Books

The Stealing Never Stops

Ten Writers Admit to the Things They've Taken from Joan Didion

Ilana Kohn

Joan Didion is my favorite writer. I first read her when I was very young. These are my excuses whenever I realize I've robbed her—taken her idea, her phrase, her sentence, and dressed it up in different clothes to make it mine. I do this a lot. While writing a long essay about Hugo House years ago, I read Didion's essay "Many Mansions" again and again and again, and you can tell. (Her sentence: "'Flow' is a word that crops up quite a bit when one is walking through the place, and so is 'resemble.'" My sentence: "'Therapeutic' is one [word students use to describe Hugo House] and 'healing' is another.") In an article about Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass, I took both my main point and specific phrases from "The White Album." The essays have always affected me more than the novels, and Didion's new book, one long essay called The Year of Magical Thinking, about facing her husband's death, I read in two (awestruck) sittings. On the occasion of Didion coming to town, I've invited other writers to come clean about what they've lifted from her, spit-shined, and slid into their own writing. Writers steal from Didion all the time. —Christopher Frizzelle

I started reading Didion when I was a teenager and I had no idea what, exactly, she was writing about except that it seemed sad and important. I soon began imitating her in my journals. Although I lived in Portland, Oregon, I found myself writing about Los Angeles, about desert highways and a certain anxious, unsettled feeling. I stole structures from her, too, particularly the trick of—

Separating out a line at the end of a paragraph.

So the line seemed really important. EMILY WHITE

It's almost like the rhythm and mood of her early prose has some kind of lenitive effect, a cure for both migraines and despair. I wrote all my papers in college under her spell. I used her vocabulary, I claimed emotions for myself that really belonged to her. She was our Hemingway, or something. I even have old vocabulary lists typed out on the back of scrap paper—some textbook manuscript of my father's is on the other side—and can go through the list and pick the words I raked out of her prose. I'm sure if I dug up an old college paper I would find some juicy plagiarism. CHARLES D'AMBROSIO

I'm not good enough to pass off anything stolen from Joan Didion as my own, so I've never even tried, but I do read two of her essays, "Goodbye to All That" and "On Keeping a Notebook," every six to eight weeks or so. I keep a copy of both, stapled and stowed in my back pocket. When the weeks of walking and sitting take their toll, the paper sueded in its softness, the grid of folds overtaking the text, I just print out new copies and start all over again.

They just don't get used up for me. Every time I read these essays, it's as if I have never seen them before. This is not because I don't have a good memory. I have memorized seemingly entire movies after one viewing. So why should it be that both essays are full of passages that I come upon with utter surprise? Every single time. They remain the roller-coaster rides they were when I first read them. Only now it is a journey of a more stomach-churning variety because it hadn't yet occurred to me at age 17 when I first encountered them to think, God I wish I'd written that. And that. And that. When I get to the end of "On Keeping a Notebook"—I always read the two essays one after the other, thanks to that staple—I still utter a whispered and chastened "Wow." DAVID RAKOFF

My hairdo is stolen from Slouching Towards Bethlehem–era Didion. MATTHEW STADLER

What I steal all the time are her conjunctions. The music that gets shaped by her "and"s that can lift her nerveless tone into some epic-Biblical-seepage-across-the-land place. "I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell the lilac and garbage and expensive perfume and I knew that it would cost something sooner or later...." I've stolen that over and over. LYALL BUSH

I never lifted any of Joan Didion's lines; it was her voice, entire, I wanted. That voice always seemed to be suffering from an endless migraine headache. It wore dark glasses and sipped white wine. It was civilized, scientific. It had abandoned sentimentality at the sight of some gruesome California car wreck. I could copy technical elements of Didion's voice—the details, the declarative sentences—but I couldn't sustain her reptilian calm. I flinch. I'm skittish. Twenty minutes before my father died I had an urge to buy dishwashing liquid and would have gone to the store if the hospice nurse hadn't said, "Sit down." TRISHA READY

After reading The White Album I stopped using contractions for a while. NATE LIPPENS

As a teenager, I stole from poets. I started writing nonfiction in my 20s, and it was about this time that I fell hard for Didion. The case isn't exactly plagiarism—more like creative embezzlement. Didion's voice is never fully absent from my work, cutting through passages I've sworn were all mine. Here is a sentence at the end of a piece I wrote on Moscow: "At that point it was already hard to determine how long it had been since the plane had landed, what was new Russian and what was old Soviet, difficult to separate the monumental buildings from the overcast skyline and the feeling of hangover from jet lag." Sound familiar, the uneasy impressions in a convoluted scenario? In The Year of Magical Thinking, I liked her image of peacocks crying at dawn in peach trees so much I convinced myself for about 10 minutes that I could work the image into my own novel. It occurs to me now that "working in" an image is something Didion would write. CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN

When I first appropriated Didion's writerly tics—her "as it happens," her "may or may not have been," her cadences, her incantatory style—I did so in order to confer on my writing an aura of both knowing and wariness, the intimation that the writer holds, to some degree, the truth, but may or may not be willing (you see how this works) to divulge it. I'm sure I was thinking of her when I wrote, in a 2002 art review, "I wasn't holding up my end of the conversation. I couldn't see the figure in the carpet. My human spirit was failing to triumph." It has her air of disavowed authority and ambivalent generalization, as well as the cliché, the cant, the piety, taken from its comfortable position on the sofa and forced to do harder work—that is pure Didion.

In any case, it is all posturing. To adopt the decorative parts of her writing without the substance—looking beyond the seductive narrative to the unlovely real story—is, as Didion herself would certainly say, to miss the point entirely. EMILY HALL

Joan Didion reads from and talks about The Year of Magical Thinking on Wed Nov 9 at the Central Library (1000 Fourth Ave, 386-4636) at 7 pm, and it's free.

 

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