For more than a quarter of a century, every year since I began teaching narrative nonfiction journalism at Stanford University, I’ve written this acronym on the board or put it on the screen, always by the third week of class:
“What would Didion do?” I tell students. They’ve just read “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, the bible of long-form literary journalism. My lecture conveys this sentiment: Before one begins reporting, one must think about approach and voice for a story. Didion’s secret? Like Walker Evans, who photographed the present as it would be seen as the past, Didion knew what would be important 50 years later. The eponymous piece in Slouching was a post-mortem on the Summer of Love when everyone else was writing about it for the next day or the next week.
Now I have my students at Columbia read The White Album. Didion knew what would be vital for us today from the 1960s. We don’t need to hear from Jim Morrison or Huey Newton; she never interviews them because their rote quotes would have taken up real estate in her essays better spent on her truly revealing them by observation.
“Almost everything Huey Newton said had that same odd ring of being a ‘quotation,’ a ‘pronouncement’ ready to be employed whenever the need arose,” she writes. “I kept wishing that he would talk about himself, hoping to break through the wall of rhetoric.” She waits for hours with the rest of The Doors for Jim Morrison to show up for a recording session; when he finally arrived, she tells us, Morrison sat alone in a corner, lit a match, and stared at the flame before he slowly lowered it to his crotch.
She later said in an interview with the Guardian: “I don’t like to interview. The only time I liked to interview is when I had access to someone who was not used to being interviewed. Which would certainly not have been the case with Jim Morrison.”
Didion surely didn’t write Slouching as a how-to guide for literary nonfiction—but it became one for me as a young writer.
A confession: It was not love at first read for me. I didn’t know much about Didion until I took a newspaper job in Sacramento in 1980. Two of my colleagues implored me to read her. I bought Slouching, but it didn’t grab me. I tried starting it, but I gave up and set it aside. Nothing was grabbing me then. I was on the police beat and covering them critically; the cops investigated my past in Cleveland and tried several times to get me fired; I went to report on the war in El Salvador, the revolution in the Philippines—a host of other PTSD-inducing trauma. Those details don’t matter here but for this: After my second breakdown, in 1986, I finally read Slouching.
That’s when I started to become a writer. Slowly, I grasped her secret of writing for the future. I also learned about condensing story. It appears that Didion sat through Lucille Miller’s trial that spanned many days for “Some Dreamers,” but there are only a few paragraphs in that monumental essay from inside the courtroom. A lesser writer would have focused most of the piece on the trial. Instead, Didion uses the case to talk about the nature of heartbreak in the extreme, something of the murderer she sees in herself and she knows that others will connect with as well, more emotionally and more timelessly than they would to the details of a woman setting her husband’s car on fire.
I pose a question to students—is this essay in the first person? The word “I” never appears in it, yet it is first person. Consider this line, knowing the rocky background of her marriage to John Gregory Dunne: “Unhappy marriages so resemble one another that we do not need to know too much about the course of this one.” And this: “It seemed that the marriage had reached the traditional truce, the point at which so many resign themselves to cutting both their losses and their hopes.”
This Didionesque use of art to explore pain is influencing River Styx Road, a collection of essays I’m writing that is a work-in-progress. I write in the draft, “We are told that when we dream of watching a man climbing out on to the rotting branch of a tall barkless dead tree, one hundred feet off the ground, we are really looking at ourselves. We are that man who is upside down, koala bear–style, shimmying farther and farther toward the fragile bone-white tip. The branch is going to break and he is going to plunge to his death. We try yelling for him to turn back, but no sound comes from our throat. This kind of mirror may pervade our waking hours: what we are drawn to pursue is a reflection of what troubles us.”
I would never compare myself to Didion; of course, like all writers who admire her, I wish that I could. But I try my best to channel her vision about thinking of the reader a year from the moment of creation, or if one is very fortunate, the reader a half century from now. Even if I don’t attain this lofty goal, WWDD is always in my head as I work.
I never met Didion, but I’ve gotten spiritually close to her. In 1986, I purchased a house at 23rd and V Streets in Sacramento, four blocks from the “Didion House” on a hill known as Poverty Ridge, where Didion lived when she was in high school. I often walked past the 4,500 square-foot manse with a big porch meant for sitting on those hot August Central Valley nights.
Later, the woman I was engaged to had grown up in Rancho Cucamonga just a few blocks east of Carnelian and Banyan Streets, the site where Lucy Miller burned her husband Cork Miller to death in a 1964 Volkswagen. We visited my ex’s parents several times, going past that spot. The lemon grove where the murder happened was replaced by tract homes.
That engagement never led to a wedding. And recently, a long-term relationship ended with a woman I should be married to—both of these failures have been on my shoulders. It’s the worst kind of depression—I can’t blame them. I own the reason for them not working out.
By chance, I came to Sacramento from the East Coast for the holidays. I woke up Thursday morning to the news that Didion died. Oddly, when I was driving in downtown Sacramento on Wednesday, I had the urge to go by the Didion House. I was thinking of the end of the recent relationship, was feeling blue, and thought about walking the old neighborhood. It was raining hard and I blew it off. But I’m going to return on Friday, Christmas Eve, and leave flowers on the lawn.
Thank you, Joan.