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Reading Joan Didion

11/11/2013 10:46 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Governor of California, Jerry Brown, looked uncomfortable at the head table in the Beverly Hills Hotel ballroom where we had come to celebrate Joan Didion's PEN Lifetime Achievement Award. He struggled for the words; "I'm so sorry to have to tell you," he said, "Joan Didion will not be with us tonight."

Only Joan Didion can find the right rhythm to tell us what we do not want to hear. Only Joan Didion can do this with the spare reach of meaning learned in her land. She never whines as she tells us how pain feels.

We had not expected Joan Didion to speak long or get all radiant over our admiration, our affection, our honor. Joan has the integrity of the authentic writer. Solitude is the ignition key and the requirement.

The room went silent. Then came frowns, turns of heads, questioning eyebrows, fingertips to lips. Abashed was the name of the evening. Yes, we were there to see the new writers get their PEN awards, see them standing here, ordained writers.

We were shown a brief video clip from a documentary. There was a glimpse of Joan's eyes in the video - California eyes, wide, wary and wry as the land itself. That's how she'd looked as a kid, born with a memory devout to delivering truth, whether you're going to like it or not.

Jerry Brown, a hometown kid, the ideal one to tell us Joan wouldn't be here; ordained Governor now, he knows California's true governor is the land, coastline hanging tough, reckless roadways luring collision.

And the light. Always the light.

We listened to the new writers; all appreciating the attention. And caught up in the moment of their glory.

It's only a long time later in life when you feel safe enough in your own voice that you can talk about the writers you lived to read, the writers who fueled your pen, sharpened your pencil, and charged up the iPad.

Joan Didion has spent a large part of her life in New York, which she writes about with sharp authority, with the astringent voice treasured by the New Yorker. But to California writers and readers, she seems to be our writer. And this chance to see her, as PEN wisely knew, was the one draw which might pull us out of our haggard economic slump, our despair over the elephant in the room (not invited) - the collapse of publishing as many of us knew it. We are expecting horses and carriages and there are only small cars. Joan was the first writer I read who wrote with the voice of the land she came from, not with the voice of a gender or a time.

"Not much about California, on its own preferred terms, has encouraged its children to see themselves as connected to one another. The separation, of north from south - and even more acutely of west from east, of the urban coast from the agricultural valleys and of both the coast and the valleys from the mountain and desert regions to their east - was profound, fueled by the rancor of water wars and by less tangible but even more rancorous differences in attitude and culture."

This is from my favorite book of Joan's, a collection called Where I Was From. Here she introduces us to the specific isolation of the California working world (which doesn't always work). She speaks with affection of the train from L.A. to San Francisco (always late). I remember taking that train just for the ride you want as a writer; to have essential mulling and brooding time. The California world is Joan Didion's laconic icon, a presence memorable as any fictional character.

I'd published my first book in 1963; which was not the tough raw Norman Mailer book I'd longed to be able to write. You needed to be in New York. Or to be a man, ravenous with urgency, fierce experience. You'd put that on the page. I'd seen some of that, but how to express it. Then, in 1968 I read Slouching Towards Bethlehem and I began to imagine there might be a way to write about the actual world around me. Joan and her husband John Dunne and I were at some of the same places. I'd met John years earlier, and his brother Dominick Dunne and his wife Lenny came to screenings at my parent's house. They represented a level of sly perception you only got from having time back east in Manhattan. Each sentence they spoke arrived direct, and succinct. But they spent enough time here to avoid being aloof, to regard L.A. with a native's casual dismay. Hard to pull off.

I learned the distinction reading Joan. Her comments glide in place as before a camera; a long shot capturing an exchange you had not caught. And the ardent slice of climate which awards isolation with steady light for reflection. Joan's sensibility seemed made in Manhattan, but bathed in Northern California clarity. There is the solemn arch of eloquence the lower half of the state cannot achieve.

"...the life I was raised to admire was entirely the product of this isolation, infinitely romantic, but in a kind of vacuum, its only antecedent aesthetic, and the aesthetic only the determined "Bohemianism" of nineteenth-century San Francisco. The clothes chosen for me as a child had a strong element of the Pre-Raphaelite, muted greens and ivories, dusty rose, what seems in retrospect an eccentric amount of black. I still have the black mantilla I was given to wear over my shoulders when I started to go to dances, not the kind of handkerchief triangle Catholic woman used to keep in their pockets and glove compartments but several yards of heavy black lace. It had been my great-grandmother's, I have no idea why, since this particular great-grandmother was from Oregon, with no reason to have bought into a romance-of-the-ranchos scenario."

Whenever I look over Where I Was From I find new pieces to replay; notes to take, and, as with other choice books you go over, I learn more about myself each time.

Growing up in L.A., adoring the poinsettia fields, live oaks set in open fields; I wondered what trees my grandmother might have climbed, and what she saw from her favorite perch. You want to feel your roots. Joan Didion shows me how you do feel that, and how to cherish land's impact on a writer's life.

"Eccentric amount of black..." I can feel the elegant weight of the Mantilla lace her great grandmother wore. Joan Didion preserves the legacy of women like Narcissa Whitman, the pioneer who held the reins, leading the survivors in a wagon train west when her husband was killed. Joan gives us a recipe for what you ate on the trail, the suet pudding that was part of the Old West we pretended to belong to during the Second World War, when friends and I roamed the ivy-covered hills, through unfenced gardens, pools and patios of Brentwood, wild and open as it was then.

When I came home from that PEN dinner, I reread Knopf's 2003 Edition of Where I Was From. Each time I learn something new about where Joan Didion was from, and something new about the way to place a word or a sentence and why her writing takes my breath away.

Then I pick up my pen and try to find a new way into what I'm writing. A great writer challenges me to write strong, sharp and clear. Reading Joan Didion does that.

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