The Essay Project 2018: Joan Didion, the right writer for this time in my life.
20 August 2018
It's still August, which means our Essay Project assigned reading is still Joan Didion's The White Album.
Have you ever had that feeling that you've read an author for a long time, or here and there, and you generally like them, think they are good at their trade, and then one day you're reading them and you're like, WOW, I am getting this like I have never gotten this before.
This is the experience I am having with Joan Didion's The White Album.
Not so much the first essay (after which the collection is named). That is still not my favorite essay, although it is one of her best known, and I'm still wondering at the craft of it. I like the bold opening statement ("We tell ourselves stories in order to live"). I mean, that's the kind of statement you could think about and parse for a long time. And I really like her formulation of this sentence:"By way of comment I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968." Why "does not now seem to me an inappropriate response"? Why not simply "seems to me now an entirely appropriate response."? There must be a reason.
But anyway. Where I'm finding I'm completely in concert with Didion at this time in my life is a lot of small moments in a lot of her smaller essays. I LOVE the essay "Holy Water," when she learns about how water moves and is moved around her home state of California; I love the science of it mixed with the pragmatism and the language and imagery. I love how SHE loves learning about the water. I love that she wants to stay in the "water control center" and move the water around herself: "I had no further business in this room and yet I wanted to stay the day. I wanted to be the one, that day, who was shining the olives, filling the gardens, and flooding the daylong valleys like the Nile. I want it still."
I can hear the desire there, for power, for control, to give life. I can feel it. So then I saw at the bottom of this essay, it was written (or published) in 1977. Didion was born in 1934. She wrote that essay when she was 43. In other words? Exactly the same age I am now. Is this why it's resonating so? Especially the essays that seem to do plenty on their surface and do even more underneath? Because that is how I feel some days on this Earth: I want to stay the day and exert some life-giving control too.
I'm knocked over by this book.