'Imagination will take you everywhere'
The first thing I notice about Joan Didion, is her arm movements. She moves her frail, bony arms around in big, wide motions. Like windmills they circle around the 82 year-old’s diminutive frame, illustrating her points, or just flailing about her, filling in her pauses. She takes up a lot of space for someone so tiny.
It’s weird to see and hear the voice of a writer whose words you have always read on a page. Ever since I first read Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream I have carried around a collection of her essays with me wherever I go. On a coach to Berlin, on the London Underground, on a plane to Barcelona; Didion’s face would stare out from the bottom of my rucksack. My companion in an ever-changing world. So to see one of my favourite writers on the big screen at the Bertha DocHouse (the first UK cinema dedicated to documentary films) was an opportunity not to be missed.
The Center Will Not Hold is a celebration of the literary legend that is Joan Didion. It is an intimate portrait of a woman by her nephew, the actor and director, Griffin Dunne. His interviews with her shows the dynamic between the pair – she is candid, and sometimes it feels like the viewer is watching a catch-up between relatives. Particularly funny is when Dunne recalls the moment he first met his aunt at a family gathering; he was five-years-old and wearing a tight bathing suit and did not realise that one of his testicles was poking out. His uncle, John Gregory Dunne, notified him. Cue much laughter from his father, mother and uncle. The young Griffin was mortified. He said the only one that didn’t laugh was his Aunt Joan. “I always loved you for that.”
I learnt a lot about Didion in those 92 minutes. She hates snakes. Loves sunglasses – one of the only women who can pull them off inside. Drinks ice-cold Coca Cola every morning. Puts her manuscript in the fridge whenever she has writer’s block (even Queen Joan gets it). And so much more.
The documentary depicts her as a prolific essayist, journalist, novelist, playwright, and screen-writer, but also shows that for all her success, she has experienced a great deal of pain. Both her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and their daughter, Quintana, died within a three-year period. She channelled this grief into the thing she knew how to do best; she wrote. This culminated in two books, The Year of Magical Thinking, and, Blue Nights. Both of which I am yet to read, but cannot wait to. Although judging from the tears I shed while watching the documentary, it’s going to be heart-wrenching.
Writing is like an energy source for her. She likes to analyse disorder, examine what she doesn’t understand, piece it together, clarify it. I think writing was a way for her to not only understand the world, but also to understand herself.
“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.”
One of her most famous essays Slouching Towards Bethlehem – the first line of which is “The centre was not holding”, from where the documentary gets its name – documents the time she immersed herself in the chaotic hippiedom of the Haight-Ashbury District in the 60’s and found kids running away from home to go on ‘trips’ – it reminded me of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys, albeit less PG. Her journalistic intent remained as clear as those sparkling hazel-green eyes. In the documentary, her nephew asks her what it was like to be faced with a five-year-old girl sat on the floor, reading a comic, concentrating licking her white-rimmed lips – high on acid. She pauses, thinks, and then locks eyes with him and says; “Let me tell you, it was gold.” We see the lightning bolt of pure adrenalin coarse through her. The recognition of a moment that can turn your story from interesting to compelling. “You live for moments like that, if you’re doing a piece. Good or bad.”
A journalist through and through, Didion is a shrewd observer of everything. Life is material for her. She has documented key events in history – murders (the Manson murders), crimes (the Central Park Five), civil war (El Salvador), trials, and politics – her eyes have taken in and her hands have typed out words for all to read. Many view her as the chronicler of American social history – capturing the atmosphere, the people, the culture of the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. One wonders what she thinks of Trump. *Side note: who is our British equivalent?
Her personal reflections are just as poignant, from her first essay for Vogue, ‘On Self-Respect’, to ‘Goodbye to All That’, she captures what it means to be human and swirls it into a poetic yet shockingly honest portrayal of life.
“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was.” ‘Goodbye to All That’, 1967.
Archive footage and old photographs show a cool, stylish, mysterious figure – a cigarette constantly between her fingers – with mournful eyes staring into the lens. Her and Dunne oozed culture and intelligence, they threw parties and made friends with everyone (actor Vanessa Redgrave, playwright David Hare, and New Yorker critic Hilton Als, are just some of the many interviewed) even a young carpenter whom she employed, named Harrison Ford.
Of course, her talent is clear for all to see and has been the subject of frequent commentaries – something Dunne acknowledges in this Guardian article, saying; “The challenge was what can I say or show that she hasn’t already written?”. I think he’s done a pretty good job. Although there are a few things I wish he could’ve touched on, in particular her living with Multiple Sclerosis (she wrote a brilliant essay about it).
On days when following my dream to become a journalist gets a bit overwhelming, it’s Didion that drives me forward. “What would Joan do?” Is a thought that sometimes pops into my mind. Or “How would she write this?” Her first-person narrative style of writing; lyrical weaving of magic, grabbing the reader, writing that says: STOP, LOOK, READ about this person from the San Bernardino Valley because her story is fascinating. Yes, she eschews the conventional style of journalism, but isn’t that the fun of it? Breaking the rules. Inspired by Ernest Hemingway, Didion makes her sentences work really hard. It’s a gift for someone trying to find their journalistic feet. Especially in a world saturated with fake news, viral memes and listicles. Yawn.
What I love about Joan (we’re on first-name terms now) is that she lets her writing do the talking. She isn’t some loud, opinionated person. She was a shy child who felt like an outsider, due to her moving around for her father’s work. This is evident in her writing; she listens carefully to her interviewee, she is watchful, patient, expectant. One can almost see her nodding gently, unjudging, as her subject divulges their inner-most secret. And then, I can picture her lighting up as the story crystallises. Gold.