Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Day of Magical Thinking

Just before 10 p.m. this evening, I walked down Van Ness feeling as though my heart wanted to explode with elation. Just moments before, I interacted with a writer I had loved since high school: Joan Didion. I read Play it as it Lays because it had appeared on a list of required reading they gave to students who thought they might want to go to college one day. Not only did I plan on going to college, I was a supreme book nerd from the time I learned to read.
Somehow, something about the story about an actress past her prime, post a divorce, and on the verge of a nervous breakdown resonated with my sixteen-year-old self. I realize now, after rereading the book a couple of years ago, that I completely missed numerous adult themes, but I was nonetheless enamored by Didion's writing. Later, in college, I read Slouching Toward Bethlehem for a literature class devoted to texts about California. Around that time, I began counting Didion as one of top five favorite writers (I made a lot of "top five" lists). The other four were Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Richard Rodriguez and Sandra Cisneros. I can say now, with a great deal of satisfaction, that of those five, I have had the pleasure of meeting the three that are alive. Hemingway and Steinbeck, I will only know through their words. I am a blessed person!
Back to this magical day. While getting ready for work, I heard a preview of an interview Joan Didion would be doing on Forum, a local discussion program. I knew I would be off to work by the time the interview started, but I figured, happily, that I would download the podcast later. Sometime after lunch, it dawned on me that if Joan Didion was doing a live interview in San Francisco to promote her new book, she must also be making book signing or reading appearances. After a quick Google search, I learned that she would be doing an interview as part of City Arts & Lectures this very evening. I poked around for tickets and found that there was only one seat left, and it was in the front row. I hesistated for several minutes, asked two writer friends via text message if I should go, and then took the plunge and confirmed my purchase. Before I even clicked the final yes, one web site announced the show sold out.
I ended up meeting with said writer friends after work to do some writing and give one friend feedback on a piece. I left early so I could make it to the event on time. I felt a tinge of buyer's remorse at having paid $30 for program that would be broadcast for free on NPR in January. I'm supposed to be watching my spending, afterall. But as my friend Lisa has said, I'd be an idiot to not go see someone I considered an idol. After I arrived and picked up my ticket, I approached the bookselling table and dropped another $28 on a hardback copy of Blue Nights, which also felt like an extravagant move. I had resisted the urge for days to walk into a bookstore and buy it because I wanted to get rid of some books before acquiring more. And, I would have bought more Didion volumes tonight if I had any less self-control. Whatever, the bookseller, Books Inc., is a local, independent shop, so it's money well-spent. Not to mention, it's on Joan Didion!
The interview with Vendela Vida was moving in a pure and honest way. It's hard to explain, just like Didion's writing style. I found Didion to be unadulterated, straight-forward and humble. Humility is a virtue I admire profoundly because I think it's difficult to achieve and reminds me of my father. A humble person never stops forging ahead with complete abandon and lack of pretension. Didion struck as me as this and it was quite refreshing, especially in a world in which writers are expected to market themselves and are advised to have winning personalities if they expect to sell a single book. Didion is who she is and it's worked for her ... for decades. Amazing.
I won't recap the entire interview, but I was pleased when Vida asked Didion if writing for publications can help writers implement deadlines and Didion answered, yes, because a deadline "forces you into addressing the situation. It's all too easy not address a book." Story of my life!
After the talk, I and probably a few hundred other people lined up to have our books signed. I waited perhaps half an hour for my turn during which time I wrote tweets and Facebook updates and read part of Blue Nights. As I neared closer to the book-signing table, I felt a raw excitement brewing in my belly. I had heard Didion has a cold and dismissive personality, but I was determined to ask her a question. I am a journalist afterall; asking questions is second nature!
When I finally approached, she didn't greet me or look me in the eye as she flipped to the title page and read my first name written on a post-it. I said, "Ms. Didion, do you like reporting as much as you like writing?"
"No, not at all."
"So, how do you reconcile that?"
At this point, she straightened her neck and made eye contact with me.
"Well, I like doing research. I just don't like talking to people."
"Well, thank you," I said as she handed me the book. "You've been an inspiration."
I'm not sure if she heard my last remark, but...
Joan Didion looked at me! She answered my question! She hates talking to people!
This is when my heart began feeling engorged with emotion like it could easily burst through my chest cavity.
I felt a mix of sheer happiness, motivation to write my ass off and gratitude for such a magical experience. Joan Didion is magical and I glimpsed it a first-hand.
What a night. And to think, I hesitated on spending $30 for an evening with someone I have admired for so many years. I've spent more on crappy cocktails!
I remember seeing a photograph of Didion in which she wore a pair of oversized, dark sunglasses and had dark, voluminous wavy hair. Her look resembled that of Jackie O., but Didion was stripped of the glamour and sexuality. Didion looked to me like someone with plenty of personal style, but no nonsense. She looked deep like her intellect spanned thousands of miles beneath the surface. I wanted to be just like her.
When I saw her in person, from my front row seat, she has aged, obviously. Her hair has lost its coloring. Her skin bears many wrinkles. She is just as rail thin as ever, but now she looks frail like she should be hooked to an IV at all times. Still, when we locked eyes, I noticed they are a deep brown, shiny and bright like a child's, ready to take in the entire world and more.

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