Music, Memory, and Prose: On Joan Didion's Memoirs Print

joan-didion(Puerto del Sol Volume 47, No. 1: Summer, 2012)


With the 2003 publication of Where I Was From, Joan Didion began what may be the final phase of her fifty-year-plus writing career—the first of three memoirs, a loose trilogy centering on geographical exile and personal loss that reveal a master composer of prose. Close behind Where I Was From came The Year of Magical Thinking in 2005. Then, at the end of 2011, Blue Nights. This decade-long memoir period caps a Leonard-Bernstein-like run with Didion scoring several hits among a host of genre, each of which overlaps. There's the novel phase: five books, published between 1963 and 1996, among them Play It As It Lays. There's the nonfiction phase: six books, several of which are essay collections, beginning in 1968 with Slouching Toward Bethlehem and ending with Political Fictions in 2001.

A half-dozen screenplays, written with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, comprise another period. One reason these phases overlap is that Didion has been absorbed by her affinity for nonfiction, an affinity, by her own admission, she's not enjoyed with the novel. "Writing fiction is for me a fraught business," she told the Paris Review in 2006, "an occasion of daily dread for at least the first half of the novel, and sometimes all the way through." The memoirs allowed Didion to engage two late-in-life tragedies: The proximate deaths of Dunne, in 2003, and their daughter, Quintana, in 2005. These absences, as demanding as they are to write about, require an equally demanding form whose pressures Didion seems born to handle.

Didion's affinity for nonfiction was first revealed in her essays. These range from her early work, in the 1960s and 1970s, with Vogue, Life, and the Saturday Evening Post ("On Self-Respect" and "Why I Write" are famous examples) to many long-form pieces she wrote for the New York Review of Books ("Fixed Ideas: America Since 9.11" and "Sentimental Journeys," about the gang rape of the Central Park jogger). At ease with political and personal subjects, the essays are remarkable for her juxtaposing fact and insight as well as for her calibrating their motion. Didion is a sentence-vigilant writer, a trait widely acknowledged. She loves to beef up and slim down paragraphs, abut direct and ornate styles, repeat and invert and extend phrases, distil and release intimacies in contrasting sections. Brambled paths, the essays are as much cerebral as felt. How does she get these competing sensibilities to cohabit? Via her musical gift.

I realize that applying "music" to prose is troublesome. Music, rightly, is associated with sound, and words moving across a page or screen go unheard. But they may be heard as one reads, internally. What moves us in prose are its rhythms. We recognize this from the crafted rapture of the masters: Tolstoy's expository narratives of accumulating doom and Annie Dillard's compressed descriptions of microscopic awe. Though this pair are quite different in sense and sensibility, they both lure and hold our attention. To be moved, two things have to happen: 1) sentences, paragraphs, and sections must make rhythmic patterns as well as repeat and vary those patterns, and 2) such movement must enact and serve the writer's meaning.

Didion is hyperconscious of these two elements. She always has been. In fact, she comments on the generative tension between rhythm and revelation early on in The Year of Magical Thinking.

I have been a writer my entire life. As a writer, even as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish.

One idea is that polish withholds meaning so that the work's musicality outshines the writer's point. And yet, her ego often dominating the work, Didion understands that she is lurking behind the prose, that her appearing and disappearing self is primary to her style. As she says, "The way I write is who I am, or have become." But this entanglement, while beautiful to behold, may not work as well once she's been disoriented by the heart-attack death of her husband.

I wish I had instead of words and their rhythms a cutting room, equipped with an Avid, a digital editing system on which I could touch a key and collapse the sequence of time, show you simultaneously all the frames of memory that come to me now, let you pick the takes, the marginally different expressions, the variant readings of the same lines. This is a case in which I need more than words to find the meaning. This is a case in which I need whatever it is I think or believe to be penetrable, if only for myself.

Of course, what Didion is asking for is contradictory. "Words and their rhythms" must penetrate her ache just as she needs something "more than words" that might insure her search for meaning "to be penetrable." And yet what else but words can she employ? She doesn't say.

Still, the paradox simmers. Largely because Didion fashions and refashions the quandary rhythmically. I note the chiasmus of "the rhythms of words" and "words and their rhythms"; the anaphora of "this is a case in which I need"; the expansion of "in which I need more" to "in which I need whatever it is"; the tense shift from "thought or believed" to "think or believe"; the inversion of "impenetrable" and "penetrable"; and so on. These many internal rhythms, spatial counterpoints, and syntactical variations—of course, textured horizontally—are her music. They evince a grand designer at work. They destabilize any tidiness that designer has reached. And they embody the ambiguous state bereavement is holding her in.

The 77-year-old Didion (in 2012) is the Château Margaux of contemporary nonfiction writers—in the factual realm of reportage and the self-analytical realm of personal narrative. She is like Igor Stravinsky who no matter the musical form he uses always sounds like himself. One way artists accomplish such consistency is to remain attuned to the expressive needs of their times. In our age of pathography, Didion has adapted and reinvented her style on behalf of her latter-day trials. Her three memoirs have given up home and family, enacted and demythologized the letting go. They speak to the psychology of the day. Where I Was From charts her exile from California and portrays the state's self-mystification. A Year of Magical Thinking wanders across the loss of her husband and the dissembling nature of memory and grief. And now Blue Nights highlights the death of her daughter, in which Didion staggers through her parental regrets and an estimation of her own aging. Throughout, we hear her shaping the music of her prose for concert stage, recital hall, and confessional.


Where I Was From is a muscular book, crafted more than called into being. Its setting features the Sacramento home of her childhood where her grandparents and parents were also from. The book is a four-movement symphony compared to the tone poem of Magical Thinking. Its layout is vast: big swaths of settler history, including her great grandparents' coming to the central valley; the buying and selling of California land by ranchers, farmers, developers, and postwar purveyors of car culture; an examination of other writers, mostly intellectuals, who share her jaundiced view of the Golden State; a long section about youth gangs in the Los Angeles suburb of Lakewood; and the hard coal of Didion's parents, her hectoring right-wing mother and her pragmatic, unreflective father whose relationships with Joan are replayed in Didion's mind soon after they have died. Even as the narrative fragments, the broken parts carve out equal time for the personal, the political, and the historical.

Thus, on a historical turn, we hear Didion presenting and commenting on her intellectual forbears.

Josiah Royce, who was from 1885 until his death in 1916 a central figure in what later became known as the "golden period" of the Harvard philosophy department, was born in Grass Valley, not far from Sacramento, grew up there and in San Francisco, and in some sense spent the rest of his life trying to make coherent the discontinuities implicit in this inheritance.

Note the accumulating gracefulness of this sentence, its opening up and its closure. How assured its rhythm is. Such finesse is how she profiles other Californian malcontents—among them the novelist Frank Norris and the Lakewood memoirist, D. J. Waldie. Their regionalism is to have been lulled by those "sentimental narratives," also known as, California dreaming. The state's self-image haunts its long-term residents. As Didion leaves California, she worries that all she or anyone can know about the state is the degree to which its mercurial nature is her own.

You will have perhaps realized by now (a good deal earlier than I myself realized) that this book represents an exploration into my own confusions about the place and the way in which I grew up, confusions as much about America as about California, misapprehensions and misunderstandings so much a part of who I became that I can still to this day confront them only obliquely.

These two complex sentences act out stylistically the problem I mention between place and individual. In its citizens, California fosters existential dread. Of what? The oppressiveness of its quotidian parts: the freeway traffic, the fight for parking, the lines at Trader Joe's, the fires of autumn, the Hollywood mania, the suburban sprawl, the imported water, the coming coast-is-toast earthquake, the unquenchable desire to leave, the sun-kissed reason to stay. No other area in America is as naturally vulnerable to catastrophe and as morally wearying on its residents as California is.

Thus, the multi-voiced expanse of Where I Was From. Collaging her writerly senses—essayist, journalist, memoirist—seems the only way to get at the intractability of West Coast life. Didion's essay/article savvy in this book blends her confusion with that of similarly dissatisfied Californians before her. It is, in part, an awakening for that which has driven her away, and to which she must activate, even perform, her resignation.

At the end she recalls visiting, "July or August, 1971 or 1972," with her mother and daughter a redeveloped swath of "Old Sacramento." There they find a nostalgic novelty, wooden sidewalks. For a moment Didion centers on something she feels her daughter Quintana must retain, something about her long family legacy.

Any ghosts on this wooden sidewalk were not in fact Quintana's responsibility. This wooden sidewalk did not in fact represent anywhere Quintana was from. Quintana's only attachments on this wooden sidewalk were right now, here, me and my mother.

In fact I had no more attachment to this wooden sidewalk than Quintana did: it was no more than a theme, a decorative effect.

It was only Quintana who was real.

In this coda, Didion whittles away, via foreshortening the paragraphs, at the state's inexorable selling of itself. But she also takes a stand, sees no reason it should infect Quintana. "We are all just prisoners here / of our own device," the Eagles sang in "Hotel California." Even though the song says we can never leave, Didion checks out. She slams the door on the funhouse. The mirror cracks, and the image of the caravan passes.


Moving deeper into memoir, Didion widens her interest in language, its representations and its ambiguities—in others' work and in her own. With Where I Was From, her analysis of how California has been staged in novel, letter, adage, and ad allows her to dispel some of the state's mythic self-regard. With The Year of Magical Thinking, there's a similar deconstructive turn, but now it's focused on the loss of her husband and the sickness of their daughter. Sudden death and extended caretaking disorient her bookish equilibrium and also give birth to a fluid narrative structure.

In Magical Thinking, I find Didion's intimacies juxtaposed with facts to be most chilling. Indeed, her means of presenting the fact and getting away from the fact—that reportorial training and instinct—is unique among nonfictionists. The facts in Didion launch not arguments but anxieties. Note how she begins this section with quotations, then challenges their limitation, uses them to move into an aria-like passage where her inward-diving voice dominates.

The power of grief to derange the mind has in fact been exhaustively noted. The act of grieving, Freud told us in his 1917 "Mourning and Melancholia," "involves grave departures from the normal attitude to life." Yet, he pointed out, grief remains peculiar among derangements: "It never occurs to us to regard it as a pathological condition and to refer it to medical treatment." We rely instead on "its being overcome after a certain lapse of time." We view "any interference with it as useless and even harmful." Melanie Klein, in her 1940 "Mourning and Its Relation to Manic-Depressive States," made a similar assessment: "The mourner is in fact ill, but because this state of mind is common and seems so natural to us, we do not call mourning an illness. . . . To put my conclusion more precisely: I should say that in mourning the subject goes through a modified and transitory manic-depressive state and overcomes it."

Notice the stress on "overcoming" it.

It was deep into the summer, some months after the night when I needed to be alone so that he [John] could come back, before I recognized that through the winter and spring there had been occasions on which I was incapable of thinking rationally. I was thinking as small children think, as if my thoughts or wishes had the power to reverse the narrative, change the outcome. In my case this disordered thinking had been covert, noticed I think by no one else, hidden even from me, but it had also been, in retrospect, both urgent and constant. In retrospect there had been signs, warning flags I should have noticed. There had been for example the matter of the obituaries. I could not read them. This continued from December 31, when the first obituaries appeared, until February 29, the night of the 2004 Academy Awards, when I saw a photograph of John in the Academy's "In Memoriam" montage. When I saw the photograph I realized for the first time why the obituaries had so disturbed me.

I had allowed other people to think he was dead.

I had allowed him to be buried alive.

Of course, the section moves on, becoming twice as long and more entangled. It's hard to grok from this halving its arc, which, in essence, spirals out her incomprehension. Still, I think you can hear how Didion's trajectory pins the emotion as it counters the grief "facts" of the clinicians Freud and Klein. She is testifying to the immensity of John's absence—what Freud and Klein don't report. The disembodied voices of the psychoanalysts juxtaposed with Didion's haunted floundering take on a relational push and pull, feel oppositionally magnetic. Up comes the road sign: Ambivalence Ahead. We slow down and perk up, jarred by the strangely abutted styles.

Notice the three sentence-length paragraphs. The first is a dig against Klein: to say one "overcomes" grief is to miss the near-comatose ongoingness of such a major loss. The last two sentences are self-inflicted; worse, they are dangerously close to self-pity, Didion's most feared opponent. (Magical Thinking begins with four italicized lines: Life changes fast. / Life changes in the instant. / You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. / The question of self-pity.) The sentence-length paragraphs are reproachful quips. The beefier paragraphs are expository statements, albeit expressively different from each other. Such neighborly placement—quip and exposition—intensifies the uneasiness. Their proximity is classic Didion: counterpointed voices that disharmonize the prose so as to wrench the emotion into play. After all, we cannot get Didion's inner struggle directly. We have to feel (listen, watch, absorb, surrender to) her rendering it in language, a sleight-of-hand most literary.

It may also be worthwhile to remark on the mystical quality of this book, one of its main draws for writerly readers. "Magical thinking" seems, in Didion's hands, to be a metaphor of the memoir-writing process itself. Few authors achieve this level of dexterity and derring-do: to recall what has recently happened (she writes not long after her husband has died and Quintana remains hospitalized), in a voice that activates the experience, then associates it with one prior experience or memory after another—and keeps the production sounding as though it's not past but happening now, which, in a sense, it is, in the now of the writing—takes some chops. In Chapter 10, Didion names this tangle "the vortex effect." She then illustrates it and its effect on grievers.

Spending long hours with Quintana in a hospital makes her think of abortions and that hospitals do them these days regularly, makes her think of a woman she knew in New York in the 1960s who had to have an abortion arranged secretly, makes her think of how she re-imagined this incident into her novel, Play It As It Lays, makes her think of the time she wrote that book when Quintana was three years old and played outside their Malibu home in a sprinkler, makes her think of going to Honolulu thereafter, of starting her column for Life magazine, of John's support for her writing, of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, of brushing Quintana's hair, all this accumulating, spiraling down like a funnel, fact and confession, until the final touchdown and the quip: "The way you got sideswiped was by going back."

Didion's first two memoirs cast contrastive spells. The leaving California book is Sophoclean, a culture tract, a dispute before the bar, working on us mostly by way of its choral-like history and sober intellectual distance. The longing-for-John book is Harold-Pinteresque, brooding and dry-eyed, working on us, at times, dizzily, by way of its medical facts and intimate uncertainties. All this gets orchestrated anew with the next memoir. A confessional farewell, in elegiac tones, if ever there was one.


What is so striking about Blue Nights is just how much Didion's inner world has mushroomed, how (almost) maniacally present it is. This book ranges the most of her three memoirs into the burdensome now, where Didion refuses to let her bereavement pass. In it she occupies past and present simultaneously so that the past is the present, the former engulfing the latter. The mix hinges her to, and unhinges her from, the shock of Quintana's death. The main difference from its sibling, Magical Thinking, is that Blue Nights feels more physical, if that's possible. Which is to say, Didion's previous memoirs had a larger world to go to—place, family, past, and research balancing her self-obsessions. Here, with her loved ones gone and the emotion singular, there is no otherness. Only herself feeling, or not, the loss. You'd think it would be claustrophobic and sentimental. It's not.

As a result, the prose is lodged in—or devolves to—statement much of the time. Much is declarative, much is echoed, much is harbored, much is entrancing. It's the curse of being, post-death, pinned so fully to the present.

It's an improbable idea: the more memory layers the memoir and stirs the writer to reflect, the more the prose feels tragic and wistful, odd companions indeed. Set in the rocking chair, much of Blue Nights wallows in what if's. On occasion Didion gets the flow moving. But it's quickly halted and re-directed back to the missing. In a peculiar way, the book may be over-felt, a trait I would have never thought Joan Didion capable of.

Here's an extended example from the end of Chapter 2. Relentlessly self-examining, the passage represents much of Didion's stylistic tack in Blue Nights.

This was never supposed to happen to her [Quintana], I remember thinking—outraged, as if she and I had been promised a special exemption—in the third of those intensive care units.

By the time she reached the fourth I was no longer invoking this special exemption.

When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.

I just said that, but what does it mean?

All right, of course I can track it, of course you can track it, another way of acknowledging that our children are hostages to fortune, but when we talk about our children what are we saying? Are we saying what it meant to us to have them? What it meant to us not to have them? What it meant to let them go? Are we talking about the enigma of pledging ourselves to protect the unprotectable? About the whole puzzle of being a parent?

Time passes.

Yes, agreed, a banality, of course time passes.

Then why do I say it, why have I already said it more than once?

Have I been saying it the same way I say I have lived most of my life in California?

Have I been saying it without hearing what I say?

Could it be that I heard it more this way: Time passes, but not so aggressively that anyone notices? Or even: Time passes, but not for me? Could it be that I did not figure in either the general nature or the permanence of the slowing, the irreversible changes in mind and body, the way in which you wake one summer morning less resilient than you were and by Christmas find your ability to mobilize gone, atrophied, no longer extant? The way in which you live most of your life in California, and then you don't? The way in which your awareness of this passing time—this permanent slowing, this vanishing resilience—multiplies, metastasizes, becomes your very life?

Time passes.

Could it be that I never believed it?

Did I believe the blue nights could last forever?

Chapter 2 is composed of layered memories. There's a long building up, via repetition, a packing-up and paring-away of similar material. Despite the length, the expanse centers on Didion's present writing time. This is the time of time passing, almost mechanistically. There's a clock ticking in the prose. There's a camera feel to its traversal. There's a sense that her rabid thought is being documented as she writes or as she has revised it to sound like rabid thought. Spatially, it seems to grow vertically more than horizontally. And yet the chapter works, that is, moves because it so sharply (and morosely) attends to remembering. Its self-obsession has to be self-referential, which I realize is circumlocutious, but that's the point of its gloomy mood. The quoted chunk exemplifies what she calls, "the permanent slowing." As Didion references herself, the piece progresses and stalls. Stalling the progress makes us feel the obsessional nature of loss.

As in her previous memoirs, we again find Didion whittling the prose away. This breathless exhaustion is typical of grief. (I recall interviewing a man whose daughter had recently died. When he got the news, he told me "all time stopped." He characterized living with this new condition as "timeless. She had lost time," he said, "and I had nothing but.") For Didion, saying less and repeating the little that is said is saying more. Saying only so much, saying it flatly, saying it with tentative development and repetitious insistence reminds me of Minimalism's code: interest lies not in pressing ahead to get somewhere; interest lies in enlarging the moment as much as the moment can bear.

Such a passage is what we used to call "self talk." Wheel-spinning is the lot of the aged, the ruminator, the woman who uncommonly and unexpectedly outlasts a husband and a child. The voice of one immobilized by such changes. In her prior memoirs, as I say, Didion's private self arises via her relational intimacy with a partner and a daughter; even her late mother seemed more alive than dead in Where I Was From. Suddenly, Didion's a public self. She's out, on the street, on her own, ours. We're the ear for the purely confessional writer, for a St. Augustine, a Montaigne: we're their family.

Another element rises to the surface—much of Blue Nights is an inquiry into, and an exposing of, Didion's self-deception. How regularly her "what-if" statements, which recur like a crow's caw, track her guilt—the bad mother, the careerist who didn't take the time she believed Quintana deserved. It's guilt not for failing to love her daughter but for having disregarded her special need: the lone and lonely child, adopted, moved about, pulled out of school, a casualty of successful, glamorous writers, one-time Hollywood royalty. If reasons exist for such turbulence (fame, ego, money), they explain nothing, console no one now. In their place, Didion is self-punishing, over-dwelling on her mantra to the young Quintana: "Brush your hair, brush your teeth, shush I'm working."

Typically prose stylists tamp this self-talk down. It's embarrassing. It's melodramatic. It's part of the messiness of first drafts, fine for one's journal but not for one's book. It ought to be cut out. Indeed, it may taint Didion's authorial maturity if she indulges her pain more than she does Quintana's memory. The problem is, Didion's musical gift can get the better of her. It's as though repeating these "what-ifs," despite underscoring her internal struggle, grows annoyingly cloy. At least, that's the risk. It's undeniably unwelcome for a writer to overparent her loss even though she's shaking us with the news that the loss feels this bad.

We're at a crossroads for the writer which the photographer innately understands: the overexposed exposure. But my sense is, this is the memoir's donnée: the author animated by now, by what she can't let go of from then. Such an overt linking of emotion and its calibration as music is one of the demanding hazards of the memoir form. It has taken Didion three books to work into (and perhaps out of) the self-obsessional recollections these memoirs have marshaled to stunningly different degrees. Using the critic Josephine Miles' terms, she has moved from the art of inventiveness to the art of naturalness, from the eloquent to the plain.

With the exposition of Where I Was From, with the minimalism of Blue Nights, Didion has taken her "I" narrator down to a kind of pure music of the self. She's not alone; others have written pathographies that tap grief's ache. I think of Abigail Thomas's Three Dog Life, Judith Moore's Fat Girl, and Darin Strauss's Half a Life among confessional works of intense brevity. Like them, Didion continues to perform what Martin Amis, thirty years ago, labeled her core style: dramatizing rather than reflecting her moods. This facility also recalls the fountainhead, Marcel Proust, who most monumentally insisted the prose be the experience its subject calls for. Before I get too high church, let's give some credit to life itself. Didion's last ten years have had their say in directing her work, in the direction her work had to take, which is yet another of the memoir's complicated blessings.