LIDIA: Why Joan Didion? why do you want to swim around inside her texts with other people?
LIZ: As someone who was raised in Colorado and lives in Oregon, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering what it means to be a writer of and from the American West. There’s something about the wildness, the open spaces, about being at the edge of exploration that shapes our vision—the stories we tell and the way we tell them. Didion is such a prominent writer of the West, so I first started reading and studying her from that perspective.
The snow still falls in the Sierras, she wrote.The Pacific still trembles in its bowl. The great tectonic plates strain against each other while we sleep and wake. Rattlers in the dry grass. Sharks beneath the Golden Gate.
This is life in the West. Beyond the Hearsts and Charles Manson and the Tate murders and the Doors. Beyond lunch at the Fairmont or parties at Chateau Marmont or eating breakfast on the lanai at the Royal Hawaiian. There are sharks guarding the passage from west to even farther west. There is the constant knowledge that “The Big One” is only a shake, a rattle, a roll away. We tremble, we sleep, we wake.
I also think we take certain writers for granted, especially ones who have become part of the mainstream canon. Contemporary readers forget that Didion was the first woman to write in the style of the “New Journalism,” which allowed the writer to insert themselves into their exploration of another subject. In the 20th century, detractors called her work solipsistic. Nowadays, those same essays are criticized for Didion not being generous enough, not putting herself in the work enough. These criticisms bring up so many questions for me, not the least of which is how many male essayists have been assessed in the same way?
LIDIA: What interests you about reading collaboratively?
LIZ:We all read and see something different in texts. Just because the words themselves are fixed on a page doesn’t mean the ideas are. I have my own thoughts and ideas—and many questions—based on close readings of Didion’s essays on the west. My desire to read and discuss collaboratively isn’t just about wanting to share my thoughts with others, or impart some divine knowledge, as much about wanting to grow my own understandings. About wanting to explore with other people who are engaged. I can’t promise that we’ll find definite answers, but we can allow space for questions that are both bigger, and perhaps more nuanced that we’ve individually considered.
LIDIA: What's the relationship between reading and being a writer?
LIZ: Engaging with any art form creates an opening that allows our own creative ideas to unfurl. It’s also important to understand what and who came before us. We may not always agree with what Didion wrote about or the way she wrote it, but she is an elder, a kupuna, as the people of Hawai‘i would say. Kupuna hold not just experience and the wisdom that comes with it, but also doubt, regret, inspiration, and knowledge of the space between life and death. That’s Didion.
She wrote declarative sentences, but ultimately asked more questions than she provided answers. I could spend hours marveling over and deconstructing certain Didion sentences, asking whythat word, howdid she do that, wheredid the sentence start and where did it end. That’s the writerly exploration. The human exploration—and conversation—of Didion is in the constant strain of the tectonic plates. It’s in the snakes and the sharks and death and the land. It is who we are out here, living on the edge of the American dream.
Liz will be leading a four-part Joan Didion reading group in February, Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream: A Reading Group of Joan Didion’s Essays on the American West February 5, 12, 19, & 26th at the Corporeal Center in downtown Portland. Workshop meets from 6:30-8:30pm and costs $115.