In the 1970s, Joan Didion did an interview with Tom Brokaw.
“It’s the only aggressive act I have,” she says of writing. “It’s the only way I can be aggressive.”
Didion died this week at the age of 87, leaving behind a towering legacy as a journalist, a memoir writer, a novelist. Over the years, I began to resent the number of times profiles of Didion mentioned her tiny frame, her smallness; an irrational resentment but I guess I was thinking, can’t you see the space she takes by right on the page, can’t you see past her physical self to this massive presence, this fiercely questing intellect?
In Why I Write (1976), she told it straight. This is the famous opening to that essay:
“Of course I stole the title for this talk, from George Orwell. One reason I stole it was that I like the sound of the words: Why I Write. There you have three short unambiguous words that share a sound, and the sound they share is this:
In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions—with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating—but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.”
One of the many reasons why I respected Didion, though, was that her work could not be reduced to an easy quote. Most of Why I Write isn’t about writing or why you become a writer — she gets that out of the way swiftly — most of it is about Didion telling you where she trains her attention: on the periphery, on “images that shimmer around the edges”.
Brokaw asks her whether she transforms when she sits down at a typewriter, and Didion says without hesitation, “Yes, I’m totally in control, of this tiny tiny world.”
She was. One of my favourite scraps of Didion’s work comes from an interview she gave The Paris Review for The Art of Fiction. It is usual for the interviewer to write this paragraph about the circumstances in which the interview was conducted, but the interviewer in this case, Linda Kuehl, died not long after the tapes were transcribed,” Didion writes. “… Both interviews took place in the living room of my husband’s and my house on the ocean north of Los Angeles, a house we no longer own.”
Then she describes her own home with a kind of clinical curiosity, seeing the room again from the perspective of the interviewer, so that she can fill in for the late Kuehl.
“The walls in that room were white. The floors were of terracotta tile, very highly polished. The glare off the sea was so pronounced in that room that corners of it seemed, by contrast, extremely dark, and everyone who sat in the room tended to gravitate toward these dark corners. Over the years the room had in fact evolved to the point where the only comfortable chairs were in the dark, away from the windows. I mention this because I remember my fears about being interviewed, one of which was that I would be construed as the kind of loon who had maybe 300 degrees of sea view and kept all the chairs in a kind of sooty nook behind the fireplace. Linda’s intelligence dispelled these fears immediately. Her interest in and acuity about the technical act of writing made me relaxed and even enthusiastic about talking, which I rarely am.”
Joan Didion saw what writers were, what writing demanded, what it was and wasn’t, with zero illusions. I’m grateful for all that she was and all that she left us, those 13 books of non-fiction, the five of fiction, the screenplays, and the interviews, pauses included.