Culture //

We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live

Reflections on the literary influence of Joan Didion.

Art by Eleanor Curran.

My preschool years were spent in California, living atop a mountain covered by lush greenery and speckled with wild deer. The Terminator was Governor, Netflix was a small business that delivered DVDs, and strikingly unaware of the woes of the world, my greatest anxiety was of being eaten alive by the mountain lions that supposedly emerged in the dark of night. A ghostly version of California still reverberates through my bones, wraps my memories in a rose-tinted euphoria, and disguises itself as a lingering lilt masked by my now noticeably Australian accent. A place, seen through the eyes of a child, only half remembered. Everything was beautiful, golden and shimmering.

California was, and continues to be, a land wrapped in the mystique of myth, masked by a façade of stasis that gives the illusion of an eternally glamourous home of plenty. The ‘American Dream’ echoes through gaps in white picket fences, and muddles itself in the Green Card lottery. A slowly dissipating mirage that we hopelessly cling to, where stories have more currency than truth – California belongs to storytellers.

In the library of books that has grown with me since I left California sixteen years ago, countless volumes have attempted to crumble the glimmering American Dream that my childhood memory refused to let go of. From the psychological unravelling of Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar, to the persistent pessimism of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, the America that I loved was being ripped apart, but at a sufficient distance so as to preserve my own childhood affections. They could destroy New York, they could decimate Illinois, but they couldn’t break California.

It wasn’t until I was eighteen and just out of high school that I was first introduced to the works of Joan Didion. I opened a copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a choice driven not by any knowledge of its author, but rather by the title’s reference to the poetry of William Butler Yeats – a welcome comfort to the daughter of an English major from Ireland. The opening essay, ‘Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream’, whilst on first glance an opine on the murder of a husband by his wife, on closer inspection, bled a revelation of the toxicity of the American dream and the perverting power of place. The bare prose used to describe Lucille Miller, the accused, was effortlessly juxtaposed against the dreamlike splendour of California, gradually disintegrating into the hellish landscape of the San Bernardino Valley. The importance of reputation and history reified through the manner by which the wickedness of the murder and adultery at the core of the essay was expressed not by the people, but the landscape. In Didion’s own words, “This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with the country.”

In 1979, critic Michiko Kakutani declared that “California belongs to Joan Didion”. Upon reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and later, her extended catalogue, I came to believe that Joan Didion didn’t just own California, she invented the Californian Dream. Only Didion could distil the romance of a state built on the back of contradictions; balancing an atmosphere of Chekhovian loss with a permanent lust for a place that was home. Her intention was never to disintegrate the dreamy façade, but instead, to peel back the film so that people could see what lay underneath, to show how knowledge changes our disposition.

Didion’s non-fiction collections appear tapestry-like, with disparate ideas and experiences bound in a single volume. Her first collection, 1968’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, considers subjects as diverse as the 1960s hippy and drug culture, and the absurdity of the Las Vegas wedding industry. Her second collection, 1979’s The White Album, combines meditations on Doris Lessing with reflections on the Manson Family murders. But alongside Didion’s attentiveness to the intricacies of Americana, sits a detailed and complex understanding of the craft of writing itself. Nowhere is this more clear than in her most recent collection, 2021’s Let Me Tell You What I Mean.

Like Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album before it, Let Me Tell You What I Mean is a collection composed of non-fiction pieces, that between 1968 and 2000, were published in various newspapers and magazines. Each essay is astonishingly short, with the foreword, written by Hilton Als of The New Yorker, over ten pages longer than Didion’s most substantial entry. Nonetheless, each essay is packed with examples of Didion’s knife-sharp wit, no-nonsense observations, and opinions that appear ageless despite being composed nearly half a century ago.

I am not alone in my glorification of Didion. She is one of the most successful and acclaimed writers of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, her success so grand that no greater compliment could be bestowed upon a female writer than ‘she is the Didion of her time’. But in the essay ‘On Being Unchosen by the College of One’s Choice’, included in the 2021 collection, Didion takes herself off the pedestal and reminds her readers of the imperfections and anxieties that haunted the now much acclaimed writer when she was only 17 years old. Didion employs humour to detail the heart wrenching moment that she received her rejection letter from Stanford University, quoting the letter, amused by the “Dear Joan” at the top that made it feel more personal than it was. She teasingly laments writing an essay for a friend at Stanford when she was at the University of California, Berkley, an essay for which he received an A and she received a B. An English academic told me of his experience in the Didion archives at Berkley, when trawling through pages of heavily edited prose, he realised that Didion had faults just like any other writer. That what he was reading was not her first or second draft, but a piece that had been ripped to shreds by countless eyes and penned countless times. In this essay, Didion remains firmly in touch with the dreams of the high school graduate and the hollow, teary feeling that follows rejection. But at the close of her essay, what resonates is the honesty of a writer that I and so many others viewed as perfect, unavoidably flawed and human.

But Let Me Tell You What I Mean is not merely an endeavour in introspection. In ‘Pretty Nancy’, she unpicks the farce of the American dream by following a highly tempered television shoot of Nancy Reagan, watching on as Nancy picks flowers and superficially talks about her children. In ‘Getting Serenity’, Didion exposes her distaste for the language of self-help, whilst observing and listening to the stories of a support group tackling gambling addictions. In ‘Some Women’ she discusses her experience writing captions for Vogue, watching photoshoots of famous women that were portrayed as ‘natural’, but were in reality consciously constructed. These pieces are all bound by Didion’s masterful use of silence, probing the reader to reach conclusions and read between the lines.

But as I write this article for the only remaining weekly student newspaper in the nation, mere days after Facebook removed all news pages from the platform in Australia, there is one essay that has become particularly resonant; the opening essay of the collection, ‘Alicia and the Underground Press’. Hinged on Didion’s support for the authenticity of the underground press and smaller news publications, the essay serves as a critique of the omnipotence of mainstream media, and the insanity of the conviction that these media sources are somehow ‘objective’. I write this fully aware of the irony that the essay in question was initially published in The Saturday Evening Post, and that Didion made her name and fortune in the pages of Vogue, The New York Times and The New Yorker, none of which can be considered even remotely underground. I am similarly conscious of Didion’s tendency towards modesty-topos in the work, as a sort of protective shield against potential criticisms of snobbery or worse, insincerity. Nonetheless, what lies at the heart of the piece is an attachment to papers that have the faults of a friend, and writers who, unbound by the stringencies of conventional newspaper code, publish what makes others quake. Didion poses that “the problem is not whether one trusts the news, but whether one finds it”. Writing 53 years later, in an age when news, and journalism moreover, is under threat, I hold onto hope that the small fish in the big media pond have their voices heard, and that people find and hold onto the voices of youth, like I found and continue to hold onto Didion.

There is a copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem sitting beside me on my desk, the cover emblazoned with a photograph of Didion; the image of literary cool and elegance. Sitting in an arm chair, her face is contemplative but uneasy. Her arm resting on the top of the chair, but not relaxed. A woman listening, watching and dreaming all at once.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live”. The famous opening line of The White Album echoes through me. I remember the house on the mountain in California, and the one just down the road, that fell off the edge during an earthquake. I think of the lush greenery and the wild deer, charred by roaring fires that left the state encased in smoke. I think of California, and the ghostly myth half remembered by a child. I think of Didion.