An Evening with Joan Didion

Joan Didion is my favorite author. The first book of hers I read was The Year of Magical Thinking. I literally devoured it. I was so enjoying every page, I found myself skimming, reading fast, aching to learn what happened next. After the first reading, I was spent. It was so raw, so real, I had to rest before picking it up a second time and reading it slowly, enjoying the language, appreciating the grammar. Everything that a slow read allows you to enjoy.

It’s a recount of her life the first year after her husband, Gregory Dunne, died.  And it’s still my favorite book. It’s a real account of marriage, loving someone, and the joys and pains that comes with that love. It’s a book about the grieving process, and struggling to survive after losing someone. It’s a book that I pick up over and over again because reading it makes me feel alive.

I was hesitant to read other books of hers. I’ve had experiences where I love a book an author has written and go into a phase where I read as many pieces of literature that they’ve written. And I’ve been disappointed. Tremendously disappointed. Nothing lives up to that first great book. I was hesitant to read other works Ms. Didion wrote. A friend lent me A Book of Common Prayer and I seriously debated whether to read it or not. I did, and I was flooded with the same reverence for the incredible writing that I had when reading The Year of Magical Thinking.

And I’ve read more. Each time I see one of her books at a friend’s house I ask to borrow it. I read it, then buy the book for myself.

Five months ago, a dear friend asked me to reserve Nov 15 on my calendar. I couldn’t imagine what we would be doing. We never make plans five months in advance. Then she told me. Joan Didion was speaking in San Francisco and she bought us tickets. I don’t think I’ve ever received such a thoughtful gift. I marked my calendar and waited.

Part of me feared that something would happen to mar the evening. Speakers cancel engagements all the time. Joan Didion is mature. What if something happened to her? I pushed the evening to the back of my mind. I wouldn’t allow myself to get excited for fear of disappointment.

And then the date was here. I was giddy. I really was going to see Joan Didion. I was going to hear the voice behind my favorite works of art. What would she be like? Would I love her as much in person as in writing?

Yes, I would.

I did.

I hung on to every word of the conversation between her and the interviewer. Many of the stories were from books she had written, so I knew the ending. But to hear her tell the story. To hear her, in her frail voice, pausing between words, sometimes stuttering, to hear her tell her story – was a gift beyond my expectations.

She told of growing up in the Sacramento valley. Of going to school in Berkeley. Of learning to use a computer, learning DOS, and marveling at how logical DOS was compared to her life. Of entering an essay contest, the prize of which was a job at Vogue. Of winning that contest and working at Vogue. Of the personnel manager at Vogue who used to set up a table outside of her office in the morning with small cups filled with barbiturates for the ladies of the office. Of buying her first computer, with a Windows operating system, what she named a Fake Apple. Of arriving at the Royal Hawaiian hotel and having them set up a computer and printer for her and magical days of writing with her husband Gregory Dunne while the tropical rains fell outside the window.

And then the conversation was over. I was happy. I was the complete opposite of disappointed. I was thrilled I had the opportunity to hear her in person.

And then they announced she would be signing books in the lobby. I was shocked. I had assumed she would be tired. The line was long. I looked at Emily. Was she willing to wait in line? (I had brought my copy of The Year of Magical Thinking, just in case.) She was.

We waited in the line that wrapped through the building, and it moved quickly. Before I knew it, I was there, in front of Ms. Didion. She had my books with a post it of my name. She looked at me and smiled. I stammered. “I, I, I, you were awesome tonight. I loved hearing you. You’re one of… no, no, you ARE my favorite author.” My hands were shaking as I said this. I felt like a 12-year old girl, not sure what to say to the boy she has a crush on. She looked at me again. “Thanks,” she said drily as she handed me my books. Lesson learned. Practice what you’re going to say to famous people before you actually meet them. Or, just enjoy the moment.

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2 thoughts on “An Evening with Joan Didion

  1. Oh, Lori. I love reading this post. It makes me feel like I was there with you listening to Ms. Didion. It sounds like it was an amazing experience.

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