I Spent A Week Living Like Joan Didion Did In Her 20s… And Then After I Was Done, I Kind Of “Forgot” To Stop
You know the saying that you should never meet your heroes in real life? I imagine this has something to do with the profound sense of disappointment that is inevitable once your revered, mythologized idol proves herself to be human. I have met several such literary idols in my life, some of whom were perhaps better left on the page, but I have never met Joan Didion. Joan Didion, I am sure, is the exception to this rule.
Why? Because Joan Didion is cool . Cool in a way that I, unambiguously, am not (yet). The only reason I was finally able to write this piece, in fact, was because somewhere along the way I convinced myself that Didion is so cool that she’s never even bothered to Google herself on the Internet. Based on what I’ve read, both by and about Didion (everything), I suspect she would be less than enthralled to discover a 20-something girl had attempted to emulate her young habits for the express purpose of writing about it on the Internet.
The primary challenge I foresaw, other than the obvious Joan Didion intimidation factor, was namely that I have a tendency to live more like Emily Dickinson (aka having a vague awareness that other humans exist somewhere, but that place must be very far away from the room I’m writing in now) than Didion. Also, Didion lived in New York City and Los Angeles.
I live here:
Nonetheless, armed with the intrepid journalistic spirit that Didion is so well-known for, off I went to emulate her, to the very best of my ability.
I Rocked the Face-Sized Sunnies
The first step to really channeling the genius that is Joan Didion, I figured, was getting the feel for what it’s like to live life behind those giant dark sunglasses she is famous for wearing. Those sunglasses have adorned her face on book covers and in magazine spreads. She’s been photographed wearing them indoors and outdoors — everywhere. So I got my own pair and wore them everywhere, too. I mean, really, everywhere:
Now, here’s the great thing about those sunglasses, which Didion undoubtedly figured out long before I did: People can't tell when you’re staring at them. You can, from a reasonable distance, nose around other people’s business all day long, and they won’t know that you’re spying. Creepy, sure, but also an ideal scenario for a writer. Plus, I’m pretty sure I delayed my ever-impending crow's feet for at least another week.
I Talked to Strangers
In the introduction to Slouching Towards Bethlehem, the greatest cultural assessment of America ever written, Didion wrote:
I am bad at interviewing people … I do not like to make telephone calls, and would not like to count the mornings I have sat on some Best Western motel bed somewhere and tried to force myself to put through the call to the assistant district attorney.
It was almost as though she were looking right at me, one eyebrow raised behind those oversize sunglasses, when she wrote those words. I hate talking to people I don’t know. Heck, sometimes I hate talking to people I do know. Especially on the telephone. I am well overdue for a dental cleaning for this very reason. But carpe diem in the name of reporting, I said. I’ll talk to a stranger.
The opportunity presented itself one morning when, at 102 degrees outside and climbing, the air conditioning in my top-floor apartment broke, and the subsequent life-or-death situation resulted in my being forced to summon the air conditioning repairman, whether I was comfortable talking to him or not.
It wasn’t actually that difficult. Mostly, I just let him talk, and made occasional noises of acknowledgement. It probably helped that the whole time we were conversing, his head was in the giant, metal belly of my air conditioning unit.
We started by discussing why, today of all days, was the last day he would be working as an air conditioning repairman. I asked if he was retiring, just as my brain simultaneously processed that was probably an age-insensitive and therefore rude question to ask someone. But no, he was leaving the business in protest, because apparently EPA regulations for air conditioners change every year (you learn something new every day) and he was irate about having to update his certification every 12 months. I suppose every little subculture experiences their own dramas. Even air conditioning repairmen.
We then moved on to a subject I was vastly more familiar with: cats.
“You know how they say that God made man in his own image?” the repairman began. “Well I think God made cats to entertain himself. They are just the Godliest creatures in the whole world, in my opinion — and more like humans than any other creature on Earth. I mean, look at your cat there. He’s all sweet and mellow right now, but you put him outside, in front of a bird or something, he’ll turn into a natural-born killer. Just turn deadly, you know?”
“Really?” I said, sending a skeptical glance in the direction of my 18-year-old cat, Squishy, who was starting to nod off in the middle of licking his huge belly. “You think?”
“Definitely,” the repairman said.
OK, so it wasn’t Watergate. But it was a start.
I Started Looking at Everything Like a Journalist
If Didion were looking for a story, I told myself, she would observe a political protest in Greenwich Village, or wander through the film studio lots of Hollywood, or hang out in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, or attend the Democratic National Convention.
At the present moment, I live on the outskirts of a not-that-large city in Georgia. So I went to the Walmart.
I actually went to there, because the first time, I started wondering if I needed to fill out some kind of form with the city government in order to stand outside a Walmart and stare at people (and maybe ask questions if one came to mind) without becoming a criminal. Plus, the Girl Scouts had kind of taken up all the prime outside-Walmart real estate, and as someone who was decidedly not a Girl Scout growing up, I know better than to mess with them when they’re trying to make a sale. I bought some Thin Mints and left.
By the time I returned to my research into the anthropology of Walmart, current events had led the franchise to remove all the Confederate-flag-related items from their shelves, which seemed like the perfect time to conduct a Didion-style interview or two.
The hard-hitting question I decided on was: “Do you have any feelings about Walmart removing Confederate flag merchandise from their stores?” which I then repeated to myself over and over until I felt confident enough to ask it. I put my oversize sunnies on for courage.
“Excuse me,” I said to a professional looking woman in a purple dress suit. “Do you have any feelings about Walmart removing Confederate flag merchandise from their stores?”
“I think it’s great,” she said. “But I don’t think they’ve actually ever sold them here.”
“Excuse me,” I said to a group of three teenage boys, who had silver sales stickers still adorning the brims of their baseball caps, “Do you have any feelings about Walmart removing Confederate flag merchandise from their stores?”
“No way, they sell that here?” one said. “Sick, man. Wanna go check it out?”
Now that I’d talked to four whole strangers before noon and unwittingly contributed to the issue I was soliciting responses about, I was less comfortable with this undertaking.
“Excuse me,” I said to an unintimidating-looking woman, whose pace noticeably quickened as I approached her, “Do you have any —”
“Oh, I can’t afford to donate today, but God bless you,” she replied.
Now I was panhandling ... which I know for a fact is illegal outside of stores in Georgia, and probably in a lot of other states, too. My enthusiasm for this experiment was waning, though I’m sure the real Didion would have powered through until she got her story. I went inside and grabbed some bug spray and peanut butter (because you can never have enough of either, right?) and decided I would question a cashier before going home and falling straight into bed with an Advil.
“Yeah, I saw that on the news,” she told me. “Nobody’s really complained yet. But you know, we’re all pretty friendly around here.”
So no heavy-hitting news there. But I did come away feeling a little warm and fuzzy about the non-Confederate, albeit perhaps obliviously so, little southern town I live in.
I Justified All Those Lies I Was Already Telling
OK, in my opinion, “lies” is a really strong choice of word. I don’t lie so much as I embellish key details of a story for my listener’s own enjoyment. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve told my mother “I’m not lying to you, I’m entertaining you,” I would, quite frankly, be a bestselling author.
I have been known, for example, to do things like turn the mention of a shopping cart grazing my driver side mirror into a 13-car pileup in which I rescued small children, elderly women, and kittens. That time I forgot to fill out my traveler’s visa before going to Honduras was not just an inconvenient oversight — it was an egregious affront to national security in which I risked fines, imprisonment, and having to live in the San Pedro Sula airport terminal forever. That rustling I heard while walking in the forest that borders two sides of my neighborhood was really a Georgia Tree Bear (they exist on Google, whether or not they do in reality) licking its chops in anticipation of eating me, and I had to scale trees, forge rivers, and run really, really fast in order to survive.
In my life, every rain cloud is a hurricane, every inconvenience a disaster, and every success an epic victory.
In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion wrote:
I tell what some would call lies … not only have I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters.
Frankly, what’s good enough for Didion is good enough for me.
I Put it All into Perspective, aka Here Are My Conclusions
What Didion is perhaps best at is looking at her own experience from a distance. For a reader, there are always two Didions: the woman who lived the story on the page, and the one sitting before the notebook writing it. This may be true for all writers, but I’d venture none do it so overtly as Didion.
So in that spirit, the question is: What did the girl writing this essay learn from the girl who ran around town wearing giant sunglasses, making up stories, and nosing around other people’s business?
I’m going to be honest — this “week-long” project actually took more like three weeks. At first, I was beyond intimidated, but then, once I started venturing a few steps beyond my comfort zone, I didn’t really want to stop. “I’m living like Joan Didion” became my excuse for everything. Even things that had no relation to this project whatsoever, like making margaritas at 11 in the morning on a Tuesday and buying new shoes on the Internet. But lots of relevant things, too, like actually standing up from my desk and going out into the world on a regular basis.
I also enjoyed the mindset that there’s a possible story in everything. Didion is always taking small examples from her life, or the lives she’s witnessed, and applying them to the larger cultural context. I love thinking that everyone has a story, and on the off chance that they’re willing to share it with me, I want to be the kind of person who really, really listens.
Will I continue to Joan-Didion-ify my life going forward? It’s definitely something to keep in mind. The one thing I am certain of, though, is that the giant sunnies are definitely here to stay. And if I thought Joan Didion was a badass before, that’s nothing compared to my reverence for her now.
Images Courtesy of E. Ce Miller (4); WiffleGif (2)