The world according to Didion.

While I was studying for my undergrad degree — as a working adult — I encountered the author who would change the way I looked at the world. I was already a fan of Steinbeck, Hemingway, King (Stephen), T.H. White, and poets such as Dylan Thomas, Emily Dickinson, and Maya Angelou, among others. But I had never encountered the work of Joan Didion. I was introduced to The White Album in an English course taught by my professor (now friend) Lydia Fettig. It truly changed me.

It was the subject matter of The White Album which first drew me in. The 1960s was a special time for me. As a young girl growing up in the 60s, I grew up surrounded by older siblings who hosted parties and played loud music — Beatles, Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits — and filled our home with noise and dancing. Mom was at the stove making countless burgers and frying up potatoes, enough to feed the hungry teenagers crammed into our small 3 bedroom, 1 bathroom house. Everyone came dressed in mod fashion full of bright colors and “loud” designs. It was truly the happiest part of my childhood, which otherwise was full of violence and meanness. (Dad was cruel to Mom, and he could be cruel to my older siblings, as well. I was still too young for him to pick on. I loved my father, but I do not have a lot of good memories of him from my childhood.) Didion’s White Album brought me back to that simpler time when I enjoyed the music and atmosphere of the 60s beside my siblings.

The decade was idealized by many — myself included — later on, but there was a dark side to the 60s that I had not been exposed to at my young age. I read about things such as the Manson murders when I was in high school and got my hands on a copy of Helter Skelter. I read then watched Valley of the Dolls, which highlighted the prevalent drug culture of that time. Many more dark things happened in that decade, and Didion exposed many of them in her essays. Didion was right in the middle of it with her husband and sometime collaborator, John Gregory Dunne, and his brother Dominick Dunne. In articles about her, one of her most scandalous interviews is often mentioned. She interviewed a 5-year old who was high on LSD. The first time I read that, I was horrified. Well, in fact it still horrifies me. She, too, was horrified, but as a journalist, she says, “It was solid gold.” It was a moment that symbolized the entire decade, if at the expense of a child whose hippie parents saw nothing wrong with turning their child on to hallucinogenics.

I could tell you a thousand things about Didion, because I have devoured much of her work over the years since that English class, but I would rather you discovered her yourself. Pick any one of her books, and you will find yourself immediately drawn into her plainspoken but powerful prose. If you’re new to her, though, you might start with The White Album or Slouching Towards Bethlehem or The Year of Magical Thinking, which she wrote after her husband collapsed at dinner and died. This happened just after they had visited their adopted daughter Quintana Roo Dunne, who was in a coma, at the hospital. In the book, she describes the evening her husband died, and then she goes on to share the raw emotion of that first year without him. She writes in such a way, however, that you don’t pity her. You sit with her, as you will do in most of her works, and observe the world she sees. There is never an ounce of self-pity or whining in her work. (The book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2005. I think she was robbed. That book is amazing.)

The book was eventually made into a play, starring Vanessa Redgrave who was soon to have her own shocking loss. Her daughter, Natasha Richardson, died after a skiing accident. That loss was followed by the death of her brother Corin, and then by her sister Lynn). Redgrave lost her daughter just 3 weeks before I lost mine, one of those facts that just sticks in my brain.

Joan Didion makes me want to be a better writer. She makes me want and need to write. And yet at the end of my work day, I scarcely feel like looking at a computer screen. But I am trying to write more this year, starting with my blog.

Tomorrow, the latest work from Didion will be arriving on my porch. She released Let Me Tell You What I Mean two days ago. As soon as I found out, I ordered it. I can’t wait to sink into the collection of essays starting after work tomorrow. I need her inspiration and her courage right now. The title alone speaks to me. I feel like anything I write is in the hopes that I will be better understood. Sometimes that takes a sentence. Sometimes it takes pages and pages.

Let Me Tell You What I Mean

This tiny dynamo had better live many more years (she’s 86) to give us more wisdom. I will always want more from her. And if you want a real treat, watch The Center Will Not Hold on Netflix. It is a documentary about Didion by her nephew, Griffin Dunne. (Griffin starred in An American Werewolf in London in 1981, and more recently had a role in the popular TV series, This is Us. His sister Dominique starred in Poltergeist and died at the hands of her boyfriend in 1982.) In the documentary, Didion appears frail, but her voice is strong, and her eyes are bright. She talks excitedly about some of her writing adventures. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve watched it.

I will always be grateful to Lydia for choosing The White Album as part of the curriculum for the course I took with her. She was and is a great professor (at American University), and she genuinely inspires me in many ways. Sometimes I just need to remind myself that I have inspiration all around me. I have courageous women all around me. And I have a talent that has been languishing for years. I published my last book in 2002 — 19 years! It’s about time for me to get busy.

Namaste, J

See also: Interview in Time Magazine, promoting her latest book.

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