“The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it,” wrote Joan Didion in her 1968 collection of essays titled "Slouching Towards Bethlehem." Didion painted a portrait of a young woman’s inner complexities set within the backdrop of an America in turmoil with its own identity.
I became acquainted with Didion’s work as a 16-year-old scrolling through the endless thumbnails splattered across the home page of Netflix. My cursor hovered over a film with beautiful photos preserved from the 1960s and '70s — a not-so-secret fascination of mine since early adolescence. What I discovered was not the "flower power," tie-dye image of the '60s constructed by every film I had seen before.
"Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold," directed by the subject’s nephew, Griffin Dunne, tells the story of Didion as a journalist and a writer. It describes her formative years as a product of California settlers, then her subsequent travels between the east and west coasts during her times spent both in New York City and Los Angeles, among others.
I have to be honest. Since my first viewing, I have watched Dunne’s documentary at least seven times. Though I’ve had plenty of time since my original discovery, I’ve just recently begun to read Didion’s work. I have almost finished "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," and I have completed Didion’s earlier novel, "Play It As It Lays." In addition, I have read bits and pieces of both "The Year of Magical Thinking" and "Blue Nights," the works published in the early 2000s after the respective deaths of Didion’s husband, author John Gregory Dunne, and her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne.
I finished "Play It As It Lays" in a span of two days. Though not a large book, Didion’s lines require the scrutiny of a seasoned reader to understand their true meaning. I know I missed the meaning in many parts; my age and my lack of experience in the world of literary haute couture prevents me from appreciating Didion’s work in the same way as a critic for a magazine like The New Yorker.
Despite my inexperience, I have still enjoyed reading all of Didion’s work thus far. She writes with a truth that I have never encountered in any of the other work I’ve read.
Perhaps I find these pieces refreshing given the context of my other recent literary adventures. For a school assignment, I have just finished Charles Dickens’ "Bleak House." In the true style of a Victorian author, Dickens blathered on for 926 pages about the intricacies of a society with a binding moral code. Dickens uses the concept of the flat character to manipulate the reader’s eye to see the inequality and absurdity of a society that demanded strict adherence to social conventions by a vigilant population that both despised and enforced its own slavery to the surveillance-state.
In stark contrast, I experienced the unburdened narrations of Didion through the words of Maria Wyeth, the main character of "Play It As It Lays." Didion wastes not a single character, a single word on the page; her writing is efficient, and coded with different meanings dependent on the amount of times the reader has gone over each sentence. She does not waste the reader’s time with superfluous language. She has painstakingly chosen each word as an artist considers the placement of light and shadow on canvas.
Joan Didion has disproven the old adage: a picture is worth a thousand words. Rather, she paints a thousand pictures with a single word.
Charles Dickens has certainly his own merit. Unfortunately for him, I just do not possess the necessary intelligence to appreciate his work as others do. However, Joan Didion has gained the admiration of one more reader. Though, I’m sure it is just as likely that I don’t possess the necessary intelligence to properly appreciate her work either. Yet.
In case you are curious, I recommend that the reader begin with "Slouching Towards Bethlehem."
My favorite essay, in particular, is “On Self Respect.” Like the documentary, I have revisited this piece many times, and each time I learn a little more-about the author and myself. I will be continuing my education on the subject of Joan Didion for the foreseeable future.
To all my readers, this I implore you: educate yourself about those who have preceded you. Not only do I feel a duty to myself to understand the words written by those before me, but I feel it necessary if I wish to succeed at all in this world as a writer and a human being to understand the pain, sadness and joys of those same individuals so that I may better understand my own.
Matthew Frederick is a senior at Oneonta High School. He can be contacted at email@example.com.