Ashley Farmer on Joan Didion


Lucky Others: On Didion and Giving In

The Santa Ana winds are here again. Dead fronds fall from palm trees in the courtyard. It’s not yet May in Southern California but it’s already ninety-six degrees and I’m thinking of Joan Didion. I think of Joan Didion whenever the weather shifts like this, or when California (as it often does) feels strange to me. I picture her in Hollywood, off Franklin Avenue, in the large house with peeling paint she writes about in “The White Album.” I’m thirty-three miles south, but the paint is peeling here, too, and this state is still as lurid as it was when she was here.

Though I’ve mostly lived other places, like Didion I was born in California. I like to believe that because we both come from this place, I share a molecule with her, some same chemical from dirt or water. But if we share anything at all, it’s in these moments when it’s too hot outside and I close the bedroom door to keep the cold air in and I sit down to a screen without a thought in my brain. It’s in my reason for bothering to write at all. It’s in the line that explains her own motivations: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”  It’s in “what I want and what I fear” most of all.

I don’t know why other writers write. For all the writers that I know—for all the time we spend together, for how similar our processes, for my husband writing there at the other edge of the bed—I’ve never discussed this impetus. However, I’ve imagined that better, smarter writers are motivated to communicate what they already feel, what they already know. Sure, the course may be uncharted and the water murky, but I’ve believed that other writers come to their work with a belief intact, a clear perspective, some fundamental idea worth sharing. I’ve thought lucky others. Because I have often come to the page with nothing at all. Sometimes I arrive with only confusion (which is even less than nothing at all, a deficit).

Didion’s idea seems radical in its simplicity: not to write what you know but write because you don’t. Not to bring an understanding to the page, but to arrive at it there.

Her work has appeared for me at crucial moments. I found Play it As It Lays in a used bookstore in Louisville, KY. I was in my mid-twenties. My shelves were filled with two kinds of books: romances written by long-dead women and contemporary fiction by serious men. I didn’t know yet that anything was missing, at least not consciously. But then I read the dark novel on a gray day in one sitting. It was a piece that shook me: a brutal story told in a brutal way, a modern woman whose life wasn’t coming together like those in so many of books I’d read, but unraveling. Later, The Year of Magical Thinking appeared at an airport kiosk. I was a little older and, while I hadn’t experienced her particular grief, I had by then experienced my own. The book shook my bones as I read with my head beneath a blanket in my window seat, pretending to be asleep during the flight and walking off the plane with my eyes red. Later, when I taught writing classes, I’d circle up with students to discuss the Getty museum and the California governor’s mansion. Later still, again and again,“The White Album.”

There are other things that Didion has taught me: that precision comes through merciless editing. That a razor-sharp sentence is a weapon. That “the arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind.” That you can be a writer of different genres and that, if you’re curious enough, almost any subject is worthy of investigation. That two writers can make writing lives both separately and together, orbiting each other’s daily practice and collaborating. That you have a responsibility to respond to the culture around you, including its missteps. That you can write throughout your whole life and, because time shifts your obsessions and knowledge and histories, maybe you should.

It is afternoon and I have yet to dress. It’s too hot. It won’t be long before I leave California and, after I’m gone, I’ll start writing my way towards finally understanding it. Just as I sat down here today, I won’t know what I think until I’m typing. Didion has also said that writing is an aggressive, hostile thing—that you’re imposing your ideas on another person, that there’s so much “I” in it. But to me, writing to discover what you know is quite the opposite. It’s a call to humility. It’s the promise that writing can make us more human, more aware, more ourselves than we were before. To do it, one must give in—and so I try, which is a contradiction in itself. I give in to the weather and the wind outside and the paint peeling on these bedroom walls and to the words I’ve yet to find. I try again and again. Then I give in.

Ashley Farmer is the author of the chapbookFarm Town (Rust Belt Bindery, 2012) and the collection Beside Myself(PANK/Tiny Hardcore Press, 2014). A former editor for publications like Atomica MagazineSalt Hill Journal and others, she currently serves as a managing editor forJuked.  She lives in Southern California.