The eccentric quiet of Joan Didion is presented in the Netflix documentary, “The Center Will Not Hold,” a film about her career and life that could only be tenderly put together by her niece and nephew.
Cousins Griffin and Annabelle Dunne captured their aunt so beautifully, I am tempted to write Didion in hopes that she will accept me as her honorary niece. I promise to always have an ice cold coke and a can of salted almonds if you can coach me on how you got a room for rent in Malibu for $300 a month and an actual writing position at Vogue.
The 82-year-old writer has published five books and countless articles in the span of her career. If my life resembles Didion’s in just the slightest by the time I reach her age, even with the heartache, I would count myself blessed.
The introduction to the era that Didion spent as a journalist is almost parallel to the times we see ourselves in today with a montage of the Nixon investigation, protests on college campuses and mass murders. Didion narrates the documentary through readings from her memoirs.
Didion didn’t only live through the sixties but came face to face with the chaos of the time. The suspect, Linda Kasabian, who she interviewed in her home and then later from prison for the Manson trials told her that they passed by her house while scouting for their next murder.
Didion recognized that a writer can never be completely taken out of the story, it still connects to the writer personally and she writes from that perspective.
She used the craft of personal essay as the lens to take in the twisting of society– the emergence of the the sixties came with a death of the previously ruling culture and she gave that death the prominence it deserved by noting the new qualms that came with the movement.
Didion wrote essays in Vogue about personal character in the days before advertisements took over the letter space. Her husband, John Gregory Dunne, was not found at the bend in the river where the cottonwood grows like in the John Wayne movies she loved and longed for as a child. She instead found him in a newsroom.
“He was between me and the world,” Didion said.
Didion and Dunne were one of the many affairs, according to Calvin Trillin who was a fellow journalist and close friend, at their Time Magazine newsroom where Dunne was a writer and Didion was a young editor for Vogue. Trillin said most preferred to keep their extracurriculars quiet but Dunne loved to gossip and would tell anyone who would listen that he was in love.
The couple moved whenever stagnation or unhappiness came into the relationship. They left the fair of New York for new horizons in Malibu, and again changed the scenery for a different perspective. While Dunne was working on his novel, he lived in Las Vegas while Didion stayed in Hawaii for space with their daughter Quintana. Moving became their way of fixing things and staying together.
The word divorce may have made its way into Didion’s writing but never into their reality.
Didion and Dunne not only shared their lives together but a column, Point West. Dunne would edit Didion’s work and she would edit his and sometimes even their personal life would end up in the final drafts but Didion states that Dunne didn’t mind it.
“You used your material, you write what you had. And that’s what I had at the moment,” Didion said.
Most couples prefer to keep their personal issues private but for Didion her life was her work and pulled from a deep personal space to produce her pieces.
Any writer would dream of living a life like the Didion-Dunne’s, even with the romantic woes; they had rock stars, movie producers sitting around the dining room table. Even Harrison Ford was their carpenter before he was Han Solo.
Once, they had a party where Janis Joplin showed up, but despite Didion’s liberal inner circle, she didn’t approve of the vapant drug use the crowd brought along with them. In her book, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” she witnessed a toddler tripping on acid in front of her and the moment rang an alarm in her mind to protect and preserve her from the present.
Didion said she found drugs on the floor of her daughter’s bedroom when Joplin came over.
Even with this distaste for the vices of stardom, Didion wrote gripping features about them with a bottle of ice cold coke and a can of salted almonds her mother sent her. Her books, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and “The White Album,” were not only a historical account of the era but also an analysis of the society.
“We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five,” Didion writes in her opening of “The White Album.”
When asked what she liked about The Doors, who she covered with devotion while living in Los Angeles, she responds, “Bad boys.”
Didion’s poetic approach to journalism and feature writing is an art form worthy of preserving and passing onto to future writers who love analogies as much she does.
Grief is a subject that even when it doesn’t belong to you, still hurts to touch. Didion tackled the subject as she moved through it, using her writing as a therapy for herself and in turn, passed onto to others. With “A Year Of Magical Thinking,” she took on the pain of hallucinating that her husband will come back for his shoes and allowing the pictures on the table to become just that, pictures on the table. She lost her daugher just a few months after her husband died, so the ache is beyond what most could handle let alone write about. She wrote the play “Blue Nights” for her daughter.
As a non-believer, Didion gives a perspective to death that wasn’t there before. When walking through the self-help section, it’s hard to find authors who don’t have God to answer to when something happens. Didion, instead, believes in human achievement so the advice for readers is aimed to help them move forward without relying on the comfort of heaven.
“However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves,” Didion wrote in her Vogue essay titled “Self-respect; it’s source, it’s power.”
Didion put a magnifying glass to the irony of our society and our politics and she survived losing her husband and daughter within months of each other. The bed of her life may hold only her these days, but it is made with achievements that have opened doors for writers who look to question the norm and challenge the accepted with their own, unique voice without apology.