I’d like to take you back to 2007, when Didion’s adaptation of The Year of Magical Thinking, written by Didion, directed by the magnificent David Hare, and starring the great Vanessa Redgrave opened on Broadway. I remember the standing room only theater- and Redgrave’s commitment to the story- I was riveted- never once taking my eyes off of her as she became Joan and led us through the loss of her husband and the illness of her daughter- which led to her daughter’s death- leaving Didion alone in the world. I remember that I didn’t want to go to the play at first because of the subject matter. I was a new mother (my daughter was 4 years old at the time) and any book, play or movie that involved the death of a child unglued me. But I was also compelled to go. I had read the book and was amazed by it. Amazed by her. And now, with her passing, I realize that I still am. You can meet her on the screen in her nephew Griffin Dunne’s documentary about her, The Center will not Hold. I am a fan of Griffin Dunne’s work- and this is one of his best creations- it feels like you’ve been invited into a family and asked to become a part of it. Griffin was her nephew by marriage. He filmed his aunt with great feeling and love- and a lot of humor. She was funny, in that mischievous way the great writers can be. She had the countenance of a very private woman who knew the drill of leading a very public life.
I went back and read some of the theater reviews of Didion’s adaptation of her memoir- of course, most of them did not square with my experience that night 14 years ago. Perhaps Didion was too celebrated on the page. She had won the major awards for The Year of Magical Thinking- and literary acclaim does not automatically translate to success in the theater. In fact, Joan Didion probably had to pay for the sin of her success on the page. I was there- I still have not forgotten Redgrave, the play, lines from the play- the way I felt in the seat- where I was sitting, and how I felt. Critics can be wrong- and in this instance, the negative reviews were not about the play, or Hare’s direction, or the actor who carried the weight- it was about something else entirely, as those things often are. I wanted a triumph for Didion, not because she had been through the loss of her husband and child within a relatively short period of time, but because she was able to write about what had happened- with eloquence and authority. Critics don’t think long game- but I don’t remember much of what they write- but I do remember a transformative night in the theater. Redgrave, Didion and Hare gave the audience a transformative evening- which haunts me still.
I have a lot of thoughts about Joan Didion, and so does every reader that ever picked up one of her novels or essays or collections- or saw one of the movies she wrote with her husband or attended the theatrical adaptation of her memoir. Didion is often criticized for being exactly who she was- an ambitious intellectual with a gift honed by discipline and time. Her talent was challenged her entire life, even in success. But Didion had her own ideas about her gifts, and why she became a writer. Didion wrote: “As a writer, even as a child, long before what I wrote was to be published, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding what it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish.”
So there it was. The words themselves were the thing- language and form were the materials with which she expressed emotion- as if the words were more important than the feelings themselves. Her style did not feel so much like a style, but the correct way to write- as though everything she did was part primer, a series of observations that were written to instruct. In that way, Joan Didion was a great teacher for writers who need to get out of the way of the story and let the truth speak for itself. Didion embraced tragedy, taking the worst stuff that happened to her, horrible loss, unexplainable and cruel, and shared it with us, in a way that was intimate and terrifying. You will not be comforted reading Didion, but you will be redeemed.