There is no center: On Joan Didion’s myth

You meet Joan Didion when you are ready. You have probably seen her name on lists of greatest writers or “Writers You Should Read” listicles. I met Didion at a party, in conversation where this girl gashed my conversation about Audre Lorde for Didion. It left a permanent disdain of Didion; who was she and why did her importance undermine Lorde? For years I would aggressively circumvent recommendations of Didion and her work. But Didion, and the documentary, “The Center Will Not Hold” directed by her nephew Griffin Dunne, made its way to me as a college senior hungry for a writer-success story, so I gave in and officially met Didion.

The first half of the documentary is a beautiful story of a UC Berkeley student and writer who won a writing competition by Vogue. And like any star, they must make the voyage to New York City to primarily write, as well as to mingle and twirl with literary elite drinking champagne over conversations of the perils of feminism in buildings covered in ivy. Didion did, leaving California for New York’s Vogue office, where she wrote a popular column alongside working on her first novel, “Run River.” It’s this first half of the documentary — the transition between college student into young adult — that needled on my own anxieties of graduating and making it on my own. A writer’s fairytale, to be taken like a vitamin as a healthy dosage of optimism and inspiration against the easy, cliche, but real costs of living a life to write.

Today, because of the internet, those LA-to-NYC fairytales are sparse and ever so rare. Writing is a world of freelancing, where even Pulitzer Prize-winning writers like Wesley Morris slash the myth of an origin story. Morris says a lot of it just happened. Another writer, Doreen St. Felix, similarly says it just happened on Twitter, and snowballed from one writing gig into another. Now, after three years of freelancing, she is a staff writer for the New Yorker, she casually interviews people like Zadie Smith. This myth, or absence of myth, leaves me thinking of the different possibilities writers emerge as stars in the literary world — one that holds prerequisites to be portrayed as divine patron saints of writing. Others are simply not afforded the luxury of being a myth. Institutions refuse to mold writers, writers of color as patrons and saints. If they do it is only to cathedralize their own institution’s taste.

So, as I watch the documentary, I lose myself in the dream that is writing — for a career and for oneself. And I allow myself to lose myself in Didion’s myth of LA armageddon and her rigorous commitment to the craft.

The last half of the documentary zooms into Didion today, who looks sharper, one could even say meaner, but she is the same wise and stoic writer she was posing in that bleached white Camaro. It is not until the latter half where she unravels her losses — her husband and child died in 2003 and 2005, respectively — which is a departure from her early Californian cool youth, now transformed into an elderly wisdom, a wisdom only loss and grief can bestow.

In one scene, Obama awards her with a National Medal of Arts for her writing. In that scene, I remembered to later practice her writing routine.  She would wake up at an early time, early enough to get something done before midday and to not release herself from her room until midday for a cold Coca Cola and a (cliche) cigarette. A writers room and schedule that took Didion’s essays and novels — like panels of a mural of Californian eccentricities, its apocalyptic weather recalling her later life’s work of cooler shades of blue, solemn and wise — driven by a compulsion to jolt down the feeling, memory and images that can not escape one’s mind. It could only be written away.