“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” The author of that line, Joan Didion, is a rare breed in America: a literary writer with rock star status.
I finally had the pleasure of watching the 2017 Netflix documentary about Didion, The Center Will Not Hold.
The film expertly compiles and edits conversation with the 82-year-old Didion, interviews, and historical footage and photographs–covering Didion’s entire life in just under 100 minutes of screen time. Naturally, the strokes are broad, and no subject is plumbed to its depths, although extra attention is paid to the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, and later, her daughter, Quintana Dunne.
Didion came of age as a writer in the 1960s and 1970s, when she wrote several novels and a slew of journalistic essays on the sizzling topics of the times: the Manson murders, the acid-washed squatters of Haight-Ashbury, the civil war in El Salvador, Rock music, and, back in New York after living in California, the Central Park Five.
Many of those essays are collected in two of her earlier books, Slouching Toward Bethlehem and The White Album. I read them both in my own formative writing years. I’ve also read several of her novels: Run River (her first) and Play It As It Lays.
If you’re any kind of writer or are familiar with her work, The Center Will Not Hold is an inspiring tribute to a remarkable literary talent. If you haven’t read Didion yet, the film opens the door to revelation. You may want to run out and acquire some of her books.
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.Joan Didion
Immediately after watching the film, I started scouring my bookshelves to see what Didion I owned. I have the novel, The Last Thing He Wanted, and her most recent book, Blue Nights, written after the death of her daughter. I’ve moved both of those books to the top of my reading list. If you have the fortitude for one of the finest and most fraught explorations of grief, try The Year of Magical Thinking, which covers the year following the death of her husband.
In the documentary film, Didion’s lips are glossy red, her manner animated, her gestures profound. At one point, the interviewer (her nephew, Griffin Dunne), asks her about an essay she’d written back in the day on Jim Morrison and The Doors.
“So did you like The Doors?” he asks.
“Oh, yes, very much.”
Didion gives a dismissive wave of her hand, as if swatting away a too-obvious question. “Bad boys,” she says. Succinct and meaningful with her words.
Character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life—is the source from which self-respect springs.Joan Didion