This week I read an interesting article in New York Magazine about Joan Didion’s newest memoir, Blue Nights. In it, the author, Boris Kachka, talks to Didion about her success with The Year of Magical Thinking and the new memoir. The article is great, if maybe a little sad, and I hope you’ll take a few minutes to read it. Apparently, I’m not alone in saying so; it was one of the most-read “long reads,” according to the magazine’s facebook page:
There’s so much fodder for discussion in the article: Kachka quoting Didion from Slouching Towards Bethlehem, that “writers are always selling somebody out”; Didion’s prescience about the hippy movement and the impact it would have on society as a whole (what, as a result, might be “sacrificed…on the altar of universal love and self-fulfillment”); the honest questions Kachka describes Didion as asking of herself in Blue Nights – about being a parent, and being a good parent.
But I wanted to focus this post on something Kachka says in the article, that “Didion has always maintained that she doesn’t know what she’s thinking until she writes it down.” As a person who has kept a journal for the majority of my life, I can relate. For better or worse, I have always written to understand what’s going on in my head – even just to know what’s going on in my head. (I say “for better or worse”, because you make a record like that, of so many years and so many “places” in your life, and it can be ground you loathe to revisit, yet you find yourself somewhat incapable of destroying it at the same time.)
Later in the article, Kachka says:
…sometimes it’s difficult to tell which of her confessions are genuine and which calculated for literary effect, how much to trust her observations as objective and how much to interrogate them as stylistic quirks. Her clinical brand of revelation can sometimes feel like an evasion – as likely to lead the reader away from hard truths as toward them.
Memoirs as a genre have received a lot of scrutiny lately for a certain lack of truthfulness; we probably all remember the teacup-storms related to Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors. I suppose what I find most interesting about Kachka’s comment is that one might come to the memoir expecting either “to trust her observations” or to be led toward hard truths.
It made me think of something I once read by C. Day-Lewis:
We do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand.
The subject matter of Didion’s most recent works, the death of her husband, followed two years later by the death of her adopted daughter, is deeply personal. However, her memoir about the death of her husband, The Year of Magical Thinking, was exceedingly popular. Kachka describes this success pushing Didion into the limelight, casting her in the role of mentor in the minds of some readers, a role with which Didion admits she is uncomfortable.
I’m sure we’ve all had that experience of reading something that speaks directly to our own personal experience or to some part of our souls, and being touched by it in a powerfully meaningful way. But when it comes to the memoir – when it comes to the writer’s need, I guess, to understand by exploring her own thoughts, would it be better, perhaps, if we were to approach it, not as the writer seeking to make herself understood, but as the writer seeking to understand?