong Woman – capital S, Capital W – and write strong female characters. This was complicated further by my persistent self-doubt, which I saw as my central weakness. It is hard to feel like a Strong Woman when you are living with the kind of crippling anxiety that keeps you up all night.
So when I discovered Joan Didion’s essay, ‘On Keeping a Notebook’, I felt an instant affinity with her when I read: “Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether. They are lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.”
Our experiences are never abandoned and nothing is ever truly left behind.
I recognised myself in those lines and understood that impulse to articulate my experiences and make them count for something, and I also realised that I wasn’t alone in this. For a writer like Didion, a writer like me, our experiences are never abandoned and nothing is ever truly left behind. We pick up our memories time and time again like a silver coin in the sand, turning them over to see how they change in the light. For an anxious person, there’s solace in that.
Joan Didion wrote in a time when it was still preferable for women to be seen and not heard. She was both style and substance when women were told, at best, they could be one or the other. In the essays she wrote in the ‘60s and ‘70s, she reflected the cultural turmoil and sense of dread pervading America at that time, and tangled it up with her own anxieties.
Her essay, ‘The White Album’, provides the best example of this, as she attempts to build a cohesive portrait of Los Angeles that encompasses the Black Panther Party, The Doors, and the Manson family murders. In the fractured structure of the essay, Didion draws parallels between the disintegration of society and her own nervous breakdown, including her psychiatric report alongside lists, prose and court transcripts. The essay begins: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
When Didion wrote that line, she was referring to society at large, the way we frame incomprehensible events into easily digestible narratives. But she was also talking about herself, and me, and all the other anxious malcontents who feel the compulsion to write. Her memoirs, The Year of Magical Thinking, about her husband’s death in 2003, and Blue Nights, about the loss of her daughter in 2005, show that, even in the most devastating circumstances, writing can be a means of survival.
Joan Didion is the patron saint of those of us who write in order to live, those of us who never feel quite at ease in any setting. Didion wrote in spite and because of her anxieties. She made her sense of unease seem sophisticated and intelligent in her taut, elegant sentences.
There is an anecdote about Joan Didion as a teenager which I recently read online, in a copy of the New York Times from 1979. Writing a story about a man who walks into the sea, young Joan Didion was determined to find out what this felt like for herself. She lied to her parents and told them she was going to a square dance, but snuck away instead to the beach, and waded into the ocean with a pen and notebook in her hand. Before she’d gone further than knee-deep a wave smacked her in the face. She returned home dripping wet, all her romantic ideas about death in the ocean dampened.
She stands her ground and lets the waves break against her – and then goes home to write about it.“
I love this story because this is how I’ve always thought of Joan Didion: she doesn’t duck away from the impact of life’s experiences. She stands her ground, and lets the waves break against her – and then goes home to write about it.
I love that she published her personal packing list in ‘The White Album’, and that it included leotards, bourbon, tampax, a typewriter and a mohair throw.
I love that she was a tiny, socially anxious woman, but she turned her shyness into her own brand of distinctly cool reticence. She once said, “I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrustive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does.” I like to imagine her at dinner parties back in the ‘60s, in a long dress, getting quietly drunk in the corner on gin and tonics, observing.
I love her essay, ‘On Self-Respect’, which I turn to for sage advice, whenever I find myself tossing and turning over things I said but shouldn’t have said.
I love her author’s portraits, those grainy black and white photographs where she is staring into the middle distance, cigarette burning down to an ember in one hand. She spoke to the belief I had secretly held since childhood: that all the really cool girls were the smart and sharp ones. As Zan Romanoff wrote in the Paris Review,
To read her is to have the privilege of hearing what that quiet girl in the corner is thinking… Didion is the writer we want to be: unafraid of our own weaknesses and contradictions, capable of making the usual mess of chaotic human experience into art.
Reading Joan Didion gave me permission to have opinions, and made me think they might be relevant or interesting. This is no small gift to a young woman. She made me feel I could embrace my flaws and contradictions, my own anxieties. Through her work, I realised I didn’t have to be anyone else’s version of a strong woman – but maybe, through writing, I could be a brave one.
This piece was originally performed as part of ‘Amazing Babes’, at the Emerging Writers’ Festival Roadshow in Sydney on Thursday 6 November.
Madelaine Lucas writes short fiction, essays and love songs. A recent graduate of the University of Technology Sydney, her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Island, Overland and The Lifted Brow. Her piece, ‘Dog Story’, was recently shortlisted for the Overland Victoria University Short Story Prize for New and Emerging Writers.