I spent a lot of this year trying to write a book: lying on the floor, making spaghetti, chewing on my fingernails, staring at the wall, reading. I wanted to figure some things out, and surrounded myself with books that I thought would help. Instead of reading them, I got distracted. I read an endless number of articles and essays about politics, technology, politics and technology. I stuffed my brain with information. Wikipedia. I was thinking about Yelp culture and V.C. culture, so I read a lot of Yelp reviews, and a lot of tweets from venture capitalists and nascent venture capitalists. Medium posts. Hacker News.
After a while, this became boring, and I remembered how to read for pleasure. I read, or reread: Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay; Things I Don’t Want to Know; Stone Arabia; Asymmetry; Housekeeping; Fierce Attachments; The Maples Stories; Twilight of the Superheroes; Talk Stories; To the Lighthouse; Mating; Imperial San Francisco; The Book of Daniel; White Noise; The Fire Next Time; Close to the Machine. Essays from Happiness, and The Essential Ellen Willis, and The White Album, and Discontent and Its Civilizations, and The Earth Dies Streaming. This Boy’s Life and Stop-Time. I meant to reread Leaving the Atocha Station, but it fell into the bathtub; fine. 10:04. A stack of books about Silicon Valley history, many of which I did not finish; a lot of them told the same stories.
I read a 1971 edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, and the free e-book preview of The Devil Wears Prada, and some, but not all, of The Odyssey, the Emily Wilson translation. I got stoned before bed and read What Was the Hipster?––? I read Eileen and The Recovering and And Now We Have Everything and The Golden State and Chemistry and The Boatbuilder and Normal People and Breaking and Entering and Notes of a Native Son and Bright Lights, Big City and Heartburn and That Kind of Mother and How Fiction Works and Motherhood and Early Work and My Duck Is Your Duck and The Cost of Living and Who Is Rich? and The Mars Room. Some more pleasurable than others but all, or most, satisfying in their own ways.
I read the Amazon reviews for popular memoirs and regretted doing that. I did not read much poetry, and I regret that, too.
A few weeks ago, I read What We Should Have Known: Two Discussions, and No Regrets: Three Discussions. Five discussions! Not enough. I was very grateful for No Regrets, which felt both incomplete and expansive. Reading it was clarifying across multiple axes.
I wish I’d read more this year, or read with more direction, or at the very least kept track. I wish I’d read fewer books published within my lifetime. I wish I’d had more conversations. Staring at the wall is a solitary pursuit. I didn’t really figure out what I hoped to understand, namely: time. Time? I asked everyone. Time??? (Structure? Ha-ha.) Whatever. It’s fine. Not everything has to be a puzzle, and not everything has a solution. Time did pass.
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If I had only one word to describe Annie DeWitt’s prose it would be “equine” not only for the elegance of her sentences but also because of their strength and poise. The threat of danger lurks too — a subtle awareness that at any point a scene might buck and kick and tear away deep into the thicket.
DeWitt’s writing has always been intrepid: I recall from the first time I read her work in a writing workshop with Diane Williams its intensity and lyricism and mystery, her characters ability to seduce, as in, to make you want to listen to.
Her debut novel White Nights in Split Town City, doesn’t diverge in this sense. The book is set in Fay River, an isolated town where the closest neighbors are also the only friends, “a fact established by proximity and common denominator.” There are horses here, too, to be ridden and groomed; here nature seems boundless and because of this more fearsome too. It’s in Fay River that Jean grows up while living with her parents and sister, Birdie. White Nights is a coming-of-age tale, yes, but one that looks unflinchingly at what it means to be a young and come into one’s own, at what it means to be a woman and mother, at the responsibility and loneliness and disillusionment that so often comes with adulthood, at the varieties of feminine desire, at adolescence and the newfound thrill of sex and empowerment, at the secrets that are known and those that remain hidden.
White Nights captures so tenderly this sweet spot of falling into adolescence, the first luscious taste of independence and, with it, vulnerability and endangerment too.
The Millions: You mentioned in an interview with Luke Goebels for The Believer, that you are both fans of “bringing a radical eye to the page.” I’m curious to hear more about what this means for your writing and specifically in this novel. After reading White Nights in Split Town City I wonder too about the presence of a radical ear, as well as a radical “I”?
Annie DeWitt: I love your point about the radical “I.” And too a radical ear. I grew up learning to play classical music via the Suzuki method. I try to bring that same kind of radical ear to my work — I am constantly evaluating the sounds of words — both lyrically and sonically. Where do they mesh? Where does the tone or the pace shift? What section should be played “Lento,” “Legato,” “Fuerte,” “Fortissimo,” etc.
My understanding of the radical ear was solidified for me in Mrs. Hull’s sitting room in front of a piano in a small split-level house in 1998. I remember the first time I sat down and played for her. Afterward she was appalled. Mrs. Hull had an air of distinction about her, or at least wanted to cultivate one. Her husband’s Dartmouth banner hung over the front couch — even though he probably hadn’t attended since the ’50’s. The piano was a chestnut colored baby grand and was always finely polished and covered in stacks of classical music books. She was British. Or, at least she seemed British in my mind. She was also a piano teacher. She was not a warm woman, but she did not lack imagination. She opened up one of her classical music primers and said we’d have to start from the ground up even though I’d been playing for 10 years at that point. For the following week I was supposed to practice Mendelssohn’s “Song without Words.” As I played she sat next to me and dictated the piece as one would a story: “Close your eyes,” she said. “Imagine…here you are on the proscenium. The curtain is drawn. The crowd is hushed. The red velvet at your back. Then in marches the troops!” Another day she taught me how to play by thinking of the sound patterns a sewing machine makes when you press and depress the petal with your foot.
I’ve always admired writers who embrace the radical “I.” I don’t mean radical in the way of “outlandish.” I mean an “I” that is truthful, that hasn’t been seen before. That has something to tell. This could be a very quiet “I” like in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (which I adore). Or, it could be an entirely inventive, postmodern “I” as in George Saunders’s Pastoralia. Or, it could be the kind of drunken, religious, plain spoken “I” of Barry Hannah. Or, the visual and journalistic “I” of James Baldwin or the empathic eye of Flannery O’Connor.
In many ways I think the radical “I” comes down to empathy. Being an empath means that when you look at person you can’t help but hear his/her story unfold. A person on the side of the road next to the bus station as you drive by. Their life, their loves, their hardships grab you by the throat and shake you.
Too, I’ve always admired people who live fault forward. Courageously. Without fear. When I think of Baldwin writing Giovanni’s Room, I am struck by his courage. Not only because he was writing about a man leaving his fiancée for another man in Paris — but too for the depth and honesty of the feelings the book conveys which in turn feel universal. On a basic level, it’s just another love story. And on another, it’s about living a revolutionary act.
The radical “I” is about a desire to show the backside of life — the complexities, the places where the self falls apart — without embarrassment.
TM: Fay Mountain, where the story unfurls, is so isolated that there’s only one other younger family living within proximity to Jean’s, which means they are friends by default. I’m struck by how Fay Mountain is a character, idiosyncratic and cut off, and more vulnerable to natural woes — infections, fires, the people who set them, failing bodies, unchecked desire. What was important to you in depicting this rural mix of feral and refined? And what writers of the rural and works do you feel your book draws from and/or engages with?
AD: When I think of writers who engage with place I immediately think of the start of Hannah’s story, “Waterliars:”
When I am run down and flocked around by the world, I go down to Farte Cove off the Yazoo River and take my beer to the end of the pier where the old liars are still snapping and wheezing at one another. The line-up is always different, because they’re always dying out or succumbing to constipation, etc., whereupon they go back to the cabins and wait for a good day when they can come out and lie again, leaning on the rail with coats full of bran cookies. The son of the man the cove was named for is often out there. He pronounces his name Fartay, with a great French stress on the last syllable. Otherwise you might laugh at his history or ignore it in favor of the name as it’s spelled on the sign.
I’m glad it’s not my name.
This poor dignified man has had to explain his nobility to the semiliterate of half of America before he could even begin a decent conversation with them. On the other hand, Farte, Jr., is a great liar himself. He tells about seeing ghost people around the lake and tells big loose ones about the size of the fish those ghosts took out of Farte Cove in years past.
Whenever I teach the story, I always say — what’s the most important line in this opening? “I’m glad it’s not my name.” That says it all. The whole point of the story is that encountering the truth is the hardest thing to do. That this man is named Farte — “with a great French stress on the last syllable” — in this small town in the American South, immediately casts him as an outsider. It’s such a small detail but it shows that he’s going to be forever beholden to this fate of not fitting in with the locals. And yet, Hannah immediately turns that on it’s head and says — don’t feel too bad for the guy — “he’s a great liar himself.” Lying, of course, being an asset in this town. A way of “passing.”
I was drawn to Fay Mountain in White Nights for the same reason — here were a lot of simple truths, and rumors, and “better paid liars” as Hannah says so eloquently, living on the small rural road where I grew up. These people were difficult to encounter and yet their stories — plain as they may be — begged to be told. In the middle of “nowhere” all you have is the self and the self’s encounter with the world. People living in isolation understand that.
TM: For me, White Nights conjures an element of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, specifically Jean’s childhood filled with silences and seemingly endless days of abandonment, and also — much differently, a crisis with domesticity. When Jean’s mother abandons the family Jean is left to wander without much oversight. Could you talk more about the space that loneliness and vulnerability occupy for Jean, and the others too? How does it empower her too?
AD: It’s interesting to hear the word “abandonment” used so frequently when talking about White Nights. I think of the mother’s leaving in the book as Jean’s great opportunity. The thing which allows her to encounter the road, and everyone living on it for better or worse, without filter. I’ve always been interested in what people call “maternal instincts.” We are raised to think that this is something instinctual to women. I find this to be a fallacy. There are many ways in which one can be “maternal” without having children — one can teach, raise plants, rescue animals, become political, write, speak, sing. To me these are all “maternal” acts — as they represent a way of caring for the world. And yet once you become a mother you are tasked with the very real challenge of raising a life. The mother daughter bond is essential. However, it sometimes fails.
Think of the “Strange Situation” in which a mother leaves the room and then reenters and the psychologist watches how the child reacts in the mother’s absence and then again upon her reappearance: It’s the strength and continuity of this first bond which defines attachment — how we are then able to go on and function in adult relationships. Jean is in an interesting situation. In many ways, the mother is the victim of society’s expectations. I think so many women born in the ’50’s experienced this — the idea that they must somehow grow up to be mothers — that this was the imperative. I feel for the mother in White Nights, as this is an imperative which I myself have not met. As I approach my mid-30s I deal with this lingering question everyday — what does it mean to not have children? However, for Jean’s mother, this question is even more imperiled — for her the question becomes, “What does it mean to feel the burden of having to care for the children you’ve already had, when society never truly gave you the choice to decide if you wanted to ‘mother’ at all.”
TM: I was seduced by Jean’s mother’s charm, much like everyone else in the book. But as a mother figure Ania’s ambivalence about mothering and domestic upkeep leaves something to be desired. Ania believed that interesting people lived lives “whose subsistence required very little upkeep, yet whose true thriving was provided for by acts of excess.” Inevitably, this perspective leads to a fraught mother/daughter relationship. I’d love to hear more about this tension for Ania, between her responsibilities for family and her ideal life, how Margaret’s friendship provides a foil, and the possibilities this opens or closes for Jean.
AD: There is something seductive about this mother — she “flips every switch in the house” upon her return. Margaret too feels this pull — particularly in that scene where the mother is buttoning Margaret into her coat and runs her fingers through the elder woman’s hair. White Nights is all about exploring these unprogramatic, hidden tensions — woman to woman, adult to child. These types of taboos. To me, “attraction” is a very interesting word — it implies something sexual, but also intellectual. The mother in this book is attracted to Margaret for her intellectual freedom, for the fact that she’s British, smoked cigarettes, never had children, and is “othered” by her “purebred old world blood.” For the fact that she reads Didion and Yeats. Of course, Margaret is a photographer. She is allowed the freedom to capture the world from behind a lens rather than be captured by it. She tries to teach Jean that in the scene when Jean spends the day with Margaret in the lawyer’s house.
And yet when Margaret asks Jean what she thinks of the photo they’ve developed together, Jean reads the photo literally and says, “I’ve never been much good at diving.” In that moment, Jean experiences a great disappointment in herself — she knows this is not the answer Margaret was looking for. Margaret is all about encouraging Jean to harness “her intelligence.” To think independently.
And yet, ironically enough, Margaret at one point is challenged by her own freedom — her alcoholism. She kills Wilson with her car. I wanted this scene to represent the central question in the book — how and when are women victims or victors of their own agency on Fay Mountain?
TM: A difference in values: Father states that one’s ultimate goal in life should be “authoring something authentic” while for Mother it’s closer to the Didion quote: “Style is character.” How does this tension play out regarding art, creation, upkeep, and by extrapolation, mothering? In this way too I’m curious about her relationship to the Georgia O’Keeffe print Ania buys—it seems that she wants to be both artist and image, but can one be both?
AD: The idea for the O’Keeffe print came from Didion’s great essay on O’Keeffe in The White Album. What initially drew me to this essay is its humor. The section in White Nights is paraphrased from Didion directly, Margaret says to Jena’s mother, Ania:
O’Keeffe attended art school in Chicago, The boys there were always encouraging her to abandon her practice and become an art teacher or a live model. One even went so far as to pint over her work to show her how the Impressionists made trees. At twenty-four O’Keeffe said she moved to Texas because there were no trees to paint.
The section ends with Margaret’s remark:
When the men asked her why she painted “Red Hills” instead of her traditional flowers, O’Keeffe replied, “A red hill doesn’t touch anyone’s heart.”
I mean — could there be a better come back? “A red hill doesn’t touch anyone’s heart.”
I think I relate to this line so fiercely. With White Nights I didn’t want to write a “feminine” book that was going to touch people’s hearts — I wanted to write a book that wasn’t afraid of going to the depths of the darkness of which people are capable — and showing that in the plain light of day.
I often get the comment that my work feels “masculine” in some way. I find this humorous. Women too can see the world for exactly what it is. There’s this great line in an interview between Marguerite Duras and the French journalist Xavière Gauthier which was transcribed in the book Woman to Woman. Duras is talking about her novel The Ravishing of Lol Stein. She recalls:
I was experimenting with this blank in the chain. On the inside there’s an extraordinary surveillance so that nothing escapes. But what’s its about is simply noticing…the accidents: that is, a displacement, a voice.
She calls these blanks “anesthesia’s — suppressions.”
TM: What seemed most radical to me in White Nights is how female sexuality is depicted so openly and variously. The reader is privy to the way that Ania’s beauty empowers her while Jean’s, as a young girl, makes her more vulnerable. We hear the sounds Ania makes having sex through Jean’s ears, and we watch as Jean haphazardly experiences her first forays into desire and sexual experience. Despite the transgressions against Jean, the novel doesn’t veer into shame or judgment — or even dwell there. This restraint seems like an authorial call, and one that perhaps also comments on the haphazard experiences that accompany sexual awakening. I’d love to hear your thoughts on navigating all of this.
AD: I recently read this quote by Lao Tzu: “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” White Nights sets out to explore this distinction. To me, transgression is about the ways in which love makes you vulnerable, courageous, deceitful, intoxicated, alone. I think sex for Jean at this stage is an enigma — one which she walks into out of a deeper curiosity about the adult desire to be both wanted and free. She understands that sexuality is a captivating and capturing force. She sees her father watch the light between Callie’s rear and the saddle as she trots off down the road and remarks on how he both “fears and admires it.” I think Jean too feels a kind of attraction and repulsion at the idea of adult love. She sees how it has trapped someone like Otto Hause — his dying wife, his son who will never leave home. And too she sees how it is something which both defines and entangles her own mother — making her the center of attention but yet harnessing her to her role as wife and mother.
Jean’s first encounter with the male gaze happens when Otto Hauser watches her play the piano from the vantage point of his porch in the evening. He sees her through the window and — though he can’t hear the sound she makes — he imagines the sound based on her body movements. In that moment, Jean understands sexuality to be about a kind of “fame which nearly embraces you.” This, I think, is a dangerous rubric for a young woman. To feel that her power is relegated to her physical self — an area in which Jean feels somehow inferior to both her mother and her sister, Birdie. In many ways, Otto Hauser provides Jean the basis to “prove” that she too can be captivating. That she too can be more than a brain. That she can somehow toss off her intellect. This is what saddens me the most about this moment, that Jean doesn’t realize that it’s actually her intellect and her ability — to play a sonatina — which captured Otto’s Hauser in the first place. That indeed talent itself can be a draw.
I’ve always been interested in the Sontag quote that beauty itself is a talent. Though I’ve always thought of Sontag as a great feminist and one of our most inspired thinkers (and transgressors!), I think there is a danger inherent in this idea that beauty is a talent rather than simply a gift. How do you define beauty? Is it culturally relativistic, etc.? Of course it is. To me, raw physical attraction itself can never have the kind of gravitas of human intellect. But, I too am an aesthete, and am often completely subjugated in the face of raw beauty of any kind — human, artistic, architectural, linguistic etc. — as Sontag was. In many ways I feel like what she was saying was, “Human relations are based on attraction. Even friendships are based on a feeling of being drawn to some quality in a person which you yourself desire to possess.”
TM: We met in Diane Williams’s fiction workshop at the then Mercantile Library, now the Center for Fiction. I recall vividly how Diane urged us to write into spaces that terrify us and mention this now because one thing I admired most about White Nights was how scenes slipped into terror while depicted so tenderly, with such awareness. I’m wondering if this was a lesson you took to heart, or were there others?
AD: One line from a recent interview on craft I did with Diane for The Los Angeles Review of Books will always stay with me. She said, “Getting up and shouting out the rawest stuff of life is a formidable business.” I couldn’t agree more.
“I’m not sure that I have a social conscience,” Joan Didion once said in an interview about her 1983 book, Salvador, about the El Salvadorian civil war. “It’s more an insistence that people tell the truth. The decision to go to El Salvador came one morning at the breakfast table. I was reading the newspaper and it just didn’t make sense.”
This is what separates Joan Didion from the rest of the world. We all wake up to news that makes no sense every day. What, we wonder, is going on with all these white cops shooting black men on our streets? How can it be that we still haven’t closed the prison at Guantanamo Bay? On what planet is Donald Trump a viable candidate for president? We register the answers we receive to these questions as nonsensical, but then we click the next link and go on with our day. Didion, facing her era’s knottiest public puzzle, hopped the next flight to El Salvador.
Salvador, as it happens, was not Didion’s finest hour as a reporter. She spent just 12 days in-country, had little Spanish and less knowledge of the country’s culture and history, and the book she wrote had, by her own admission, “no impact. None. Zero.” But her reasons for writing it offer a revealing window onto her working method and provide her biographer, Tracy Daugherty, with a crucial plot point in the thematic arc for his sprawling biography, The Last Love Song, which comes out this week.
In the 1960s, as Americans battled in the streets over civil rights and the war in Vietnam, Daugherty reminds us, Didion lost faith in the defining narratives of American life. A fifth-generation Californian whose ancestors had crossed the plains in covered wagons, only narrowing missing disaster at Donner Pass, Didion found that the country she lived in had ceased to make sense to her. A popular presidential candidate was shot in a hotel kitchen just miles from where she lived. A newspaper heiress was abducted from her Berkeley apartment and weeks later strapped on an M1 carbine to help her abductors rob banks. A scrawny self-styled guru set up camps in the desert where he persuaded a loosely organized family of runaways to kill a pregnant woman and three friends with steak knives. “I was supposed to have a script and I had mislaid it,” wrote Didion in the title essay of her collection The White Album.
I was supposed to hear cues, and no longer did. I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequences, images with no ‘meaning’ beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie, but a cutting room experience.
Putting her finger on the sense of dislocation felt by Americans of her generation, raised on John Wayne movies and rousing tales of America’s triumph in the Second World War, made Didion famous, but it also left her at an intellectual and emotional dead-end. This, after all, was the woman who opened The White Album with the words, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” If the stories we tell ourselves no longer make sense, if even the briefest glance at the underlying facts exposes our national and personal narratives to be transparently hollow, how are we to live with ourselves?
In the 1980s, in a series of books that began with Salvador, Daugherty argues, Didion learned to look past the official narrative and focus on the story behind the story, the one found in a close reading of trial transcripts, declassified cables, and the back pages of underground newspapers. “Increasingly, in the 1980s,” Daugherty writes, “Didion’s writing discovered the real American stories not in the scenes, but behind them, in obscure rooms in queer places with unpronounceable names, where our government’s military and economic interests coiled in dark corners.” There, “in the outposts and archives, in the safe houses and bunkers, a logical, continuous, and traceable — if findable — narrative was unfolding all along.”
Didion’s pursuit of the story behind the story lifted her out of her post-1960s malaise and set the stage for a stream of brilliant late-career reportage, much of it written for The New York Review of Books, that peeled away the façade of American political and cultural life, laying out in Didion’s distinctive flat, declarative sentences how things really work. This late run culminated in Didion’s best-selling book, The Year of Magical Thinking, her 2005 memoir of her husband’s death in which she turned her formidable powers of analysis back on her herself, exploring how the lies we tell ourselves can also save us.
The Last Love Song is far too long, devoting hundreds of pages to decades-old Hollywood gossip and exhumations of skeletons in the closets of Didion’s extended family members, but at its core it provides an indispensable guide to understanding not just the value of Didion’s contribution to American literature, but how she pulled it off. Among the pleasures of Daugherty’s portrait is the light he sheds on Didion’s literary education, first at U.C. Berkeley, where she learned the close reading skills that came in so handy later in her career, and then at Vogue in New York, where a first job writing captions for photo spreads taught her how to get the most meaning from the least number of words.
In this age of blogs and YouTube rants, when the length of a piece of prose is determined largely by the amount of time its author can afford to spend writing it for free, we forget how formative the demands of writing for a physical page were for writers of the print era. At Vogue, Didion’s photo captions were a kind of fashion-plate haiku, “blocks of text, thirty lines long, each featuring sixty-four characters.” Didion’s editor would have her write 300 to 400 words, and then, attacking the page with a blunt pencil, whittle it down to the most evocative 50. “It is easy to make light of this kind of ‘writing,’” Didion later said. “I do not make light of it at all: it was at Vogue that I learned a kind of ease with words…a way of regarding words not as mirrors of my own inadequacy, but as tools, toys, weapons to be deployed strategically on a page.”
From caption writer, Didion climbed the masthead at Vogue while taking assignments from publications as varied as Mademoiselle and The National Review and writing her first novel, Run, River, at night and on weekends. These were the fat years of the Age of Print, when television was still in its infancy and the G.I. Bill had just put a generation through college. At Time, where her husband John Gregory Dunne worked when Didion was at Vogue, “waiters from the Tower Suite on top of the Time-Life Building rolled in buffet carts with beef Wellington and chicken divan and sole and assorted appetizers and vegetables and desserts.” Liquor was served in “prodigious quantities” and hotel rooms “were available for those suburbanites who had missed their last train, or would so claim to their wives when in fact all they wished was an adulterous snuggle with a back-of-the-book researcher.”
The largesse of the print-era gravy train meant that when Didion and Dunne moved to California, they not only could count on a national audience for the columns they wrote for Life and The Saturday Evening Post, but that they could afford to do so while living at the edge of an estate overlooking the sea a few miles south of Los Angeles. In fact, in the 50 years since Didion left her editor’s desk at Vogue in 1964, decades in which she and Dunne lived in some of the toniest neighborhoods in New York and L.A., neither of them ever held a job other than writer.
Of course, the economic bounty provided by glossy magazines and Hollywood script deals would have meant nothing if Didion had nothing to say, as is demonstrated, perhaps unintentionally, by Daugherty’s exhaustive chronicling of the checkered careers of John Gregory Dunne and his brother Dominick. Daugherty’s tales of the Brothers Dunne, along with that of Didion’s sad, alcoholic adopted daughter Quintana, who died of acute pancreatitis in 2005, comprise a sort of shadow narrative in The Last Love Song, one that bloats the book to more than 700 pages and occasionally threatens to overwhelm the central story.
But if Daugherty makes too much of John Gregory Dunne’s angst over his mediocrity and Dominick Dunne’s long road from cokehead movie producer to closeted bisexual celebrity crime journalist, one comes away from The Last Love Song with a renewed sense of how rare true talent is, what a gift it is — for the bearer, and for her audience. John Gregory Dunne was every bit as committed to his craft as his his wife, and Dominick Dunne far eclipsed her gift for self-reinvention, but only Didion possessed the luck of serving as a human tuning fork for the anxieties of her age and the dogged curiosity to pursue those anxieties wherever they led.
First, a parable for manliness in the 21st century:
Throughout graduate school, I’ve made ends meet by clearing land on a ranch owned by an acquaintance. Not long ago, my daughter, who is four, came to work with me. My wife, who stayed home, sent her off in boots and a cowgirl hat over a pair of pigtail braids.
While I worked, my daughter followed behind me with a miniature set of clippers, chopping the ends off of cedar branches and throwing the pieces onto the brush piles I was building. Then she helped me find firewood, and then we roasted hot dogs and made s’mores and shared stories and jokes until bedtime.
The next morning in the ranch house, as I was helping get her dressed, I started to pull her hair into a ponytail. “No,” she said, “I want a braid.” I started to say Sweetie, mama does that, not daddy, because at home her mother does her hair. But I stopped myself. I can figure it out, I thought. Braiding hair can’t be that hard. And I did it. I braided her hair.
I was stupidly proud of that braid the rest of the day, proud like I had been the first time I started my own campfire. When I got home and told my wife about it, she was less awed: “Of course you can braid hair,” she said. “You’re a grown man.”
The point is that there are different ways of looking at manliness: in one view, manliness is what differentiates men from women; in another, it’s what separates a grownup (who identifies as a man) from a child. It’s adulthood, performed by a male-type person. In the first view, the manly thing to do if you find yourself in my position is not to braid your daughter’s hair, because that’s not what men do. In the second, the manly thing is to do it, because you’re a grownup responsible for a little girl, and this one little thing will make her day better. You can do it, so you should.
In case it’s not clear, I hold the second position. It seems to me a more valuable understanding of manhood, the one that makes manliness actually matter. More importantly, it doesn’t block manliness off from any part of goodness — like being nurturing or cooperative, which are characteristics useful in any grownup. Instead, it makes manliness synonymous with goodness, with doing the right thing.
Think of the ways we talk about manliness: as making necessary sacrifices for those who depend on us, doing what needs to be done, choosing the ugly truth over the pretty lie. Leaving behind the comfortable, taking risks when they’re needed. In all of those definitions, we’re still just talking about being good, brave, responsible. And if that’s what we mean by manliness, then we have to acknowledge the fact that women are now — and always have been — as good at it as men are. Which, in turn, means that men can, and ought to, learn manliness from women.
This idea, that men can learn how to be from women, hits right at a number of controversies related to religion and the contemporary world. You might remember, for example, Cardinal Raymond Burke and his comments on the “feminization” of the Catholic Church. Those comments only make sense if you hold the first view of manliness. Because if you hold the second, the “feminization” of the church doesn’t matter. After all, no one (not even Cardinal Burke) is saying that girl altar servers or women readers or any women helping at church are less devout, less disciplined, less faithful, less willing to sacrifice than men or boys (“The girls were also very good at altar service,” says Burke, as if that’s proof they need to be excluded). If those are the virtues the Church is supposed to be teaching, and if men are refusing to learn those virtues because they’re being taught by women or girls, then — as Michael Boyle points out — those men need to grow up. Or, to put it more plainly, they need to man up.
Speaking of learning from women, a few months ago, a “manliness” website called the Art of Manliness posted the commencement address Adm. William McRaven gave last May at my school, the University of Texas. It’s a great speech: in it, McRaven takes 10 things he learned at SEAL training and generalizes them into life lessons. Like: “don’t back down from the sharks,” and “measure a person by the size of their heart, not the size of their flippers.” And the lesson that gives the speech its title: “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.” McRaven said:
If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another.
By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter.
If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.
That’s absolutely right. But as much as I liked the speech — and I really, really liked it — these days I need something more. I mean, I know I should make my bed, and I do. But that doesn’t get me one page closer to finished with my dissertation. It doesn’t get me job interviews or help me speak with ease and confidence when I do get those interviews. In fact, making my bed (like doing the dishes and mowing the lawn) is one of my ways of procrastinating, of making myself feel productive without doing the stuff I need to. Making my bed has become, for me, a marked card.
“Marked card,” you may already know, is a reference to an essay that gives me something McRaven’s speech doesn’t. I keep a copy of this other essay printed out in my desk drawer, my go-to pep talk: it’s Joan Didion’s “On Self-Respect.” In that piece, Didion writes:
The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that very well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself: no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions. One shuffles flashily but in vain through one’s marked cards — the kindness done for the wrong reason, the apparent triumph which involved no real effort, the seemingly heroic act into which one had been shamed.
Maybe pep talk is the wrong word. More of a stern talking-to.
A high point of the essay comes in this passage near the end:
In a diary kept during the winter of 1846, an emigrating twelve-year-old named Narcissa Cornwall noted coolly: ‘Father was busy reading and did not notice that the house was being filled with strange Indians until Mother spoke about it.’ Even lacking any clue as to what Mother said, one can scarcely fail to be impressed by the entire incident: the father reading, the Indians filing in, the mother choosing the words that would not alarm, the child duly recording the event and noting further that those particular Indians were not, ‘fortunately for us,’ hostile. Indians were simply part of the donnée.
From that, she distills the essence of what she calls self-respect:
In one guise or another, Indians always are. Again, it is a question of recognizing that anything worth having has its price. People who respect themselves are willing to accept the risk that the Indians will be hostile, that the venture will go bankrupt, that the liaison may not turn out to be one in which every day is a holiday because you’re married to me. They are willing to invest something of themselves; they may not play at all, but when they do play, they know the odds.
Like McRaven with his bed-making, Didion extols the virtue of the “small disciplines.” Only, she also writes that “the small disciplines are valuable only insofar as they represent larger ones.” Obviously McRaven gets this, but it’s Didion who really pushes the point. In short, McRaven makes a great cheerleader; more often these days, I need Didion the drill sergeant.
The joke, of course, is that Didion is supposed to be a girly writer, maybe the girliest. Caitlin Flanagan writes that “to really love Joan Didion — to have been blown over by things like the smell of jasmine and the packing list she kept by her suitcase — you have to be female.” And Katie Roiphe says that she has never “walked into the home of a female writer, aspiring, newspaper reporter, or women’s magazine editor and not found, somewhere on the shelves, a row of Joan Didion books.”
Flanagan’s essay actually introduced me to Didion, in particular to “On Keeping a Notebook,” which might still be my favorite piece of hers. When I read Flanagan’s article, I rolled my eyes, and went to the library right away to check out Slouching Towards Bethlehem, just to prove her wrong.
But Flanagan did have a point. She made fun of a male fan who forgot what Didion said she wore in The White Album:
I once watched a hysterically sycophantic male academic ask Didion about her description of what she wore in HaightAshbury so that she could pass with both the straights and the freaks. ‘I’m not good with clothes,’ he admitted, ‘so I don’t remember what it was.’
Not remembering what Joan wore in the Haight (a skirt with a leotard and stockings) is like not remembering what Ahab was trying to kill in Moby-Dick.
I think I got something from her packing list in that essay, but I’ll admit that I don’t get all of the resonances of all Didion’s outfits. It reminds me of the other night, when my wife and I were watching the end of the TV series The Fall. About Gillian Anderson, she said, “Her skin! It’s just so good.”
I don’t think I’ve ever commented on another person’s skin. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed another person’s skin, unless something horrible was going on with it. I realized, when my wife said that, that we were watching the show in entirely different ways. But is that it? Is that the big, essential difference between men and women? I have an endless memory for football games, and she notices other people’s skin and the hems of their skirts?
Of course it’s not — as even Flanagan would admit, there are men who notice skin and skirt hems and women who are oblivious to them. But even if so, what does it matter? What does it matter next to “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not?”
I found a counterpoint to Flanagan’s essay in a 2007 post from author “Jessica” at Jezebel. Jessica insists that men like me who love Didion do so because we can read her without (in her words) feeling like pussies. She picks up on what could easily be called a vein of masculinity that runs through all of Didion’s work.
Look again at “On Self-Respect.” The whole essay is an act of gender-bending. Didion rejects the role of Cathy from Wuthering Heights, and of Francesca da Rimini. Instead, she compares herself to Raskolnikov and says she wants to be more like Rhett Butler. She puts Jordan Baker’s manhood up against Julian English’s: Jordan wins. And then there are the references to the Wild West, to Waterloo and the playing fields of Eton, and to Chinese Gordon holding Khartoum against the Mahdi.
(By the way, I had to look up Chinese Gordon and the Mahdi. I think that should go on the record if we’re going to make something out of me not knowing about crepe-de-Chine wrappers.)
Besides Didion’s subject matter (wildfires, John Wayne), Jessica zooms in on what she calls Didion’s “glacial emotional distance.” Coolness, hardness, distance: these are characteristics that show up regularly in writing about Didion’s writing. Here’s Roiphe:
There is in her delicate, urban, neurotic sensibility something of the hardy pioneer ancestors she describes, jettisoning rosewood chests in the crossing, burying the dead on the wagon trail, never looking back. At one point she quotes another child of California, Patty Hearst, saying, ‘Never examine your feelings — they’re no help at all.’
“She is, in the end,” writes Roiphe, “a writer of enormous reserve.”
The point is, Didion herself is — or acts like — one of the gender outliers Flanagan glosses over in her profile. Even Flanagan gets around to this, near the end of her piece — except that rather than writing about the masculine (the cool, the hard, the distant) in Didion’s prose, Flanagan finds it in her parenting, which makes the passage pretty tough reading. Focusing on the early death of Didion’s daughter Quintana, Flanagan writes:
Both of Quintana’s parents worked constantly, left her alone with a variety of sitters — two teenage boys who happened to live next door, a woman who ‘saw death’ in Joan Didion’s aura, whatever hotel sitter was on duty — and they left her alone in Los Angeles many, many times when they were working. The Christmas Quintana was 3, Didion planned to make crèches and pomegranate jelly with her, but then got a picture in New York and decided she’d rather do that, leaving her child home. (She was there because the movie was ‘precisely what I want to be doing,’ Didion wrote defiantly, although she admitted that it was difficult for her to look into the windows of FAO Schwarz.) She balanced ill health and short deadlines by drinking gin and hot water to blunt the pain and taking Dexedrine to blunt the gin, which makes for some ravishing reading, but is hardly a prescription for attentive parenting. Where was Quintana when Didion was living at the Faculty Club, or finishing her novels at her parents’ house, or bunking down in the Haight? Not with her mother.
If you’ve read Flanagan before, you know that this is, for her, a gendered charge. In fairness, she also chides Quintana’s father, John Gregory Dunne, for his parenting. But that “Not with her mother” mirrors the close of Laurie Abraham’s 2006 profile of Flanagan. Abraham begins by saying that she confessed, on entering Flanagan’s home, that she was feeling a bit guilty about being there because, back home in New York, her children’s gerbil had died and she thought they might need consoling. Then, at the end of her piece, Abraham writes:
Midway through the interview in her home, I say that I noticed she removed the most searing line from her revised ‘Serfdom’ essay: ‘When a mother works, something is lost.’ So, I ask her, do you stand by that line? ‘Yeah,’ Flanagan says, her voice now soft, serious. ‘The gerbil’s dead, and you’re here.’
So Flanagan isn’t criticizing Didion as a person — she’s criticizing her as a woman. Distance, coolness, and hardness might be okay in a father (think of Cardinal Burke’s comments on fatherhood), but they’re unforgivable in a mother.
But while both Roiphe and Flanagan write of Didion’s hardness as a flaw (an artistic flaw for Roiphe, a moral flaw for Flanagan), I wonder how much of her popularity has to do with precisely that, and with all of the ways that she diverges from the stereotypical female script. In other words, I wonder if her popularity isn’t just about the clothes and the interior design, but also about the war references; not just about the flowers in her hair, but also about the Stingray. Didion’s popularity might just be a perfect illustration of British writer VJW Smith’s observation that “the experience that girls share is not so much that of being a girl but that of not being one.”
If you want to talk Didion and gender, you could turn to her profile of John Wayne, or to her send-up of early-1970s feminists in “The Women’s Movement.” But more interesting, I think, is her profile of Georgia O’Keeffe.
Like Didion, O’Keeffe is a sort of icon of smart femininity — the same girls who have Didion on their bookshelves may have had, at some point, O’Keeffe prints hanging on their walls. (Full disclosure: when I met my wife, in college, her room was decorated with small versions of O’Keeffe’s flowers, cut from a calendar that had been a high school graduation present.)
In Didion’s profile, O’Keeffe has self-respect, having been “equipped early with an immutable sense of who she was and a fairly clear understanding that she would be required to prove it.” Didion describes her as hard, as astonishingly aggressive, a child of the prairie, a “straight shooter.” When she observes something, she does it “coolly;” when her paintings are exhibited in Chicago, she “was a hard woman who had imposed her 192 square feet of clouds on Chicago.”
Didion also calls her a guerilla in the war between the sexes. For some writers, “the war between the sexes” could mean a clash of masculine and feminine cosmovisions, the natural result of Mars meeting Venus. But that’s not how Didion uses the phrase. For Didion, O’Keeffe’s struggle comes from the fact that her femininity blinds the men around her to the ways that she’s like them. Or, more accurately, to the ways that she’s better than them. Because in Didion’s profile, O’Keeffe out-mans the men:
‘The men’ believed it impossible to paint New York, so Georgia O’Keeffe painted New York. ‘The men’ didn’t think much of her bright color, so she made it brighter. The men yearned toward Europe so she went to Texas, and then to New Mexico. The men talked about Cézanne, ‘long involved remarks about the “plastic quality” of his form and color,’ and took one another’s long involved remarks, in the view of this angelic rattlesnake in their midst, altogether too seriously.
My favorite passage, though, comes at the end of the piece:
In Texas she had her sister Claudia with her for a while, and in the late afternoons they would walk away from town and toward the horizon and watch the evening star come out. ‘That evening star fascinated me,’ she wrote. ‘It was in some way very exciting to me. My sister had a gun, and as we walked she would throw bottles into the air and shoot as many as she could before they hit the ground. I had nothing but to walk into nowhere and the wide sunset space with the star. Ten watercolors were made from that star.’ In a way one’s interest is compelled as much by the sister Claudia with the gun as by the painter Georgia with the star, but only the painter left us this shining record. Ten watercolors were made from that star.
I may not get everything about the leotard and the stockings. But going silent as the stars come out over the Texas prairie? That I get.
I want to make clear, though, that I’m not just saying that I’m drawn to some masculine energy I see in Didion’s writing. Even if I (still) disagree with Flanagan, I also think something’s missing from the Jezebel article, too. When I re-read “On Keeping a Notebook,” I remember that, despite all the talk of pioneers and shooting bottles out of the sky, my stake, like Flanagan’s, is with the girl in the plaid silk dress at the end of the bar. That’s either despite or (more likely) because of the fact that I can’t know exactly what it’s like to be her.
And I can’t know that for lots of reasons. But that doesn’t mean I can’t relate to her, and if I can relate to her, I can learn from her. Didion starts Slouching Towards Bethlehem with a quote from Peggy Lee: “I learned courage from Buddha, Jesus, Lincoln, Einstein, and Cary Grant.” Whatever her personal failings — and we all have them — that’s what so much of Didion’s writing is about: courage. And whatever our differences, that’s why we listen to, study, and read each other. To learn. And, to steal a phrase from her piece on John Wayne, Didion makes great reading if you want to learn about doing what a man’s gotta do.
“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.” Kentuckian Chris Offutt chose that line from Joan Didion’s The White Album as the epigraph for his memoir, No Heroes: A Memoir of Coming Home. Appalachian literature plays an elegaic refrain. It is a literature of dislocation and transition and survival. Ron Rash, echoing Offutt, reflects how everybody who lived on the two-mile dirt road that led to his grandmother’s farm was either family or friend. Now, “I probably know three families out of 60 or 70. And that place is gone. The accent’s gone. A lot of the culture is disappearing.”
Rash and Offutt hesitate to sentimentalize that passing world, but the pull is inescapable. As Rash says, “there’s something in us as human beings that–we know our lives are transitory, but we want something not to be transitory, something to endure, whether it’s a landscape or a place.” Rash’s poem “Preserves” is a concise dramatization of that process. After a funeral, the dead’s land and property are divided among kin, but the narrator has forgotten a springhouse. He opens the rotting door and he finds “woodslats bowed with berry and vegetable.” The double meaning of the poem’s title is less meant to be clever than funereal, as the family “heaped our paper plates and ate, one chair / closest to the stove unfilled.”
Later this year, Rash’s novel Serena gets the full Hollywood treatment. Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper will likely send more readers back to his work, including his newest release, Above the Waterfall. For many readers, the life and fiction of Breece D’J Pancake still haunts the discussion of Appalachian literature. Pancake killed himself in 1979 at 27-years-old, and his rough but lyric tales have made him a martyr. Jon Michaud’s recent retrospective at The New Yorker is a fitting tribute. He recommends Thomas E. Douglass’s biography, A Room Forever, and Samantha Hunt’s essay “The Secret Handshake,” which appeared in The Believer. I would add Marion Field’s touching “Complicated Manners” from the Oxford American. But start with the man’s fiction; my favorites are “The Way It Has To Be” and “Time and Again.”
It would be foolish to deny Pancake’s literary influence on how we speak about literary Appalachia. The parallel nature of his passionate but short life, his brief output (he only published enough stories to fill one book), and the crafted compression of his tales make him almost too perfect of a symbol. During a review of Rusty Barnes’s story collection, Mostly Redneck, I positively compared Barnes to Pancake, noting that both writers used finely crafted settings to add gravity to the minutia of their characters’ lives. In an interview, Barnes pushed back against my comparison, citing a frustration with reviewers using Pancake as metonym for Appalachian literature. While that certainly wasn’t my intention, I welcome his excellent list of other noteworthy contemporaries from the region: Nikki Finney, Frank X. Walker, Lee Smith, Lisa Koger, Maurice Manning, Silas House, James Still, Crystal Wilkinson, Charles Dodd White, Gurney Norman, Denise Giardina, Mark Powell, Pinckney Benedict, and Chris Offutt. Readers should get Red Holler: Contemporary Appalachian Literature, edited by John Branscum and Wayne Thomas, or issues of Appalachian Heritage, Still, and Appalachian Journal to see the newest work coming from Appalachia. Countless others could be added to Barnes’s list, including Harry Humes, Jayne Anne Phillips, Tom Bailey, the late Irene McKinney, Ann Pancake, RT Smith, Fred Chappell, Joseph Bathanti, and Scott McClanahan, whose memoir, Crapalachia, is a self-admitted yarn. “God bless those who keep trying to make myths,” he writes.
One of the finest mythmakers in contemporary Appalachian letters is Rose McLarney, a poet from western North Carolina. Although she now teaches in Oklahoma, while looking for her first teaching job back east, McLarney “was living without electricity, hiking 17 miles to use the phone or internet.” Her first book, The Always Broken Plates of Mountains, hits elegaic notes, as in poems like “Autumn Again,” where the sumac-stabbed hills create a beautiful color, but “this time of year, there is always / a wounded feeling.” Her first book was not provincial, but her newest release, Its Day Being Gone, widens her range.
The book begins with violence. In “Facing North,” the narrator needs to put down a sick goat. “Silent animals” on the farm watch in judgment. She is not without guilt, wondering if she “should have given her southerly pasture,” and then cleverly turning the hesitance on herself, thinking “I should have gone in another direction.” Her threnody might seem archaic. After all, “In this era, when there is no need / to farm, who is drawn to have livestock, / which die so much?” Yet again, the narrator has used “animals / as the figures for my sorrows.” But she is “still here. / I can’t stay away / from the hard images.”
Those hard images, like the tenuous truths of McClanahan’s memoir, are no less painful if they are myths. Later in the collection, McLarney writes “much of what you grew up with had already faded– / there was less paint than rust on the metal, and littler / hope.” This tension between past and present, reality and hope moves the book forward. In “Shadow Cat,” the narrator walks a dirt road, thinking how the “houses on bits of flat / kept their backs to the walls / of mountains, knowing / their place.” The natural world reigns, and is untouched until higher up the mountain, where a man pulling a bulldozer whispered a warning: “Careful out here alone. / Big cat will get you.” She’s been hearing such admonitions her entire life, although few people have actually seen such animals. She wonders if the warnings are a comfort, “keeping alive the belief / that what wildness abides / out there is the danger.”
Dangerous, but it is their wildness, and the narrator of “Watershed” defends the local, “murky” waterways. She is not interested in clear water “filtered by mosses and lichens.” She wants an “ancient, worn landscape,” where she can swim over sunken cars. A certain level of toughness is expected. Someone who enters her house must be “unafraid / of stumbling on sagging floors, into low doorframes, features / of old structures, the past, people I know.”
Great books can be local, but Its Day Being Gone gains another dimension through the inclusion of McLarney’s chapbook, Hone Creek, originally published in Mudlark. The poems in this sequence dramatize the upheaval of South American communities from hydroelectric damming. “Imminent Domain” introduces the section. Although McLarney does not identify herself as an activist–“as much as [my poems] say what is wrong, [they] end up admitting my complicity”–these poems are written with anger. Although some of these engineers “meant well,” “Power always is sent to serve regions other / than where it is made.”
The disparate regions are also connected by methods of storytelling. McLarney’s narrators often smirk, as good yarn spinners do. “Setting,” a story about a thief and his lover, is told “because I want your attention. For you to come for dinner again.” These “bellyful tales,” told “when no one is hungry,” are variations on a theme:
No, there’s nothing new in it. But it couldn’t be richer.
What would you rather have than a thing you know
spiced and simmered, spoken and seconded,
in another’s accent?
Its Day Being Gone is several books in one, and “Story with a Real Beast and a Little Blood in It” helps decode the synthesis. A bull breaks loose, and after the men, “butted and bruised / with rope-burned hands, give up,” the narrator makes a path of sweet feed that leads into a gated fence. But she pauses the poem to warn that we should “not look to make any allegories, / for any meaning beyond the marvel.” In Its Day Being Gone, McLarney has it both ways. Her stories are real, but they are symbols. Appalachia will remain, but it helps that the region has such skilled writers to document its truths and myths. McLarney’s poems contain enough eloquence to make a passing world permanent. Her work reminds us that when the bull ran, when the past began to fade, you “followed / on your knees down the mountain, noting / even in brambles, as you bled, the stars.”
Now that The Empathy Exams, the thoughtful, brave, and honest essay collection by Leslie Jamison, is a New York Times Bestseller, it’s probably a good time to start my bragging: Leslie and I smoked weed together at Iowa. I bring this up not (only) to embarrass Leslie (and me), but also because one particular memory of her from that era remains distinct in my mind, and seems appropriate given that her work is so deeply felt and observed, beautiful as poetry and as probing as a deep sea satellite.
In the memory, our mutual friend A. has just gotten us high. He is a former journalist and a budding playwright as well as a fiction writer, and so social engagements with him carry with them a certain intensity, as if we’re not just hanging out, but being interviewed and excavated, the performative elements of our personalities both applauded and questioned. I cannot get enough of hanging out with A. Once we’re all rightly stoned, he asks me and Leslie how we might define the word dramaturge. In my memory, my brain stutters and stalls like a rusted old car; I am wishing for some cinnamon bread. “It’s…uh…,” I say, “…like…um…someone who helps a theatre company?” A. nods at me (with pity, I recall), and then turns to Leslie, whose arms are crossed. She’s squinting. Leslie is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and when I am high this frightens me a little. “I like to think of a dramaturge as a kind of translator between the text and the performers.” She goes on to describe the art of play production with such elegance and intelligence that I can’t help but feel humbled, jealous, and inspired.
This is how I felt reading The Empathy Exams. In a world where there are a hundred online quizzes along the lines of “Ten Things Not To Say to ___________” and twice as many confessional essays that read like ineffectual diary entries, it’s energizing to find a collection like Leslie’s, which engages seriously with issues of pain, suffering, and human connection and interaction. She is a translator for experiences I’ve had but could not find the right — or any — words for.
She was kind enough to answer some questions for me via email.
The Millions: I’m woefully ignorant when it comes to the essay form. Can you recommend 3-5 books for a reader who wants to immerse herself in this genre? How have these books informed your own work?
Leslie Jamison: Boys of My Youth, Jo Ann Beard: Essays about boys, sure — and even a disintegrating marriage with one of them — but also about violence and squirrels and weird attachments that show up with unexpected intensity in unexpected places. Beard takes her pain seriously but is also funny, which I like. “The Fourth State of Matter” (about a mass shooting at the University of Iowa) is one of the most powerful essays I’ve ever read.
The White Album, Joan Didion: A classic. But whatever. It’s important, and so good. There are meaningful flashes of personal crisis and reaction amidst larger meditations on the chaos and ferment of the 1960s: Charles Manson, the Black Panthers, the California Water Authority. Didion takes on the world without trying to solve it; she honors the mess.
This is Running for Your Life, Michelle Orange: Imagine a woman who writes an essay about Ethan Hawke’s face but also goes to Hawaii to report on the annual conference of the American Psychiatric Association. This collection is cultural criticism that’s roomy enough to hold surprising pockets of deep feeling, and sturdy enough to launch rigorous intellectual excursions.
Notes from No Man’s Land, Eula Biss: These essays weave together history and private interior life in extraordinary ways. It’s just electric to watch Biss’s mind and heart work through difficult questions about race and American identity — her writing is lyrical and associative but always charged by ethical concern. A fragmented history of the telephone poll becomes a charged history of racial violence. Biss asks her readers to be fearless and open and willing to encounter difficulty.
Some of these collections are more confessional than others, but all of them explore loneliness in ways that feel generative rather than just deflating, or solipsistic, and they offer visions of the ways that private feeling can charge and inflect the way we see the public world. Didion bleeds private and public in ways that have been formative for me. Orange is tender with the absurdities of the world. Biss thinks about guilt and privilege in ways that feel invested but don’t get utterly exhausting. Beard is brave enough to summon the past — and live there for long stretches of time — without apology.
I promise I read men, too. And even admire them.
TM: Maybe because I met you in grad school, when we were both (ostensibly) fiction writers, I’m curious about your omnivorous writing life. How does fiction writing differ from essay writing for you — in process, in aesthetic goals, in voice and style?
LJ: Essays tend to happen in extended bursts — a few weeks, a few months — while the novels I’ve written (one completed, mostly discarded attempts) were long-haul treks. Even the essays that took several years to write and re-write were largely generated in bursts, and then revised in bursts; I sink deep into something, but the horizon of surfacing is never entirely out of sight.
In terms of big aesthetic goals, I think there’s a lot of overlap between my fiction and my nonfiction — or at least, in my aspirations for what both might do: go deep into consciousness (whether an imaginary character’s, a real person’s, or my own) and excavate moments of surprise and awe and tenderness and hurt in that consciousness, and in its interactions with the world and with others. But that excavation happens so differently in fiction and nonfiction.
In my nonfiction — especially reported pieces — more of the work happens away from the computer: getting on a plane, recording an interview, exploring a place and writing down everything I see. These parts of the process — that feel exploratory and experimental and tactile — are part of what drew me to essays, offered a relief from a flailing second novel that had started to feel claustrophobic and contrived.
Nonfiction makes me nervous in so many ways that fiction doesn’t: I get nervous about interviews (standard-issue holdovers from social anxieties of a younger self); I get nervous about upsetting the people I write about; I get nervous — of course, and I hope productively — about getting things wrong. All these kinds of nervousness make me sweat, but they also keep things electric.
TM: In a piece for Publishers Weekly, “How to Write a Personal Essay,” you write about how personal experiences sometimes don’t fit into a larger piece: “I can’t fake connections; I know readers can smell it — the faint stink of forced correspondence.” You mention a “purgatory file” where you keep “every shard I can’t bear to throw away; so that I can resurrect them from the dead if opportunity presents itself — if I see how these old shards can do the work I need them to.” I wonder about this file. How extensive is it? I feel a longing for a Leslie Jamison scrap-heap of cast off material, maybe because I feel like you’d do something intriguing and thoughtful with it. Have you ever thought about building something from the shards alone?
LJ: Amazing question! Totally a question from one writer to another. Do you have a purgatory file, too? Do you call it something else? I actually have a bunch of these files, attached to separate projects. And yes, I have tried to work with the shards. There is one period of my life that I’ve tried to write about over and over again but never managed to capture, and my latest attempt was a kind of meta-essay that gathered together all the previous attempts — everything from early diary entries to old term papers, but mainly scraps of discarded essays from the past ten years — and basically making a collage of excerpts, all distinguished by font. I wanted to give a sense of the layers, the ongoing process of returning to something that’s been hard to narrate. I wanted all the fragments to give a sense of difficulty but also desire — the deep, ongoing desire to honor this part of my life.
TM: When I read these essays, I kept thinking about your inclination to problematize: your experiences, your feelings, essay writing itself. If that sounds like it has a negative connotation, that’s not my intention — I admire your striving to see everything from numerous sides, to investigate your own desires and motivations, and to remind your reader that the essay form should be interrogated and upended. Was that a goal with this collection, or did that just…happen? Do you think it’s the writer’s — or the essayist’s — responsibility to problematize?
LJ: If “problematize” means regarding a subject from multiple angles, confessing the bias intrinsic to my subjective position, and questioning my own assumptions — then I suppose there’s no way I wouldn’t; it’s just the texture of how my mind approaches anything. And insofar as the essays are approaching a central subject — though they all come at empathy from different angles — they’re also looking to find the complications and perils embedded in what we might be tempted to view in simple terms: empathy as unequivocal good, unequivocal gift.
But I’ve always thought of this kind of problematizing as a fundamentally recuperative gesture: if we see something as fully as possible, in all its flaws and troubles, we can pursue it and embrace it more fully as well — there aren’t secrets or dangers festering under the surface. I’m wary of saying that writers have an obligation to do anything in particular — most often, you’ll find someone who doesn’t do whatever thing so beautifully that they redeem its absence — but it’s hard to imagine an essay that would be satisfying without complexity, and it’s hard to imagine complexity without some version of what we’re calling problematizing: the negative capability of holding multiple possibilities at once.
A quick note on upending the essay form: In all honesty, I think that the “essay” genre has already been taken in so many fascinating directions — followed down so many engaging formal back roads — that it would be disingenuous and a bit hubristic to claim that I’d upended anything: with the essay, stylistic innovation is more like continuing the tradition than upending it.
TM: Olivia Laing gave The Empathy Exams a very positive review in the New York Times Book Review. She had one quibble, however: “These are the essays of a working journalist. Most have been previously published in magazines like Vice, Harper’s and Oxford American. Because they all work to some degree over the narrow field of personal experience, they inevitably turn up the same items of autobiography, perpetually introduced as if for the first time. This has a strange, unwitting effect in a book so preoccupied with the registering of and response to distress — it makes Jamison sound self-preoccupied, too caught up in her own stories to recognize that the reader has encountered them before.” I don’t quote this back to you to be cruel, but because I feel like you must have recognized the repetition in this book. It seems to me that the book’s echoes of pain, the repeated acknowledgment of it, is part of the collection’s project: the emphasis and reminder of selfhood and of pain that is revisited but not necessarily resolved. It feels like grief, in this way. Am I just bullshitting here? What’s your take on it?
LJ: I don’t think you’re bullshitting! In fact, I’d love to quote you on that. I do mean for the collection to acknowledge the ways that certain kinds of pain must be revisited without necessarily getting resolved. This certainly happens in conversations and in life. I’d like to think that each time I return to any of these “same items of autobiography,” I’m doing something different with it. For example, I mention several times that I was punched in the face by a stranger in Nicaragua — one essay invokes an obscure literary theorist to try to tell the story of this assault in terms of traditional Russian folktales; another uses the assault to describe what it felt like to read James Agee for the first time. I don’t tend to think of autobiography as a finite arsenal of weapons that can get deployed at various moments: here is where I whip out my abortion, my abusive relationship, my divorce — so much as a set of inexhaustible resources; each story from my past — or anyone’s — holding a thousand possible meanings, a thousand possible slants. But I do find it fascinating whenever anyone responds to the collection by suggesting its preoccupation with its own wounds — not because I disagree (I am preoccupied with my own wounds) but because I disagree with leveling this kind of accusation: why shouldn’t we be preoccupied with our own hurt? We should just do our best to let these preoccupations spur us into productive kinds of attention and action. And the final essay in the collection, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” is about precisely this kind of accusation — what it means to shame women for “wallowing” in pain — so it always interests me to see that phenomenon enacted in responses to the book.
TM: There are a couple of comic moments in this book when you mention the way your writing was received when you were a student at the Workshop (for instance, you describe how another student suggests during workshop that you give your main character a job). I’m wondering if you could talk about the workshop process a little — what it offered you and what it lacked. Sharing work for a group critique requires one to be vulnerable, but also, maybe, defiant. What do you think?
LJ: I have a lot of faith and trust in the workshop process, largely because it’s a model that can absorb and even articulate its own limitations — can be dynamic, adaptive, try to get better. I think it’s a total gift and privilege to have a roomful of people who care about writing pay attention to yours, and offer feedback — but I think it only works if you can set strong internal boundaries around how much that feedback matters. In other words: don’t let the voices crowd too close, or get too loud.
At my first workshop at Iowa, the wonderful Elizabeth McCracken told us that it would be a useful workshop if we incorporated 20% of what we heard — that didn’t mean we were being arrogant, to “disregard” the other 80%, just that part of our job was to sift through the feedback, rather than feeling like it was our task or obligation to incorporate all of it. That was liberating for me, and changed my sense of what a workshop was or how oppressive it had to be. I love teaching workshops because you get so many different voices in chorus. I do think it can be useful — especially with longer projects — to get some distance from feedback for a while, so you can get to know a project — develop a private relationship with that project and follow it somewhere before you expose it to the input of others. I wrote my novel entirely outside the workshop system, after I was done with Iowa, and I think that was important to getting a certain momentum going. I was riding the dream of the thing (sometimes nightmare) without interruptions from other sensibilities. I had to get the whole thing down before I was ready to hear any craft advice from anyone.
TM: And, because this is The Millions, I must ask: What’s the last great book you read?
LJ: Easy. Just finished it this week. Beautiful Children by Charles Bock. It’s full of harm and care and crisis and bright light and so much filth, and so much beauty, and so much heart.
There is a tangible shape to my year in reading: it can be plotted on a map. It’s comforting for me to think of it that way, as a path arcing out across the Atlantic, because this was my year of big transitions, and it’s easy to lose sight of where I began, and where I am now. I rang in 2013 at a bar on the Gowanus in Brooklyn, my home for the past five years (the borough, not the canal). I’m writing this from my flat in Hackney, tucked between a big, grimy thoroughfare and a slick new Overground station, on the extension of the old East London Line. New York and London sometimes feel like mirror worlds — some things here are remarkably similar to the city I left behind — but other things are deeply foreign, in a way that rattles me. I grasp for the familiar, but I’m here to look for the new. It helps, then, to root myself in the books I’ve been reading over the past 11 months: they have carried me across the ocean, as I have carried them.
Fittingly enough, I began the year with Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain, by Robert Winder. I have no memory of purchasing this book, but it appears to have been printed here in the U.K., so I imagine I picked it up on some Waterstone’s table years ago. (I’ve done stints of various lengths in the British Isles many times in the past decade, all of them characterized by too many impulse-book-buys relative to the sizes of my suitcases.) I’m an aspirational reader when it comes to nonfiction: “Oh, I’m interested in the topic!” I’ll say, super enthusiastically, but in the end I’ll barely manage to slog through the introduction. But Winder is a lively and charming writer, and the book teases out a thread that runs contrary to the popular immigration narrative in Britain: that immigration here, and the racial conflict tied with it, is a modern problem, a post-colonial problem. “Ever since the first Jute, the first Saxon, the first Roman and the first Dane leaped off their boats and planted their feet on British mud, we have been a mongrel nation,” he writes. “Our roots are neither clean nor straight; they are impossibly tangled.”
My spring reading was routine, a stockpile of books for review, some chosen by me, some assigned. So I crisscrossed the globe seemingly at random, cartography determined by publishing schedules and press releases, South Asia to southern New England, Ireland to New York. I like being assigned books, because it takes the pressure off, sometimes: save a few writers that I love and a few that I hate, most authors are new to me. I try to approach each book as an aggressively neutral third party, no preconceived notions, no agendas, no hopes for the reading experience. Of course, at some level, this is bullshit: I am all of my preconceived notions and agendas and hopes for reading packed into a single individual, and it’s impossible to separate that out. But I like the illusion of it, however temporary: the idea that I am a blank slate, open to whatever book drops through my letter box, is a sort of armor against time’s narrowing effects on my mind.
And then, it was goodbye to all that. Before the release of the collection that seemed to get all sorts of people riled up (Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York), I wrote my own ode to Joan Didion’s leaving-New York essay, as I prepared to leave New York. So I re-read Slouching Towards Bethlehem, because, well, Joan Didion. Shortly before I packed up the last of my boxes, I flew across the country to visit my little sister in Los Angeles, and I cracked open The White Album for another Didion re-read while sitting on the beach in Santa Monica. I confirmed what I’d suspected all along — I’m very bad at reading on beaches — and the book was abandoned in the sand as my shoulders burned.
The end of summer was crisp and prematurely autumnal in upstate New York, and as the racing season came to a close, I started to think about which books were making the journey overseas. I made little piles; I swapped out heavier volumes for lighter ones; I tried to think about what I wanted at my side, and the old aspirational book-gathering again — what sort of person would I be, with these books on my shelf across the ocean? I wound up in the parking lot at JFK on the hottest day in the history of man, sweating profusely as I frantically pulled out paperbacks and handed them to my mother. They would arrive, along with boots and coats and a blanket, in a battered package a month later. By then, I’d already purchased a dozen new books, falling hard on old habits, Waugh and Forster and Conan Doyle, overlarge collections of literary criticism by Edward Said and David Lodge, and a paperback of a book I already own back in the U.S., just because it was £2 and it was there sitting on a table at the store. I trekked up to the IKEA in Tottenham and bought a BILLY bookcase; I proceeded to assemble it incorrectly. It’s nearly full already, and it’s only November. At the Columbia Road Flower Market a few Sundays back I bought my first plant, to sit on top. “It’s my first plant!” I announced to a deeply unimpressed Cockney flower-seller. “Yeah, so that’s a fiver,” he repeated, holding out his hand.
I’ve ended the year with books for class — I’m here at University College London to study the digital humanities, so that’s a broad and varied body of literature, the history of mark-up and theories on user-centered design and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. All of that will be the story of next year’s reading. For now, I’m trying to navigate my transatlanticism as well as I can. On Thanksgiving, after the American service at St Paul’s Cathedral, I walked down Fleet Street and over to Charing Cross Road, where I popped into Foyle’s and picked up Terry Eagleton’s Across the Pond: An Englishman’s View of America. On my way out the door I was stopped by a survey-taker — this country seems gripped by a frenzy of surveys right now — to whom I revealed, laughing self-consciously, that I’d come into the store and purchased the book on a whim. Her eyebrows went up when I said it, and she smiled slightly as she ticked the boxes. I didn’t tell her I had a new bookshelf to fill up.
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“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” –Joan Didion
It becomes palpable in late spring, when I receive a pair of unconditional offers posted first-class Royal Mail. I give ample notice at work; I make a little list of things I “haven’t done yet,” as though I am permanently relocating to the moon and will never again have the opportunity to ride the Staten Island Ferry; I chart out the furniture I need to sell, making guesses at how much cash I might collect as I disassemble my life. The days slip by and summer stutters in, blisteringly hot at first, then endless weeks of rain. (Half a dozen people say something to the effect of “You’d better get used to this!” often with a wink and a nudge, and I bite my tongue, or sometimes, I don’t, and snap, “The rain in England is not like this,” even though sometimes it actually is. A friend buys me a raincoat — a “parting gift” for the “the precipitation zone you will be heading to” — and I am profoundly grateful.) I begin to get maudlin as I leave certain places, or say goodbye to people at the end of the night. “Will this be the last time I…” The abstract idea that has hovered over me for ages — leaving New York City — sprouts legs and begins to crawl.
I’m headed to University College London in the fall, after one more season taking bets in my hometown, at the Saratoga Racecourse (this summer marks my tenth anniversary as a pari-mutuel clerk). These steps have been charted for a good while now, guided by the gravitational pull of London, a city in which I’ve lived before and a place that always manages to provoke my most extreme emotions, for better or for worse. Before all of that, though, I have to say goodbye to New York, which feels a bit self-indulgent: people change cities, migrate across the globe, uproot their lives every day, and most of them don’t feel compelled to write long essays about moving. But New York, though — maybe it’s the preponderance of writers here, the narcissism and the navel-gazing, that turns our comings and goings into a series of extended metaphors? We document our arrivals and our acclimations, the natural evolution of a human being, growing older — changing in a city that’s often painted as the living embodiment of change. And when we manage to leave, if we manage to leave, escape becomes a genre in and of itself.
Because it often feels like that: escape, like getting out of town is risky, or hard to coordinate, or something that happens just in the nick of time. There are a lot of “leaving New York essays” out there, nearly all of them framed from the vantage of the author’s new location, a place that’s usually less shiny or less gritty, somewhere that’s better in a lot of ways but invariably shadowed by nostalgic regret, maybe a kind of lingering sense of not having “made it” here, whatever that means. They follow a tested formula: you march confidently across the Hudson possessed with extreme naivety, because you are impossibly young when you arrive in New York, no matter your age on paper; you quickly learn the same sorts of hard lessons that people have learned for years on end; you pay a lot and get very little and sharpen your cockroach-killing reflexes; you have moments of startling clarity, as you reference specific street corners or landmarks or bits of cultural currency, paired with embarrassing vocalizations of these moments of clarity. (These references have obviously shifted over the years; right now, it’s often people drinking Tecate on rooftops in Bushwick as the sun sets over the Midtown skyline. For me, in my years working the night shift in a skyscraper in Times Square, it was the Midtown skyline sometime after midnight, from the BQE just above the Kosciuszko Bridge, cemeteries and hulking warehouses shadowed in the foreground and a postcard stretch of light and geometric wonder across the river.)
And then somewhere along the way, it ends. It’s not the day you leave, because if you’re writing this sort of piece, it’s likely that no one is forcing you to go, or you’re not putting up much of a fight. The New York of our imaginations has to end sooner than that — maybe it collapses under the weight of our own preconceptions, or maybe pinning so much responsibility on a city serves to mask the way the passage of time can alter us: when we arrive we are willing and eager to fold ourselves into different shapes, to make ourselves fit, but as we grow older, acts of contortion become more difficult, or at the very least, less desirable. It was always easy enough for me to live here, but my New York lost the vibrancy of the early days pretty quickly; I could hold my folded shape, but the stagnancy chipped away at me over time. People say that New York is a city for the rich, or a city for the young; it is also a city for the new and the bendable.
On Easter Sunday, I box up my books and hesitate as my fingers pass over a well-worn pair of Didion essay collections, the big two, Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album. I am sorting books into three piles: to give away; to send upstate; and to keep around for my final few months in New York, things I know I need to read, my half-dozen favorites, and a few shelves of “emergency books” that I irrationally feel like I might want to reference and need nearby me at all times. Afterwards it looks like the oddest little library — Gulliver’s Travels and Orwell’s essays and Evelyn Waugh’s collected short stories? Why did I keep these things here? Did I think I’d need to peruse How Fiction Works in a pinch? But I remember now, three months later, why I kept the Didions close at hand. In the vast realm of “leaving New York” essays, “Goodbye to All That” says everything that has ever needed to be said — but better.
I bought Slouching Towards Bethlehem in the final weeks of my senior year of college, and I read it during the strange, torpid months that followed. I open it up years later and remember, with some surprise, that those months coincided with my ill-fated experiment in becoming the kind of person who makes notations in books. Flipping through the essays, I see that I was playing fast and loose with the brackets and asterisks, basically rendering the act of marking totally pointless, like highlighting an entire page. I marked some good stuff, but most of it’s good stuff, kind of extraordinary stuff, really. It’s here that I should pause and acknowledge that if there’s anything more tedious than a “leaving New York” essay, it’s a “young girl discovers that Joan Didion has an inside window into her soul” essay. Bear with me for a moment, please.
I can’t help but wonder why “Goodbye to All That” was placed at the very end of the book: chronologically, it belongs at the very beginning — it explains away her twenties, and lays some of the foundations for the woman we find through all the rest, simultaneously fragile and steely, searching for answers under the California sun. Didion in New York is bendable to the point of breaking: it feels so removed from the rest of it, and I suppose, in a real sense, it was: she arrived here at age twenty, in the late fifties; she left eight years later, to return to her native California, as the West Coast was securing its central place in the socio-political history of the decade, and a permanent place in the American cultural imagination. In the final pages of the book we do a bit of a 180, back to Didion’s New York. Even from a distance, across the river and half a century later, the city is so instantly recognizable that it’s startling. I re-read the part about talking to her long-distance boyfriend during the first few days and laugh aloud on a packed train at rush hour. (“I would stay in New York, I told him, just six months, and I could see the Brooklyn Bridge from my window. As it turned out the bridge was the Triborough, and I stayed eight years.”)
There’s a dangerous paradox in writing about your earliest years, about the very beginnings of adulthood. We believe our experiences to be unique but the messages to be universal, and we have a hell of a time trying to strike the right balance, without coming off as narcissistic or arrogant, qualities that look all the harsher when paired with inexperience and immaturity. It’s tricky to avoid whining. The circumstances of my own first year out of school are difficult to quantify, sometimes interesting, sometimes mind-numbingly ordinary: the post-graduation confusion, then a return to my summer job at the track; moving to Edinburgh to work in a t-shirt shop and live in a long-term hostel; moving to San Francisco to take an internship and cobble together rent money with sketchy side gigs; getting a call one day in early July, waiting for cheap sushi in San Francisco’s financial district, that my best friend had been hit by a truck and killed as she was biking to work that morning. I had decided to leave California a few weeks prior; I felt slightly out-of-synch out west, uncomfortable in ways I’d never felt in Scotland, as grim as my life there turned out to be. With loss, priorities can sharpen. I returned east immediately.
If you asked me to explain myself that year, I’m not sure I could. I can outline my movements in plane tickets and bank statements, in e-mail chains and hazily-recalled phone conversations, but I fall victim to that paradox, the simultaneous convictions of uniqueness and universality. I came to New York on the heels of all of this, and those convictions solidified there, as I attempted to lay the foundations of the life I felt I was supposed to lead. Didion describes her own naïve march into New York by addressing the paradox with a kind of unflinching sentimentality:
When I first saw New York I was twenty, and it was summertime, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already, even in the old Idlewild temporary terminal, and the warm air smelled of mildew and some instinct, programmed by all the movies I had ever seen and all the songs I had ever heard sung and all the stories I had ever read about New York, informed me that it would never be quite the same again. In fact, it never was. Some time later there was a song on all the jukeboxes on the upper East Side that went “but where is the schoolgirl who used to be me,” and if it was late enough at night I used to wonder that. I know now that almost everyone wonders something like that, sooner or later and no matter what he or she is doing, but one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.
It almost feels like some sleight-of-hand, the way the experiences her twenty-year-old self believes to be singular are cut down by that final sentence. Didion, a pioneer in the school of New Journalism, stretches her years in New York across the city like a broad, welcoming umbrella, inviting all of us underneath to find our own experiences in her early fumblings. “Of course it might have been some other city,” she writes, “had circumstances been different and the time been different and had I been different, might have been Paris or Chicago or even San Francisco, but because I am talking about myself I am talking here about New York.” I can’t help but wonder, though; it’s an impossible sentence to counter, after all. I compare my own earliest fumblings to my years in New York — the place where my twenties slipped away, where I worked very hard and got just a little bit in return, where I spent huge swathes of time never setting foot outside the five boroughs (more like three boroughs, actually), where my own cultural assumptions met up with hard realities, where I stopped to marvel at that stretch of the Midtown skyline every single time I passed it — and I think that it couldn’t have been anywhere else. But then, perhaps because I am talking about myself I am talking here about New York.
Everything changes, even people, at least a little bit, and I watched my friends unravel somewhat in New York and then weave themselves into something nearly unrecognizable to me. I am leaving at a pivotal moment: one after another, people I know bid goodbye to their twenties, approaching the time when it feels as though one must choose to escape New York and rebuild elsewhere, or attempt to graduate into a more settled existence, moving in with partners and purchasing real estate and thinking about the future in years, maybe decades, rather than months. I think that those who stay are not choosing the life I’ve known: they are hoping to create something new, or so I assume. All the while, the circle contracts: a good number of my friends, some of the closest, have left town within the past year or two, nearly all of them in the height of summer, making toasts at outdoor goodbye parties as sweat collects at the backs of our knees.
I want to say goodbye properly but I am not quite sure how to manage it. “You’ll be back,” people tell me, at work or out at some party or other, and I think, well, maybe, or better yet: yes and no. Joan Didion, after all, has returned to the Upper East Side. I can come back for certain — though maybe when I win the lottery, because I can barely afford to stay now — but I can’t return to any of this; I lost it some time ago. I suppose that’s why it’s so much easier to say goodbye to the physical space, to the things that give me my daily bearings, than to the alternative: I’ve always been terrible at endings, from my childhood notebooks to the current collection of folders on my desktop littered with unfinished stories and essays, things that are very nearly there, if only I could find the last key piece, some subtle thematic note that could tie it all together.
“Goodbye to All That” takes its title from Robert Graves’s autobiography, Good-Bye to All That, his “bitter leave-taking of England” written in the wake of the First World War. But Didion’s essay, first published in The Saturday Evening Post, was originally titled “Farewell to the Enchanted City,” which I think might suit it better, in some inexplicable way. There’s so much inevitable disappointment wrapped up in the title — nostalgic regret, my absolute go-to when leaving a place. The Enchanted City, the land of outsized expectations. “All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young anymore.” It isn’t hard to live here, for some of us, but maybe it is hard to sort our expectations from our dreams: the horizon is too hazy, blotted out by the skyline.
Months to go, then weeks, and then it is a matter of days. I take stock, and I don’t say much, let alone any real goodbyes. To the physical spaces, my favorite corners: Cadman Plaza just after a thunderstorm, the view up Manhattan Avenue, dashing towards the train at Bryant Park at sunset. To the golden rhythms of the life I’ve known, because I, like Didion, spent my New York years making a magazine: I spend a few weeks working to not feel responsible for these words on these pages, for the publication to whom I’ve sacrificed Friday nights for nearly five years (and a good number of Saturdays, too), for the magazine that’s always been irrevocably wrapped up in my idea of New York, long before I ever stepped foot in the lobby. To my friends, who, if we can manage it, will always be my friends, but never like this again — even if I rushed back tomorrow, the ground has already shifted beneath me. But mostly to the Enchanted City, to the idea of it, how effortlessly it formed in my mind, and how it can disappear in an instant, when your back is turned. Someone else, somewhere, is arriving right now, marching across the Hudson: picking it back up, and falling in love with New York City for the first time, too.
Image via Sakeeb Sabakka/Flickr
I re-read some of my favorite books for a class I taught at Bennington in the spring: Sylvia by Leonard Michaels, The White Album by Joan Didion, and Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. Each was richer upon a second or third read and yielded particular pleasures — Michaels’ tight language and genuine despair, Didion’s high quality of ideas and singular style, Nabokov’s remarkable and unlikely sensory details. Sharing books I love with students is a tremendous privilege.
I gulped down a heap of non-fiction this year; standouts included E.O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, and Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa. Wilson bowls me over with his synthesis of ideas, the way he mashes up complex anthropology, biology, sociology and gives us not just ideas and explanations, but something prescriptive to hold onto (restraint). Foer wrote a brave book with Eating Animals; it was a hard book for me to read because I already share the core ideals, but it was a necessary book for me to consume. Finally, with Out of Africa, the reader gets the sense that Dinesen truly wrote a book no one else could. Her descriptions of colonial Africa, the natural landscape and complex socio-political climate are stunning, unsentimental, even sublime. Ultimately, my favorite non-fiction reads in 2012 got me thinking about the way we use nature, what we take, and how we justify it.
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Grief, all of a sudden, is hot. Books by authors who have lost a loved one are becoming so common they’re now a classifiable snowflake in the unending blizzard of memoirs. They’re feeding “the increasingly lucrative loss-of-spouse market,” as Janet Maslin put it recently in the New York Times. Writers who have lately mined their grief include Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Roiphe, Kate Braestrup and Joan Didion. New grief memoirs are coming soon from Meghan O’Rourke and Francisco Goldman. “In a way,” says Ruth Davis Konigsberg, author of a new non-fiction book called The Truth About Grief: The Myth of Its Five Stages and the New Science of Loss, “we have become spectators and kind of consumers of other people’s grief.”
So what’s wrong with that? Absolutely nothing – provided the writer, in laying bare this rawest of emotions, doesn’t withhold salient facts from the spectators. But another question remains: Why are readers drawn to naked displays of suffering? Is it mere voyeurism, or schadenfreude? Or is something closer to empathy – a way of preparing ourselves for the unthinkable by witnessing the suffering of another?
To find answers, I decided to look at three literary couples in which one partner died unexpectedly and the other lived to tell about the experience and its aftermath. Two of the writers withheld important facts and wound up producing inferior books; the writer who held nothing back produced a masterpiece.
Grief, it turns out, is not only a cruel muse. She’s a fickle one as well.
A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates: The editor Raymond Smith and the writer Joyce Carol Oates had been married for more than 47 years when he came down with a severe case of pneumonia and checked into a Princeton hospital, where he contracted a secondary infection and died on Feb. 18, 2008, at the age of 77. Oates has just produced a memoir about events leading up to and following her husband’s death, a 417-page book that manages to feel both bloated and undernourished.
The bloat comes from several sources. The book is simply too long, full of windy digressions and verbatim transcriptions of unenlightening emails. (O, whatever happened to editors who know how to use a blue pencil?) Worse, the writing is sloppy, and there’s no room for sloppiness in memoirs of this kind, which demand a scrupulous recreation of an extreme emotional state. It’s little things – it’s always the little things – that reveal Oates’s sloppiness, then her lack of candor, and finally, fatally, her dishonesty.
She uses “ravished” instead of “ravaged,” for instance, and she reports that she and Ray once lived in Windsor, Ontario, where there was a “frigid wind blowing from the Detroit River, the massive lake beyond – Lake Michigan.” As a matter of fact, the Detroit River connects Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie; Lake Michigan is some 200 miles to the west. Do such trifles matter? Yes, they do.
Then there are two seemingly small but ultimately telling moments that reveal just how unscrupulous and incurious Oates can be. The first comes when doctors refine their original diagnosis and determine that Ray has contracted bacterial Escherichia coli – E. coli – pneumonia. Oates, like many people, had been under the erroneous impression that E. coli bacteria come only from such sources as sewage-tainted water or fecal matter in food, and that they attack the gastro-intestinal system. But such bacteria are found everywhere, a doctor tells her – “even in the interior of your mouth.” Upon learning this, many people with a severely ill spouse would feel compelled to learn more about this surprising new enemy. Not Oates. She writes about herself in the third person: “In denial that her husband is seriously ill the Widow-to-Be will not, when she returns home that evening, research E. coli on the Internet. Not for nearly eighteen months after her husband’s death will she look up this common bacterial strain to discover the blunt statement she’d instinctively feared at the time and could not have risked discovering: pneumonia due to Escherichia coli has a reported mortality rate of up to 70 percent.” It’s hard for me to decide if such a lack of curiosity is touching, forgivable, or just monstrously self-absorbed.
The second telling moment comes after her husband has died and Oates, who has already exhibited a lack of interest in unpleasant truths, declines to have an autopsy performed. She writes:
I think I remember having been asked at the medical center if I wanted Ray’s body autopsied. In whatever haze of confusion at the time quickly I’d said no.
Could not bear it. The thought of Ray’s body being mutilated.
I know! – the body is not the man. Not “Ray.”
And yet – where else had “Ray” resided, except in that body?
It was a body I knew intimately, and loved. And so I did not want it mutilated.
Now, I will never know if these “causes” of his death are accurate, or complete. I will never know with certainty.
This passage reveals two more of the book’s flaws – the shallow insights and the choppy writing, strewn with random quotation marks and exclamation points.
Yet A Widow’s Story is not without virtues. Oates can be very amusing, as when she expresses her loathing for “sympathy gift baskets” stuffed with “peach butter, Russian caviar and pates of the most lurid kinds.” She can be poignant when describing her battles with insomnia and a growing dependence on prescription drugs, a severe case of shingles, her recurring thoughts of suicide, her nagging fear that she never knew her husband. And finally there’s a beautiful moment when Ray’s cardiologist, who was not the attending physician in the hospital, glosses over the distinct possibility that the staff’s poor performance might be grounds for a malpractice suit. “Maybe – Ray was just tired,” the cardiologist speculates. “Maybe he just gave up…” Oates, justifiably, flies into a rage at this suggestion that her husband’s death was somehow his own fault. Anyone who has ever been confronted with the incompetence and arrogance of the medical profession will cheer the widow’s fury.
But the inclusion of such raw moments can’t make up for the book’s major – and fatal – omission. While Oates mentions that it took her a year and a half to erase her husband’s voice from their telephone answering machine, she neglects to mention that within 11 months of his death she was engaged to a neuroscientist named Dr. Charles Gross, and they were married in 2009. Once you know this, the distance between Lake Michigan and Windsor, Ontario, and the difference between “ravished” and “ravaged” no longer seem like trifles. Oates, in other words, has written the most dishonest kind of book there is – one that purports to serve up raw emotions but doesn’t have the discipline to stick to the facts or the honesty to reveal the most basic of truths.
Even Oates seems to know this. “As the memoir is the most seductive of literary genres, so the memoir is the most dangerous of genres,” she writes. “For the memoir is a repository of truths, as each discrete truth is uttered, but the memoir can’t be the repository of Truth which is the very breadth of the sky, too vast to be perceived in a single gaze.”
Only someone capable of writing such muzzy sentences could produce such a deeply dishonest book. Or maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe the word machine Oates refers to as “JCO” was shrewdly hoarding this fresh material. Maybe she’s already at work on a new memoir called A Newlywed’s Story. And why not? A Widow’s Story hit the New York Times best-seller as soon as it was published.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion: The celebrated writers John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion had been married for almost 40 years when they sat down to dinner in their New York apartment on the evening of Dec. 30, 2003. In mid-sentence Dunne slumped in his chair and tumbled to the floor, dead from a massive heart attack. At the time the couple’s only daughter, Quintana, was unconscious in the intensive care unit of a nearby hospital, suffering from flu that had exploded into pneumonia, then septic shock. The first words Didion wrote after her husband’s death would become the opening lines of her 2005 memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking:
Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.
“If you want to write about yourself,” Didion once said, “you have to give them something.” In The White Album, her 1979 essay collection, she gave us the story of how she went blind for six weeks from multiple sclerosis. She gave us the story of checking herself into a psychiatric clinic. She even gave us the doctor’s diagnosis: “Patient’s thematic productions emphasize her fundamentally pessimistic, fatalistic and depressive view of the world around her…”
After Dunne’s death, Didion insisted on an autopsy, which, as Joyce Carol Oates demonstrated, is not a universal demand of the bereaved. My father also decided against an autopsy when my mother died, apparently from a heart attack, alone at home at the age of 57. “What good will an autopsy do?” my father asked. “She’ll still be dead.” I was working as a newspaper reporter at the time, and I believed I had a high regard for the truth. “Yes,” I argued, “but at least we’ll know for sure why she died.” Was her death a suicide, an accidental overdose, the result of a drunken fall? There was no autopsy. I’m convinced I’ll go to my own grave angry that I’ll never know for sure what put my mother in hers.
Didion understands this anger and she knows how to avoid it. “I actively wanted an autopsy,” she writes, “even though I had seen some, in the course of doing research. I knew exactly what occurs, the chest open like a chicken in a butcher’s case, the face peeled down, the scale in which the organs are weighed. I had seen homicide detectives avert their eyes from an autopsy in progress. I still wanted one. I needed to know how and why and when it had happened.” Small wonder that an attendant in the hospital where Dunne was pronounced dead described his widow as “a pretty cool customer.”
A friend once likened Dunne and Didion to another literary couple, the famously stoic Leonard Woolf and his brilliant, troubled wife Virginia – but with a twist. (More on the Woolfs in a moment.) “John does not play Leonard Woolf to (Didion’s) Virginia,” the friend said. “John may seem strident and tough, but what you see in John you get in Joan. She is every bit as tough as he is.” Another friend described Didion as “a fragile, little stainless-steel machine.”
One aspect of her grief that bedeviled Didion was how ordinary the events were that led up to her husband’s death, which prevented her from believing it had happened and, in turn, made it maddeningly difficult for her to get past it. “I recognize now,” she writes, “that there was nothing unusual in this: confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy.”
Some people might find all this – the falling plane, the burning car, the lunging rattlesnake – melodramatic, overly pessimistic and fatalistic, even laughable. Based on what I’ve seen of the world, I find it wise. What I’ve seen includes looking out my livingroom window on a clear blue September morning and seeing an orange fireball as United Airlines Flight 175 slashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center. Then I watched the two burning towers fall. These events interrupted my reading of the newspaper.
To deal with her grief, Didion did what she had been trained to do since childhood, what most writers do in times of duress: she went to the literature because “information is power.” She found the literature on grief surprisingly sparse. There was C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, a passage from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, some poetry, some unhelpful self-help books. So Didion, the relentless reporter, turned more fruitfully to the medical literature – Freud, Melanie Klein, the Merck Manual, the British Medical Journal. Then she made the belated discovery that Dunne’s 1982 novel Dutch Shea, Jr. was actually about the kind of grief she was experiencing, the “complicated” kind. She finally found some solace, implausibly, in Emily Post’s 1922 book on etiquette, which includes pointers on how to treat the newly bereaved.
Didion then does something almost unthinkable. She dives deeper, chronicling the harrowing ups and downs of her daughter’s illness, which culminate in emergency neurosurgery after Quintana collapses and her pupils become fixed and dilated. Didion researches the significance of fixed and dilated pupils, or “FDPs,” and learns that they’re almost always a harbinger of death. She even does the math and learns that her daughter has a two percent chance of making a full recovery.
This last act – getting the facts, doing the math – strikes me as the perfect way to distinguish between a writer like Joan Didion, the cool customer, the fragile little stainless-steel machine, and a writer like Joyce Carol Oates, the word machine who couldn’t abide to see her dead husband’s body “mutilated,” who couldn’t be bothered to learn the mortality rate of E. coli pneumonia, and who didn’t, for whatever reason, bother to mention that she had fallen in love with another man.
Once her daughter’s condition begins to improve, Didion is able to move beyond the paralysis of her grief over John’s death, which is to say she begins to mourn, then heal. After seven dreamless months she begins to dream again. She stops believing John will come back. She stops believing she was in some way responsible for his death, or that she could have averted it. By October she has begun to write The Year of Magical Thinking, and though she’s usually a slow writer she finishes it in just 88 days, a year and a day after her husband died.
“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it,” she concludes. “Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.”
When the book was nearing publication the following summer, Didion told an interviewer, “What I want to do as soon as I get through this…all of this…is basically to be too busy. Take too much work. I figure that will get me through.”
A month later Didion’s daughter, her immune system worn out from fighting infections, died from pancreatitis at the age of 39. The Year of Magical Thinking became an immediate best-seller and won the National Book Award.
The Journey Not the Arrival Matters by Leonard Woolf: It would be difficult to imagine a book more unlike Didion’s than The Journey Not the Arrival Matters, the fifth and final volume of Leonard Woolf’s autobiography. It covers the years from 1939, when the Second World War engulfed Europe, to 1969, when the author died at the age of 88. The first half of the book is called “Virginia’s Death,” and it does flit around the events leading up to March 28, 1941, the day Woolf’s mad genius of a wife filled her pockets with rocks and walked into the River Ouse.
But the title “Virginia’s Death,” like so much of this book, is misleading and disingenuous. This long chapter dwells less on Virginia’s suicide than on the coming madness of the war and the ways it altered the Woolfs’ long and mostly happy marriage. One change, surprisingly, was that when the couple was forced to retreat to their rural Sussex home, Monks House, after their London apartment was shattered by a German bomb, their lives slipped into a pleasing, productive, almost dreamy rhythm. Away from the epicenter of the blitz, rid of servants and a social life, they were free to work and garden and simply be. Leonard called it “pleasant monotony,” and the effect on Virginia, who suffered from periodic bouts of depression and had twice attempted suicide, was salutary.
On Oct. 12, 1940, she wrote in her diary: “How free, how peaceful we are. No one coming. No servants. Dine when we like. Living near to the bone. I think we’ve mastered life pretty competently.” Two days later she added, “If it were not treasonable to say so, a day like this is almost too – I won’t say happy; but amenable… And one thing’s ‘pleasant’ after another: breakfast, writing, walking, tea, bowls, reading, sweets, bed.” Such a regimen is, for any serious writer, a definition of heaven. Five months later, after leaving Leonard a note that concluded with “I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been,” Virginia walked into the river.
Any writer of autobiography who has lived through such a trauma should – must – explore the ensuing grief and how he dealt with it, or didn’t. Woolf does this, fitfully, in the book’s second half, claiming that two things saw him through the aftermath of his wife’s suicide. The first was “the inveterate, the immemorial fatalism of the Jew.” The second was something familiar to both Oates and Didion. “Work,” he writes, “is the most efficient anodyne – after death, sleep, or chloroform – for pain, whether the pain be in your great toe, your tooth, your head, or your heart.”
So Leonard Woolf got busy. But instead of exploring the contours of his grief, he gives us tedious digressions about his work with the Fabian Society and the Labour Party, the Political Quarterly, the Nation and the New Statesman, the running of Hogarth Press, including lists of titles published. He makes only passing mention of two new Sussex neighbors, a business partner named Ian Parsons and his attractive wife Trekkie, an artist and book jacket designer: “In the last three years of the war we had become intimate friends…. In the last year of the war, when Ian was in the Air Force in France, Trekkie stayed with me (at Monks House), and I had helped to negotiate the lease of a house for them in (nearby) Iford into which they moved as soon as Ian was demobilized.”
What Woolf fails to mention is that within months of Virginia’s suicide he and Trekkie had embarked on an affair that would endure through the remaining 28 years of his life. They spent weekdays together, then Trekkie went home to her husband on weekends. Ian and Trekkie were still in love and they danced beautifully together and threw lively parties, at which he played the banjo. Under Trekkie’s influence, Leonard started drinking more than he had when Virginia was alive. He gave Trekkie gifts – a Constable sketch, a Rembrandt etching, jewelry. Leonard’s relationship with Trekkie, like his marriage to Virginia, was apparently sexless. Yet in their letters Trekkie was Leonard’s “dearest tiger” and he was her “greedy sparrow.” A year after Virginia’s suicide, Leonard wrote to Trekkie, “To know and love you has been the best thing in my life.”
You’ll find none of the above in Woolf’s autobiography. It comes from Victoria Glendinning’s balanced and well received Leonard Woolf: A Biography, published in 2006, and from Love Letters: Leonard Woolf and Trekkie Ritchie Parsons, 1941-1968, published in 2001.
Is this reticence, this pretense at probity, an English thing – stiff upper lip and all that rot? Or is it something simpler and more venal – dishonesty masquerading as discretion? Whatever it is, or is not, Woolf is guilty of the autobiographer’s cardinal sin: a killing lack of the candor that readers of such books have come to expect, and which they deserve. Certainly Woolf was entitled to his happiness after the suffering he had endured in his marriage, just as Oates was entitled to fall in love and remarry less than a year after her husband’s death. But to omit such central facts from a memoir of grief strikes me as the worst kind of failure, a breach of the writer’s contract with the reader. It is, in short, a lie.
All three of these memoirs, as different as they are, share a common thread. Voyeurs looking to revel in another’s agony will be disappointed because these three memoirists demonstrate that, yes, there is plenty of agony after the death of a loved one, but we possess remarkable tools for dealing with it. Loss may be permanent, but grief, it turns out, is not. The unthinkable is not invincible.
If there is indeed an “increasingly lucrative loss-of-spouse market” out there today – and the evidence suggests that there is – we should be grateful we have writers like Joan Didion who possess the courage and the talent to feed it. She, unlike Joyce Carol Oates and Leonard Woolf, understands that if you want to write about yourself, you have to give them something. Actually, Didion understands a far larger and deeper and darker truth. She understands that if you want to write about your grief, you have to give them everything.
(Image: 106/365 The soul that sees beauty may sometimes walk alone from myklroventine’s photostream)