I came to Joan Didion as a seventeen-year-old undergrad, dumped by a high school sweetheart in the final weeks of summer and feeling more and more miserable as the temperatures cooled and each night half of the bed remained cold and empty. I would spend hours lying on that bed, staring at the ceiling until kaleidoscopic shapes formed. I wasn’t sure what I was feeling anymore.
But I attempted to articulate it, through the form of weekly blog posts. Each post was an insight into just how melodramatic, simplistic, stilted and vain writing about real life can be. I thought I was tapping into a universal well of general malaise and delivering it in a revolutionary way. All I actually did was land myself the reputation of writing ‘sad lonely white girl’ stories.
But then, I found Didion.
Or, rather, I found her transparent yellow silk curtains, not weighted properly so that they would “blow out the windows and get tangled and drenched in the afternoon thunderstorms”. Curtains that were hung with the anticipation that “the gold light would make me feel better”. I discovered Didion’s honest, calm, rationally detailed crisis of faith. Her experience that “everything that was said to me I seemed to have heard before, and I could no longer listen”. Within the subtext of her exquisitely sad essay Goodbye To All That, Didion invited me to join her as an observant wallflower, an expresser of tender and melancholic sentiments, but most of all an audaciously self-assured writer who knows, and even relishes, that a writer is “always selling somebody out”.
The blog posts shifted focus but, as the heartbreak lessened, the depression I had managed to outrun for so long started seeping in. I grappled with existential crises each morning; I hallucinated out-of-body experiences. I wrote little, because I couldn’t remember how I used to feel about anything before it all felt bad, bad, bad. I couldn’t stomach the thought of the future and I couldn’t participate in the present. The foundations of this illness seemed to lie in the past.
I began to visit a psychoanalyst with a keen interest in childhood development. We discussed my feelings in the present, but conversation always strayed to the past. I recalled verbal arguments in a car on the Bruce Highway, a fist punching the inside roof in anger and disgust, and hysterical pleas in defence. And earlier than that, a dance recital with a non-compliant miniature ballerina resulting in a car park tantrum and—subsequently—abandonment issues due to the parent driving off without the five-year-old child. And earlier again—pre-conception—eavesdropped snatches of information about miscarriages and fertility drugs, the lingering question: “what about post-partum depression?”
Sometimes we veered too far off the path of possibility.
But, for the most part, we made progress.
When I attempted writing memoir again, I began painting myself into the corners of where the action was unfolding. It was less important what I had said in an argument; it was more important how he or she or they had reacted. I was there, in my memoir pieces, but my thoughts weren’t always of the most importance. What had happened and what had been said were, and the beauty lay in how all this could be detailed.
So I went back to Didion, looking for more insight. I read The Year of Magical Thinking. The sense of dread that Didion had carried within her essays for the last few decades now had a physical purpose. Her husband, John Gregory Dunne, had died of a heart attack while her daughter, Quintana Roo, was seriously ill in hospital. Didion, a fragile woman to begin with, struggled to cope.
The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion’s disbelief, her confusion, a desperate method of constructing a story she can live now, and in the future. It is a love letter to Dunne—a final parting gift. But it is, as is indicated by the title, a flawed recollection.
Blue Nights, the following memoir, I studied even more closely, hoping to imprint its purpose and its sensibilities onto my own craft. Hoping to move past the ‘magical thinking’ in my own work to better describe, say, the colour of the sky “as the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do)” and how “you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness”—hoping to make sense of the physical reality as Didion does.
Blue Nights is a recrimination. It is Didion coming clean. It is the past—and her implicitness in future consequences—laid bare. It is regret, it is longing, and it works hard to not necessarily find answers but to at least uncover the questions that should be asked. The writer that Didion is now—so much more than the labels ‘widow’ and ‘childless’, but no longer simply the anxious girl in cotton shift dresses—can be traced back to the foundations established in her past. The other people sitting in rooms of houses once familiar and lived-in. The other events unfolding without warning or anticipation.
In Blue Nights, Didion writes herself into being through writing about others.
In my own memoirs now, I try to do this too.
Hayley Stockall is a Brisbane-based writer and the Online Editor for literary collective Stilts (www.underthestilts.com).
Geoff Orton is the founder of Writers Bloc. He's also a teacher and a Boston Celtics tragic.