Welcome back to this month’s Writers Ask Writers post, where I team up with six other writers to answer a writing-related question. This time, we’re changing lives for a day. And Kirsten Krauth, whose latest novel just_a_girl has been described as “a little bit brilliant” is joining us, so please make sure you take a look at her wonderful blog, which is full of terrific articles about books and writing.
What a tantalising prospect—choose one writer, either living or dead, to be for a day. After all, as writers, we spend most of our days living inside the life of someone else so this should be easy. Wrong! When it came to the practicalities of choosing, I was overwhelmed.
Jane Austen? Fabulous! Except that I’ve visited her home in Chawton and it’s not so fabulous. I’m not sure I’d actually want to live there, with the bossy Cassandra for a sister. Ditto Charlotte Bronte—dark and cold house abutting the bleak moors, which are decidedly more romantic in fiction than reality. Margaret Atwood? I love her writing but does that mean I want to be her? There is nothing about her life particularly that suggests the real world she inhabits, as opposed to the fictional one, is all that exciting.
Which brings me to Joan Didion. I confess that when I was at university I did want to be Joan, which seems almost heartless to say in the face of the devastating loss of both her husband and daughter within 18 months of each other, several years ago. But my wish to be Joan dates from before those tragedies had occurred.
I first discovered Joan Didion from reading several of her essays, On Keeping a Notebook, On Going Home etc, which were set as texts for a creative writing course I was undertaking. I devoured those essays and sought out more, convinced that Joan Didion in the 1960s and 70s writing articles and essays about whatever she fancied had, quite possibly, one of the best jobs in the world.
She tore apart the myth of the Haight-Ashbury hippy by going to San Francisco to see for herself why “we had aborted ourselves and butchered the job”; she dashed off to Hawaii in lieu of getting a divorce; she wrote about the glittering christmas trees and new dresses that were part of the reason why she fell in love with New York while working for Vogue magazine, a job she won with an essay she submitted during her final year in college; she was married barefoot on a beach. These are all things the more conservative me would probably never do. But more than that, more than the fact she lived a life I never would, she made meaning out of her life. She wrote about unique experiences in a way that made them seem commonplace and connective. She wrote, as she said in her famous essay, Why I Write, to find out “what is going on in these pictures in my mind.”
So I would be Joan Didion, in the 1960s, writing perfect sentence after perfect sentence, in love with her husband and child, not knowing of or imagining either of their deaths, and also never dreaming of the fact that sixty years later, a girl in Australia would still be so inspired by everything she wrote.
Sara Foster, on the other hand, would practice wizardry. Annabel Smith would look divine in her smoking jacket, which Dawn Barker would quite like to fight her for but instead she decided on something a little more monstrous. Emma Chapman won’t be sitting on the patio with a bottle of whiskey when she swaps lives, which is probably sensible, and Amanda Curtin will be embarking on a journey into fearlessness. And our special guest, Kirsten Krauth? Well, hers is just a little bit special and a little bit hard to summarise, so you’ll just have to click here to see what I mean.
And who would you choose to swap lives with, if you could? Do any of our choices resonate with you?