WRITING LIFE: Joan Didion and Me by Jennifer Mattson

One cannot talk about writing essay, without first talking about Joan Didion.

Of all her essays, ‘Goodbye to All That,’ has a special place in my heart. The iconic piece is the final entry in her 1968 classic, Slouching Towards Bethlehem which borrows its title from the famous Robert Graves autobiography of the same name.

‘Goodbye’ has inspired countless tales of women writers “loving and leaving New York,” including, most recently, a best-selling anthology edited by Sari Botton.

The essay, which continues to remain relevant today like so much of Didion’s earlier work, is a testimony to its longevity, and the intimate relationship the author inspires with her readers, especially women.

While ‘Goodbye to All That,’ appears to be about her decision to pack up and leave New York for California (something I recently did), I would argue it is essentially a coming-of-age story about the meaning of “home.” For Didion, home can be a place, a city, a feeling, a person—or wherever we find ourselves. The essay is a nostalgic look at where we (author and reader) have been, and where we are heading.

For many young female New York writers like myself, Didion has been a guiding literary light. As we grow from girls into women, and readers into writers, it is easy to see how we, too, are the heroines in our own lives and stories.

***

I discovered Joan Didion late in life. Or should I say, I rediscovered her. She was always one of those authors I wanted to like. As a college English major in the 1990s, it was hard not to be drawn to her. She was already iconic, a literary rock star—cool, fashionable, a beauty who knew how to write. One day, I made a pilgrimage to my favorite bookstore, sat down on the floor, and opened a book of her essays. I remember reading about California: the politics, the water, and the Manson trial. My first thought was I don’t get it. It just seemed so dated. My 19-year-old self was not ready for Joan Didion.

It wasn’t until I starting teaching essay writing about five years ago that I was able to connect with her writing. In an effort to put together a syllabus for my class 6 Weeks, 6 Essays at Grub Street, I finally picked her up again, starting with Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

And this time, 20 years later—when I read “Goodbye to All That,” from start to finish—I cried my eyes out, because I understood.  I cried because there was a truth in what I read. I cried because her truth was my own. I, too, was That Girl, even if I was all grown up.

“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” Those are the kind of lines that stay with me now.  It is how I feel about New York, about past relationships, and about writing itself. You just don’t see it coming, and by the time you do, it’s too late.

 

“I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was.”

 

I got it now. I was older. I had changed. I had suffered loss and lived enough to relate to her concerns. We were traveling on the same path, Joan and I.

I could understand regret and nostalgia, and could see how Didion was reflecting back the anxieties of a particular time while questioning her own role in them. As a more experienced writer, I understood the way she created a narrative and built her stories sentence by sentence, carefully using details, facts, and her own observations.  As an author, she was asking questions, observing life, and recording it on the page, just as I was doing myself.

That carefully crafted narrator and persona felt just like me: emotional, moody, self-involved without realizing it. I could identify with this voice. Finally, I could relate.

After Slouching, I read The White Album, and by that time it seemed to me I had found my literary mentor. And I began to think of myself not only as a writer, but as an essayist.

***

When I found out the Authors Guild was holding a dinner in honor of Joan Didion last April, I knew this could be my last chance to meet her. After reading The Year of Magical Thinking, I was acutely aware that Time Was Running Out. I might, at least, have the comfort of knowing I had been in the same room with her before her death.

My excitement peaked as I walked up the stairs of the Edison Ballroom, past novelist Scott Turow who was telling a reporter that his next book was “set at the International Criminal Court at the Hague.” I checked in next to Gay Talese, and walked into the cocktail area before dinner. Women in long dresses were drinking champagne. Men, young and old, were wearing tuxedos. At the bar, I struck up a conversation with Hannah Tinti, who was excited to see John Freeman. It was magical. I was an outsider, but tonight I was on the inside. It felt like “home” in the most Didion-esque sense.

Soon, I was seated and the formal dinner began. I sat through speaker after speaker—but no Joan. Writer Roxana Robinson, who gave a beautiful tribute to the author, later told me Didion wasn’t feeling well and the Guild had actually known for some time she would not be attending.

All that anticipation for nothing.

I realize now I myself was engaging in magical thinking, and that Joan and I were not meant to cross paths. We shall likely never meet.

Not meeting her was disappointing but, in some small part, liberating. It reminded me that the work, not the author, is the real teacher. There are so many questions I would love to ask Didion over dinner, the kinds of answers I know I’ll need to find in the pages of her books.  

On my own, I am slowly re-reading Didion’s work and learning the art of the essay.  While others will likely remember her foremost as a “Writer,” for me, she is, and will always be, a kindred spirit, and a fellow New Yorker who opened my eyes to the power of narrative, self-reflection, and ultimately, essay as a literary form.

 

Jennifer Mattson is a writer, editor, and journalist. She teaches creative writing and journalism courses at New York University’s School of Professional Studies and leads writing retreats across the country. Jennifer is a former network news producer for CNN, CNN International, National Public Radio, and the former managing editor of Asia Society online. Jennifer’s writing and reporting have appeared in The Atlantic, Salon, USA TODAY, The Boston Globe, CBS News, The Women’s Review of Books, and Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. She writes an online column for Psychology Today and recently co-authored the books, 642 Things To Write About Me and 642 Stories To Write. 
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