If successful storytelling could be summarized in a single question, my father would argue it’s:
“Does my suffering matter?”
This was his answer when I asked him what made a story worth telling. And I suppose I agree. The best stories have drama, pain, grievance, and, depending on the preference of the consumer, resolution.
Another answer to the successful storytelling question, from the moping indie band Car Seat Headrest in their song “Sober to Death”:
“..good lives make bad stories.”
Romeo and Juliet. Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The best art divulges in unfavorable endings, times of crisis. It sobers the masses, drunk on self-righteous pain. We believe we suffer alone until art tells us otherwise. When art saves us, we praise the artist. The writer is most often the weigher of the suffering question- whether it be personal or fictional pain.
We believe Joan Didion’s suffering matters. I know this because I googled “Joan Didion most popular book” and the first results was The Year of Magical Thinking. It is revered as her masterpiece, her magnum opus. She became America’s despot of grief in a knee jerk reaction to gutting hardship: the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne.
My best friend always asks me why “these things always happen to you.” She sees these things as ones that find me. But what if I attract them? What if my experienced reality is my own doing?
Separated by 69 years and catacombs of life experience, I look to Didion for guidance. Her suffering mattered – does mine? Her trauma produced her most successful work – will mine? And, perhaps most vitally, is her exploitation of her trauma the most selfless or selfish thing she could do with it?
When Joan Didion was five years old, she was given a pad and pencil and never saw the world the same. When I was seven years old, I went to my brother’s plays on all three nights just to go home and transcribe them on my fathers’ WordDoc, verbatim. We exist for the pleasure of the notepad.
A Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights are the result of a cathartic processing period. Joan Didion’s works before her memoirs were accounts of the world exactly as she saw it, unwitting of the turmoils that lay ahead. My writing, however, has always been backgrounded by tragedies that struck much younger. John Locke would tell me that every word I write and will ever write will be shaped by these events. He would tell Joan Didion that the authors of The White Album and The Year of Magical Thinking are entirely different people.
A waif who found any still pocket in a world of motion, Joan Didion was a removed documenter of the sixties. At some point, she made the writer’s choice, found the line between experiencing and intellectualizing the world around her. If one simply experiences, they will be void of time to write. If one simply intellectualizes, they will lose sight of material. The best art is undoubtedly a result of life. But Didion’s fictionalized worldview made her friendly with Oscar Wilde, paganizing the mindset that ‘life is an imitation of art.’
Perhaps, to create the best art, you must be on the hunt for it. Writers drink up the secretions of happenings, huddling at the sidelines and scraping for material. Most of us are born with the instinct, but I suppose at some point, when one learns that a career can be made out of it, the slinking and sidelining becomes a most abysmal work-life balance. Didion wasn’t spending her twenty-something New York evenings living. She was gathering sources, writing her first book, and falling into deep depression. I recall going to a childhood friend’s 15th birthday simply because I “wanted writing material.” I find my behavior now a little inconsiderate. Every new face was a character, every conversation a dialogue, everybody stripping and jumping into the pool a story. I looked for a sermon in the suicide.
Didion moved to San Francisco to document what she deemed “social hemorrhaging,” to embed herself in the culture. She profited off of commitment, writing her most successful isolated essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”
In this sense, writers are simultaneously the most selfless and selfish. They are selfless in their donation of information: whether it be didactic stories or news clips for the greater good or recounts of trauma that strike necessary relation with the grieving public. Yet, the act of donating these lessons, these opinions, these experiences, is an acknowledgment that they are consumable. To write of your life as Didion did may be to selfishly exploit every moment in a useless vow to the greater good of art.
In that sense, writers are the most pathetic types of people. They are willing to distill their life experiences into manically crafted Times New Roman pages that end up in the hands of criticism-hungry teenagers in a class called “Joan Didion: Writer, Storyteller, Icon.” One day in this class I watched myself ascend to a bird’s eye view. There I saw a slate-grey room filled with overgrown children debating the authenticity of Didion’s grief. We beat a lifetime of memories into confusing or landing. We treated trauma as fiction. Who is the greater fool: the writer who believes their work will be interpreted in the uniform, or the student that assumes the audacity to criticize it?
I do not write for the purpose of analysis. I doubt Didion did either. In that same “Joan Didion” class, I shared an essay on my mother’s cancer. After cushioning compliments and kind words, criticism slithered from their minds. We were learning to be critics as much as admirers. Receiving a note that I needed to add “more on my mom and I’s relationship,” I nearly laughed at the irony of it all. My past self, waiting in the parking lot of Huntington Radiation Center, would have never imagined those three months condensed into 500 words gargled in the throats of 17-year-olds. I cannot imagine Didion planned for this either.
I am faced now wondering if I have the artistic permission to let go of my worst memories. To write about them in detail is not only to please the masses, but to relive them. Didion did at least a dozen interviews after A Year of Magical Thinking, likely more after Blue Nights. The source material for A Year of Magical Thinking was conceived as Didion drove past old dinner spots in sobs. The interviews for it consist of a fictionalization of her life asking Didion if she thought it was better that she and the actress who played her in the play recreation were “different physically.”
If I was asked this, I’d look at my caricature of a self and see the grim truth of my life’s design: the experiences that shaped me reduced to an evening talk show.
Didion wrote that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Writers do. The others, the critics, see constructs to be destroyed. Activists find themselves horrified at the illusions. The liberated see nothing – only the natural proceedings of human life.
Didion, Joan. The White Album. 4th Estate, 2017.
Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking. 4th Estate, 2021.
“’The Year of Magical Thinking’.” Charlie Rose, 14 Apr. 2007, https://charlierose.com/videos/11014.