Sadly, I’ve never read a book by Joan Didion. She’s arguably one of the best known and much heralded novelists of our time. I own at least two of her books and I’ve thought about reading them several times, especially The Year of Magical Thinking. She’s also a transplanted New Yorker who loves New York, perhaps even more than I do, which automatically gives her a plus sign in my book of people I like and dislike. Yes, I have a book. Don’t you?
One of the reasons I haven’t read Ms. Didion’s work is because she is a dense writer. I sense that you really have to think when you read her novels; not altogether happy thoughts I might add. And despite the amount of time I spend on Facebook lately or ambling through the internet for news and random information I’m actually not a person who has a great deal of discretionary time on my hands.
I know that I’ll eventually read and enjoy one or several of Ms. Didion’s books, the same way I know much of what I’ve surmised about her. I’ve read many, many quotes from her books repeatedly. In a few short sentences Ms. Didion can send me off into tangents that are difficult to come back from without breadcrumbs.
I’ll give you an example of one quote that’s been running around in my head in relation to the question I’ve posed: Writer = God or Vessel? Here’s the quote from Joan Didion’s book The White Album:
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accidie, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be ‘interesting’ to know which. We tell ourselves that it makes some difference whether the naked woman is about to commit a mortal sin or is about to register a political protest or is about to be, the Aristophanic view, snatched back to the human condition by the fireman in priest’s clothing just visible in the window behind her, the one smiling at the telephoto lens. We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria — which is our actual experience.”
Accidie is a great word, isn’t it? I thought it was a typo the first time I read it so I looked it up. It means sloth or slothfulness. Imagine it. The naked woman on the ledge of the sixteenth floor is actually a victim of slothfulness? That Ms. Didion may be intense but she’s also very witty.
The part of the quote that stands out for me though is where she suggests that if you are a writer you live by “the imposition of the narrative line.” In other words we writers are burdened with accounting for what we create from the pictures that plague us and our mind’s eye. I’ve heard that burden described in very different ways by so many writers. For me it often begins with an almost fugue state that can instantly shift to become a moment of rare clarity where the story and the sermon are one and it magically has a beginning, middle, and end – not to mention a fine cast of fully clothed characters.
I recently suggested to an author friend of mine that was lamenting a kind of block she was dealing with to remember that she was the vessel. It seems like a flippant remark to me now but at the time it was meaningful for me because that is exactly how I felt while I wrote a story recently. It was as if I was merely the conduit by which these incessant characters and the story itself lived.
When I proudly mentioned my fluffy description of a writer as vessel to my favorite copyeditor, he scoffed at me. It’s one of the reasons he’s my favorite copyeditor actually, he scoffs well. “You’re God,” he said adamantly, “you can give your character spina bifida, change his skin color, throw him off a building and resurrect him from the dead. You are God.” That last time he called me God he said it with a cocked eyebrow and a look that suggested God must be an idiot.
And surprisingly I guess I was a bit idiotic because I had absolutely never thought of being a writer in that way before. I guess I preferred the idea of being “touched by an angel” rather than being George Burns — or in my case Morgan Freeman. Whichever, I still have a lot to deal with, from “disparate images” and “the shifting phantasmagoria” alone. They aren’t going away either. As a writer and aspiring author I do count myself lucky for that.
But I am curious to hear what you think. Is the writer God or vessel? Or is the writer some unrelenting amalgamation of the two? You won’t be surprised to hear that I think I already know what Joan Didion would say.