I first discovered Joan Didion as a lowly Barnes and Noble employee, spending my high school afternoons shelving novels in a suburban branch of the bookstore. I happened upon the 2006 collection of her nonfiction writing We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, and because it was an impressive and lovely book, I spent my pennies on it. Non-fiction was what I had set my sights on and Joan Didion seemed a fit figure to emulate, and so I carried the book around as a model for my future. I didn’t open it, however, until the summer after my high school graduation, when I found myself pregnant, confused, and very far from the career aspirations that Didion had inspired. Nonetheless, at the most stressful of times, I’d open the gigantic collection and just read pages at random, submerging myself in her words. The book contained the full texts of Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), The White Album (1979), Salvador (1983), Miami (1987), After Henry (1992), Political Fictions (2001), and Where I was From (2003), and spanning Didion’s prolific career, stood as testament to the greatness of creative non-fiction. Prefacing Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion defined exactly how I felt when perusing her book, writing, “I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder.” The collection offered me snapshots of how unromantic Haight-Ashbury really was in its heyday, the chill paranoia following the Manson murders, the US’s political puppetry of Latin America, the Cuban exodus into Miami, the Reagans as “actors on location,” the political theater of the 1990s, and a taste of the California Didion was trying to understand. In Didion’s musings were rooted my own, and through the turmoil that teenage pregnancy and childbirth instilled, the life of my mind continued, feeding upon her essays. After my son’s birth, I read him excerpts of the collection aloud, hoping to somehow instill the meaning of language into his infant mind. To me, the act of writing became the more relevant through the words of Joan Didion, perhaps America’s greatest non-fiction writer, whose career has also branched into fiction, journalism, autobiography, and screenwriting. The act of writing, of cataloguing one’s surroundings, is the act of writing history to be read as grains of truth by the generations to come.
Joan Didion will read excerpts from her work tonight at 7 pm in McAlister Auditorium at Tulane University. Doors open at 6 pm, and the event is free and open to the public. This event is part of Tulane University’s Great Writers Series, sponsored by the Creative Writing Fund, which previously brought Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison to the New Orleans campus.