Didion Speaks: “It took me a long time to realize I was trying to come to terms with my failure to understand”

The reports are in on Joan Didion’s reading in Cleveland:

Writer Joan Didion, whose spare, piercing sensibility has colored American culture for 40 years, talked about her craft Tuesday evening at the Ohio Theatre in Cleveland.

At age 74, Didion’s fierceness in print contrasts with her fragility in person; she stumbled as she stepped up to the Cleveland stage.

“No matter how many times somebody says watch the step, I still trip,” she said without preamble, her voice deeper than expected, carrying a faint flatness that she has attributed to a girlhood in California.

Her fiction, she said, flowed invariably from her nonfiction reporting, and she compared journalism to sculpting a material already there while writing a novel was more akin to attempting a watercolor. She dismissed Wallace Stegner’s work as too polite and “Orlando,” by Virginia Woolf as “irritating.”

The daughter of a librarian and a financial officer who loved playing craps said her parents gave her free rein as a child in the Sacramento library, but “I wasn’t allowed to listen to the radio because there were scary things on it.”

She had wanted to be an oceanographer — “I was interested in how deep things were; as a child, that was always my question: ‘How deep is it?’¤ ” –and much of her work has pivoted around tensions of what was disclosed and hidden.

“It took me a long time to realize I was trying to come to terms with my failure to understand,” she said. “There was a lot I didn’t get.”

Famously immune to political fads and Hollywood power, Didion wrote essays about the cultural upheaval collected into “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” and “The White Album,” and a novel, “Play It As It Lays,” that host Charles Michener described as “the most shocking Hollywood novel since ‘The Day of the Locust.’ “

Didion, who sat very still, wearing a long lavender scarf, white top and dark slacks, said once she grasped the freeway metaphor in “Play It As It Lays,” the novel unlocked itself for her.

Freeways have long been an obsession of Didion’s. “It’s a novel about driving all day and going nowhere, about speed as an aesthetic experience. I saw that I could have very short chapters and very short sentences.”

When Michener asked her for comment on the presidency of Barack Obama, Didion said, “I’m sick of domestic politics. I couldn’t share in the narrative that this was a different election. The process was pretty much the same.”

Many of the audience questions went to “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Didion’s 2005 memoir of grief over the abrupt death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, as it entwined with the grave illness of their daughter.

“I decided the only way to structure it was to replicate the experience,” Didion said. “With grief, you go over it and over it and over it again — it’s a trauma that you relive every time you go over it, seeing it from a slightly different angle. That’s what one does with grief. You can’t let it go.”

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