On loving Joan Didion

Joan DidionUni starts next week – I can’t believe it’s nearly the end of February, the girls are already asking when is Christmas?

Uni brings with it both 12 weeks of a lot less writing time and 12 weeks of jaw-dropping amazement, amazement that is both good and bad. The bad is hearing a student proudly boast in the first class of semester that they do not read, yet are enrolled in a writing class; and the good is picking up an assignment from a different student and discovering some of the best writing I have ever seen – this is the kind of amazement that keeps me tutoring.

This semester I’m teaching Creative Non-Fiction – when I told my mother this I could hear in the silence at the end of the phone the puzzlement that such a subject existed. Because everyone remembers learning in school that Non-Fiction is the facts, the truth, the stuff that isn’t made up. Fiction is therefore the lies, the fabrications, the place where you go when your words run away from you and begin to tell stories. Fiction is creative, Non-Fiction is not.

It was a belief I shared when I first began studying creative writing at uni, simply because I hadn’t really encountered anything other than traditional non-fiction. Then I discovered Joan Didion and it was love at first sight.

I went through uni wanting to be Joan Didion; there is a fabulous photo of her in the sixties, a tiny, elfin woman with pointy ears and attitude, smoking a cigarette (which is of course extremely naughty but you could get away with anything in the sixties). And it wasn’t just her physical glamour that attracted me – when I first read her work I had no idea what she looked like – but the thrill of her sentences. Rarely do I find myself wanting to copy down someone else’s sentences so I can pull them out and re-read them and remember how wonderful words can be when strung together by the hand of a Writer. But I did with Didion.

For me, she captures the essence of what creative non-fiction is really all about; when you begin to read you forget that everything is true and factual because you are so swept away in the story she spins and the persona she adopts that things like truth or fiction just doesn’t matter any more. Only when you resurface from the page at the end of the piece do you see the art in making literature out of the story – not a story that you can shape and create as you write – but the story that was, till then, just a series of things that happened to someone, somewhere.

6 comments

  1. marlish glorie

    There is something profoundly sad, and insulting, when I hear people proclaim to wanting to write, then in the same breath pronounce that they don’t read. Reading and writing are inexorably linked. But there’s a hierarchy – reading comes first. To quote Stephen King, “If you don’t read, you won’t have the tools to write.”
    It’s curious this arrogant/ignorant I wannawritebutnotreadstance because if you’re a non-reader how do you cope reading your own writing which I believe is the most difficult reading you’ll ever do. Especially over a prolonged period i.e. the rest of your writing life!
    Anyway on a much brighter note Natasha, hope you have a terrific twelve weeks teaching Creative non fiction!
    And ditto love Joan Didion too, one of my favourite essays is JOHN WAYNE: A LOVE SONG from Slouching towards Bethlehem.

    • Hi Marlish – yes I’ve never been able to understand non-readers who want to be writers. I can’t imagine why anyone who doesn’t read would be interested in writing – as you say, surely the love of reading comes first and leads on to a love of writing.

  2. I was excited to read that you were tutoring Creative Nonfiction this year – it seemed almost unbelievable that someone I read in the virtual world could potentially exist in my real world. Alas, I am in the Wednesday class as it fits better with daycare and Kindy pickups. On a different note, I love reading WhileTheKidsAreSleeping. It is full of ah-ha moments – when I read a post and think ‘ah ha, I can relate to that.’

    • Thanks for your feedback Shannon – it’s so nice to hear that someone actually reads and enjoys my blog! I hope you enjoy your semester of Creative Non-Fiction and maybe our paths will cross next semester.

  3. Pingback: Writers Ask Writers: What Books Changed You? | While the kids are sleeping

  4. Pingback: Writers Ask Writers: Which writer would you choose to be for a day? | While the kids are sleeping

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