PRAISING JOAN DIDION

Joan Didion, 1970, photo by Kathleen Ballard, Los Angeles Times, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Joan Didion, 1970, photo by Kathleen Ballard, Los Angeles Times, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

IT’S TIME TO KEEP OUR NOTEBOOKS

Eighty-seven-year-old Joan Didion, one of the greatest essayists and novelists of the 20th and 21st centuries, passed away in December 2021, leaving behind a host of writers and readers who will sorely miss her voice in the literary world.

She started her iconic writing in the 60s and 70s, exposing the truth of California counterculture and Hollywood, where she lived. Sex, drugs, Manson, and the Beatles were the rage. Didion was a talented chameleon who observed others. She published a collection of essays in 1968, including the piece entitled “On Keeping a Notebook.” I became fascinated with all her work but admired the story’s topic more than others.



I have been like Didion for as long as I can remember. Not physically or emotionally, but as someone who emulated her note-taking habits. I kept small white ring binders with notes in archival quality sheet protectors. They traveled in cardboard boxes as I moved from state to state over the years. When my car got stolen in Los Angeles, and I recovered it, thieves took two suitcases from the trunk but not my binders. I remain neurotic about losing my notes, I admit.

And just like Didion, I am an observer, a keeper of abstracts and little snippets of thoughts. “1/24/19 mileage 116,879 BMW, Fernando’s Focaccia, Brooklyn, Bigelow’s, 414 Sixth Avenue.” Important information for my tax return, places I want to eat and shop. I am the guardian of definitives, jotting down exact details that live in my head for books and essays I expect to write one day.

Didion explained why she kept notebooks. She shared her anecdotes to justify the obsession with scribbling notes she could no longer discern. In Didion’s essay, there are various remembrances, times, and episodes of importance and non-importance. When writing my own stories, I want to embrace her style.

Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“Why did I write it down,” Didion asks, “in order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores.” I ask those questions myself every day as a writer. I’ve encouraged others to do the same as time passes and answers change.

During the pandemic, the writing in my journal was genuine and close to accurate. It was a period of seclusion, with nothing more than idle time on my hands to record thoughts. It was the time to reflect on present and past emotions. Being alone reaffirmed my commitment to writing.

The words, passages, and descriptions I wrote then and today differ from those written a lifetime ago. I am a better writer, a more precise thinker, and more in tune with what is happening around me.

The story titles I make up give my point of view, my “I” voice, a microscopic inspection of who I am or once was. “But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable I,” Didion said.

My recent entry, “What Should I Do with Love Letters from Old Boyfriends?” describes my angst about throwing away collections of handwritten letters and poems from various lovers. I’ve blacked out sexually explicit sentences with markers. Should I write about the emotion of eternal love or lack thereof, the nasty breakup, or the anxiety of destroying useless objects I have kept for so long? Didion would have encouraged me to do so.

I agree with Didion; notebooks are for the makers, not other eyes. “And sometimes even the maker has difficulty with the meaning,” Didion said. Notes are the starting point for unlimited, powerful stories.

“May 26. Baxter’s. Had a drink with Larry and Gordon. Met Paul, a pilot. Gorgeous hair and green eyes.”



When did this happen? I don’t recall, but it was Memorial weekend in Hyannis some decades ago, drinking at Baxter’s Boat House. Larry was the pharmacist at the drugstore where I worked and taught me how to ski. Gordon taught my older sister something else. Paul seems to escape me. What is the point of these annotations? Maybe there is no point.

Didion wrote, “In fact, I have abandoned altogether that kind of pointless entry; instead, I tell what some would call lies,” Didion said. “For not only have I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that for the distinction, for my purposes, matters.” I acknowledge gin had something to do with it, in my case.

Dreams, realities, and lies fill my notebooks. Some are current. Some are past, like those stored in decrepit binders yellowed with age. Didion suggests those of us who keep a notebook “are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” My thoughts differ. I don’t feel lonely or anxious. Perhaps my loss is what I have lost in the past.

Didion’s ending paragraph in “On Keeping a Notebook” is frenetic. Is it her memory or an actual notebook entry, wrapped up in what she describes as a “haze of bourbon and sauerkraut and her feeling of being ‘safe?’” She says, “It all comes back.” Does it? I contend it doesn’t. In a way, we are both right.

Survival is in my notebook entries, whether factual or fiction, even if they make little sense in the future. They allow the storyline of my life to change continually. Words, lives, and memories are complicated, but then again, that’s just my observation.

Readers may also enjoy our reviews of Nothing Stays the Same, New Jersey Ballet presents Spring ForwardThe Park Avenue Chamber Symphony presents Tales and Transformation, the American Classical Orchestra presents A Romantic Fantasy, and Beyond Sushi in New York’s Upper East Side.


PRAISING JOAN DIDION

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