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June 18 2013


“Why’s this so good?” No. 79: Joan Didion, Hemingway, and mathematically musical writing

Joan Didion finds herself counting syllables.

If this is part of her brilliance, and it is, it’s largely because of who she is as an observer; meticulous but detached, intimate yet removed. These paradoxes are how she draws you in.

Adrienne LaFrance

Adrienne LaFrance

The penchant for counting reveals what may seem like another paradox, but is actually the lifting of a veil: Didion shows that her language is musical but also mathematical, that she engineers her writing to sing.

In her most recent book, Blue Nights, she describes the song of her prose as inextricable from its mechanics:

In fact, in any real sense, what I was doing then was never writing at all: I was doing no more than sketching in a rhythm and letting that rhythm tell me what it was I was saying. Many of the marks I set down on the page were no more than ‘xxx,’ or ‘xxxx,’ symbols that meant ‘copy tk,’ or ‘copy to come,’ but do notice: such symbols were arranged in specific groupings. A single ‘x’ differed from a double ‘xx,’ ‘xxx’ from ‘xxxx.’ The number of such symbols had a meaning. The arrangement was the meaning.

But long before Blue Nights, Didion was counting syllables in a New Yorker piece about how much control a writer has over his or her life’s work. The November 1998 essay, “Last Words: Those Hemingway wrote, and those he didn’t,” is vintage Didion; penetrating, deliberate down to the last comma, streaked with cynicism and flashes of earnestness — all qualities that echo Hemingway himself. The piece is so meta that it tugs the reader to the edge of the uncanny.

Didion writes about Hemingway but she is also writing about writing, and in turn writing about herself. In essence, this is three stories in one.

She sashays between the technical and lyrical. (The piece begins with her counting the syllables in Hemingway’s poetic first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms. This pragmatism gives way to her own fluid and descriptive style.) At first she appears to seesaw from writing to writing about writing. But by the end of the piece it’s clear that she’s been doing both, concurrently, throughout.

The structural latticework of the essay both lays out Hemingway’s style and adopts aspects of it to drive the piece forward. For example, she writes about Hemingway’s omissions as narrative choices, and then uses omissions just as he did.

First she’s examining “four deceptively simple sentences, one hundred and twenty-six words,” obsessing over Hemingway’s repetition of “the” and of “and” and about the rhythm he established by leaving out another “the” in his fourth sentence. (The power of such an absence, she says, is in the chill it casts. It’s a warning, a premonition, a “foreshadowing of the story to come, the awareness that the author has already shifted his attention from late summer to a darker season.”)

Then she’s describing the snapshots in our “national memory stream” of Hemingway’s life — “the celebrated author fencing with the bulls at Pamplona, fishing for Marlin off Havana, boxing at Bimini, crossing the Ebro with Spanish loyalists, kneeling beside ‘his’ lion or ‘his’ buffalo or ‘his’ oryx on the Serengeti Plain.”

Implicit in this string of collective memories is the question of omission — what have we left out?

The close reader will notice that this question is itself the device she’s described, a foreshadowing of the story to come. Didion next goes on to describe in arresting detail Hemingway’s 1961 suicide: the double-barreled Boss shotgun he emptied into the center of his forehead, how he became a “crumpled heap of bathrobe and blood, the shotgun lying in the disintegrated flesh.”

For the rest of the piece, Didion brings Hemingway back to life, lacing her descriptions of him with hints of who she is.

Consider how she casts his way of “moving through but not attaching, a kind of romantic individualism,” his writing as dictating “a certain way of looking at the world, a way of looking but not joining, a way of moving through but not attaching.”

Didion also writes of Hemingway as “a man to whom words mattered,” that “he got inside them.”

Hemingway, too, had a tendency to count. Didion presents this excerpt from a letter Hemingway wrote to his publisher in early 1961:

Have material arranged as chapters—they come to 18—and am working on the last one—No 19—also working on title. This is very difficult. (Have my usual long list—something wrong with all of them but am working toward it—Paris has been used so often it blights anything.) In pages typed they run 7, 14, 5, 6, 9 1/2, 6, 11, 9, 8, 9, 4 1/2, 3, 1/2, 8, 10 1/2, 14 1/2, 38 1/2, 10, 3, 3: 177 pages + 5 1/2 pages + 1 1/4 pages.”

Didion says she finds the excerpt alarming, though she never explicitly says why. Is she disquieted because his counting is impossible to understand? Or is it because Hemingway died before he finished the project he’s describing?

The project would be published posthumously as A Moveable Feast. But, as Didion points out, Hemingway never called it that. To him, it was just “the Paris stuff.” He never settled on a title. This paradox — what the writer called his work and what someone else called it for him — is ultimately an exploration of the writer’s solitude. The idea is that a writer’s intentions exist in one universe and everyone else’s expectations about the writer’s work exist in another. The only overlap is in the writing itself, an endeavor that Didion presents as potentially deadly in and of itself.

“The peculiarity of being a writer,” Didion says, “is that the entire enterprise involves the mortal humiliation of seeing one’s own words in print.” (Just by making this statement Didion clearly inserts herself, the writer, into the story.)

Yet even worse than publication, she says, is the risk that something unfinished will be published.

The manuscript that became True at First Light, was some 850 pages long when Hemingway died. That this sprawling “African novel,” as Hemingway called it, would be “reduced by half by someone other than their author” meant that the story “could go nowhere the author intended them to go,” Didion says.

She sees this publication as a fundamental “denial of the idea that the role of the writer in his or her work is to make it.” A writer’s notes, she declares, are “words set down but not yet written.” But by referencing a writer’s unfinished notes in her final published piece, Didion raises the question of her own process. This suggests yet another omission: The process behind her story that the reader will never see.

Didion, not surprisingly, comes across as empathetic to the writer’s need to have authority over his words, and his need to sort things out on his own. Hemingway once wrote to his attorney that he had “a diamond mine if people will let me alone and let me dig the stones out of the blue mud and then cut and polish them.” Hemingway’s mine was deep, heavy and full. Yet for all of that darkness and weight, his writing — and Didion’s, and Didion’s writing about Hemingway’s writing — rings with clarity. (Hemingway’s reference to his “diamond mine” calls to mind something Boris Kachka, the New York magazine writer, once wrote about Didion. Kachka said reading her work is “like tiptoeing across a just-frozen pond filled with beautiful sharks. You look down and pray the ice will hold.”)

At the crescendo of Didion’s piece, as she describes what we know as True at First Light, there are moments that read as though she is talking about Hemingway and herself at the same time, about her relationship with him as a writer from the time when she was a little girl clacking out his words on her typewriter just to see how it would feel to write like he did. She’s writing about Hemingway, writing about writing, writing about herself:

There are arresting glimpses here and there, fragments shored against what the writer must have seen as his ruin, and a sympathetic reader might well believe it possible that had the writer lived (which is to say had the writer found the will and energy and memory and concentration) he might have shaped the material, written it into being, made it work as the story the glimpses suggest, that a man returning to a place he loved and finding himself at three in the morning confronting the knowledge that he is no longer the person who loved it and will never now be the person he had meant to be.

And then, another layer emerges, as Didion acknowledges that Hemingway had written this very idea into being, through the writer character in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

Didion quotes Hemingway: ”Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well.” She goes on: “And then, this afterthought, the saddest story: ‘Well, he would not have to fail at trying to write them either.’” Such fear of failure must feel even more visceral for a writer like Didion, who has said that novels are “about things you’re afraid you can’t deal with.”

The afterthought from Hemingway’s “Snows” character becomes the bookend that mirrors the beginning of Didion’s piece, the counting of syllables in the first 126 words of A Farewell to Arms.

“Only one of the words has three syllables,” she had written. “Twenty-two have two. The other hundred and three have one.”

Though Didion leaves it to the reader to find that solitary three-syllable word or not, it’s no mistake she both singles it out and never identifies it at the same time. The omission is a clue, a chilling premonition:

Three syllables: Afterward.

Adrienne LaFrance (@AdrienneLaF) is a national reporter for Digital First Media’s Project Thunderdome, where she specializes in investigative reporting and breaking news. She was previously a staff reporter at Nieman Journalism Lab. Before that she opened the Washington bureau of Honolulu Civil Beat, where she covered Congress, federal elections and the intersection of money and politics. She has also reported and written for the Washington Post, worked as a news producer at WBUR, Boston’s NPR affiliate, and as a local news anchor for Hawaii’s NPR affiliate.

May 29 2013


Get Pinterested, Storyboard style

Join Nieman Storyboard on Pinterest! We’re expanding our reach via categories on everything from reporting resources to tip sheets. Among our growing number of boards:

Screen Shot 2013-05-29 at 12.09.08 AMNarrative news: Fresh quick reads, pinned daily. Up now: How Twitter is shaping the future of storytelling, via Fast Company.

Nieman store: Links to details about the great and growing number of works published or sold by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, including our popular Telling True Stories anthology and The Future of News as We Know It, by Nieman Journalism Lab, one of our sister publications.

Inspired: Storytelling curios in journalism and beyond. Hemingway’s recommended reading list for young writers; the nine stages of story as told by a vase of flowers; a Dorothy Parker telegram proving all writers suffer; Henry Miller’s writing commandments; Harvard professor Stephen Burt on the intersection between poetry and news (from our sister publication Nieman Reports); former Nieman Fellow Megan O’Grady on the beauty of the counter-narrative.

Interviewland: Q-and-A’s on narrative journalism and more. Conversations, so far, featuring Joan Didion, David Finkel, John McPhee, Hunter S. Thompson, Janet Malcolm, Chris Jones, Joshuah Bearman, and Junot Diaz.

Gear: We’re addicted to great pencils and pens and notebooks and gadgets and organizational ideas — and we like to share. So enjoy that.

Best of Storyboard: Good pieces you might’ve missed, including, for instance, a rollicking storytelling talk with ESPN The Magazine‘s Wright Thompson, and seven storytelling tips from Nora Ephron.

Wish list: We’re hoping someone writes a great narrative about … at the moment, cicadas.

Also: Reading lists, class props, miscellany, tattoos, and more to come.

Have fun in there.

September 04 2012


“Why’s this so good?” No. 57: Joan Didion on dreamers gone astray

In 1977, Joan Didion told The Paris Review that she always kept in mind one line of poetry, from T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets”: “at the still point of the turning world.” I don’t know if Didion had the still point in mind when she wrote “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” her classic account of adultery and murder in San Bernardino County, published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1966. But another line from Eliot, from the same poem, is almost uncannily prescient when applied to Didion’s narrative: “The Word in the desert / Is most attacked by voices of temptation.”


Your average article on a tabloid-ready murder – “Lust-Mad Wife Wastes Cuckolded Hubby for Cash!” – would begin with the crime: Lucille Miller, born to pious, abstemious parents on the Canadian prairie, renounces her small life for a bigger life and lands in the Southern California valley, and along the way succumbs to the voices of temptation; full of illusions, “in search of something she had seen in a movie or heard on the radio,” she craves love and glamour but winds up yielding to lust and desperation, killing all that had supposedly made her good. “It was implicit in both the defense and the prosecution,” Didion writes, “that Lucille Miller was an erring woman, a woman who perhaps wanted too much.”

But this, of course, is not your average tabloid account. It’s Didion – a native daughter of another California valley, the Sacramento; a writer with an affinity for “dangerous” landscapes, as she told The Paris Review – looking down from on high. So instead of a simple tale of a dotty dame gone bad, we get a narrative that’s not really about Miller at all. It’s not even fundamentally about people. It’s about the perverting power of place. And from the first sentence, Didion pours her energy into the setting:

This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with the country.

It does not begin with love and death because in the golden land, love is fleeting and death almost incidental. The people once drawn to this country, or an idea of the country, imagined “they might live among the talismanic fruit and prosper in the dry air,” Didion writes. And then they arrived. And instead of the tranquility they envisioned – “the California of subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific” – they found a “harsher California, haunted by the Mojave,” an “alien place” where on the “hot dry Santa Ana wind … every voice seems a scream.”

By the time Didion encounters San Bernardino, it is a by-product of people’s insisting they could settle inhospitable country: a valley of emptiness, a counterfeit paradise of garish contradiction, of shallow religious fervor, tacky sentiment and decay. Here, the profane shines brighter than the sacred, and poor souls chasing an American idyll land in a zone that’s all gloss. Or maybe Shellac.

“Imagine Banyan Street first,” Didion writes in the beginning, “because Banyan is where it happened.” “It” is Miller’s crime, which at this point we know nothing about, but no matter. Didion’s brilliant move is to take us there first, her narration a flickering stream of images rushing by our windows:

Past the Santa Fe switching yards, the Forty Winks Motel. Past the motel that is nineteen stucco tepees: “SLEEP IN A WIGWAM—GET MORE FOR YOUR WAMPUM.” Past Fontana Drag City and the Fontana Church of the Nazarene and the Pit Stop A Go-Go; past Kaiser Steel, through Cucamonga, out to the Kapu Kai Restaurant-Bar and Coffee Shop, at the corner of Route 66 and Carnelian Avenue. Up Carnelian Avenue from the Kapu Kai, which means “Forbidden Seas,” the subdivision flags whip in the harsh wind. “HALF-ACRE RANCHES! SNACK BARS! TRAVERTINE ENTRIES! $95 DOWN.”

The proper names are character markers on “the trail of an intention gone haywire.” This is where it’s “routine to misplace the future,” Didion writes, where “a belief in the literal interpretation of Genesis has slipped imperceptibly into a belief in the literal interpretation of ‘Double Indemnity.’” Where God and worship and deliverance – one kind of dream – are quickly supplanted by false idols, sordid headlines and cheap thrills – another kind of dream – and where people who pursue the new dream most zealously, blind to the imperceptible shift, are sucked into the void.

It is also, she writes, “where time past is not believed to have any bearing upon time present or future,” and “every day the world is born anew.” (Echoes of Eliot again: “Time past and time future / Allow but a little consciousness.”)

Didion’s reporting of detail is striking. But even more striking are the layers of meaning she assigns to detail, the way ordinary scenery begins to blaze with moral significance. The foliage of a lemon grove is not just lush and glossy, but “too lush, unsettlingly glossy, the greenery of nightmare.” Fallen tree bark is not only dusty, but “too dusty, a place for snakes to breed.”

Setting is foreshadowing, and this is a diabolical patch of ground: a site where serpents multiply, where sins will be committed, where, according to law enforcement officials, Lucille planned to “spread gasoline over her presumably drugged husband and, with a stick on the accelerator, gently ‘walk’ the Volkswagen over the embankment, where it would tumble four feet down the retaining wall into the lemon grove” – into the greenery of nightmare – “and almost certainly explode.” In Didion country, burning bushes become burning Volkswagens. People are delivered not into a land of milk and honey, but to the side of a dark and lonely road, where they’re roasted to a crisp.

As potent and strange as her setting is, she takes pains to stress how pedestrian the central events and characters are, or at least could have been. The Millers’ path is so typical as to be banal: They marry young, they strive, they grow older and hit every rung on the climb to middle-class achievement. They amass the “familiar accoutrements of a family on its way up.” They slide into ennui and reach “the familiar season of divorce.” Theirs is “anyone’s bad summer,” Lucille’s dalliance with another man a “conventional clandestine affair.”

The Millers, in other words, initially aren’t any more corrupt than the rest of us. But the illusion of the place gets to them. Lucille, in particular, is hoodwinked by a promise that isn’t there. And it’s in her breakup with her lover that everything begins to take on another cast — that of pulp novels and Hollywood noir, of “dreams in which violence and threats and blackmail are made to seem commonplaces.” Which brings us to Didion’s revelation:

What was most startling about the case … was something that had nothing to do with law at all, something that never appeared in the eight-column afternoon headlines but was always there between them: the dream was teaching the dreamers how to live.

Didion has mapped a geography – physical and psychic – and made it feel like destiny. And she’s done it so skillfully that even if we don’t believe in destiny, we can’t help being seduced by the idea that had the Millers not tried to set down roots in this godforsaken place, they might have been saved. Without this “harsher California” there would be no story of love and death, no illusion to be illuminated, no failure of “time past” to assert its usual hold. The place itself resembles something out of fiction. And there’s a clue, in that same Paris Review interview from 1977, to why Didion, novelist and journalist, so reveled in it: “The writer,” she said, “is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream.”

Jennifer B. McDonald (@jenbmcd) is an editor at The New York Times Book Review and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard.

For more installments of “Why’s this so good?” see our archives. And check back each Tuesday for a new shot of inspiration and insight.

February 17 2011


Death, truth and memoir: the debate over Joyce Carol Oates’ “A Widow’s Story”

What is it that we really want from memoir? The kerfuffle this week over “A Widow’s Story,” a narrative from Joyce Carol Oates about the loss of her husband and their many years together brings this question front and center again.

Oates was married to Raymond J. Smith for nearly five decades; in addition to their separate careers, they worked together on the Ontario Review literary journal. Smith was sick for one week in the hospital before dying in the middle of the night while Oates tried in vain to get to him in time to say goodbye. (Those with a subscription can see an excerpt of her account in The New Yorker.)

Oates is known for her speed and productivity – she has a staggering 50 novels to her name, not to mention many other kinds of writing and more than 30 years of teaching at Princeton. Yet Oates’ speed in producing this memoir and her exclusion of material about getting engaged 11 months after her husband died did not play well with The New York Times’ Janet Maslin, who wrote in her review of the book that it “willfully taps into the increasingly lucrative loss-of-spouse market” and shows “worrisome signs of haste.” A Salon.com piece written in response by Nikki Stern addressed both Maslin’s review and comments made in another Times op-ed.

Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” comes up frequently in these discussions, although there is a wide range of accounts of such loss. John Bayley wrote multiple works about his marriage with writer Iris Murdoch during her struggle with Alzheimer’s and after her death. And the New Yorker ran a short narrative about love and death just last month, in which novelist Francisco Goldman wrote about the loss of his young wife, the writer Aura Estrada, after a mishap at the beach.

Setting aside “A Widow’s Story” and any particular tale, what makes these stories compelling or forgettable? And why does memoir provoke such strong reactions?

The first hurdle for a memoirist is knowing which story to tell. We all feel compelled to share our stories, but what makes a story worth sharing beyond the circle of people who are already connected to it? And what parts of a life are relevant?

In an essay on this site, Adam Hochschild describes memoir as both more and less than the summing up of real life: “Many memoirs don’t work because the things that most of us tend to celebrate about ourselves are less interesting than those things that hold readers’ attention.” Of course, as soon as the writer begins shaping the story by walling off certain experiences, those decisions affect the narrative: Did the author leave something out that should have stayed in? This is in part Maslin’s critique of Oates’ account.

Memoir relies on more than one kind of truth, but memoir is nonfiction, so facts come first. (For more on this topic, see the Roy Peter Clark essay “The Line Between Fact and Fiction.”) While a certain anxiety about correctness and what can be proven has flattened the language of more than one autobiography, how much worse it is to give up on facts altogether.

James Frey has earned his spot as the perennial whipping boy on matters of accuracy, but it could just as easily be Misha Defonseca, with her story of surviving the Holocaust living among wolves. Or Margaret Seltzer’s invented account of a gangland coming of age.

A predictable fury arises over the clear-cut con, but there is more than one kind of honesty. People telling ostensibly true stories have long defended the idea of a deeper truth – one that somehow permits making stuff up. The CBS show “The Good Wife” mocked this notion of truth this week in a parody of Aaron Sorkin and “The Social Network,” suggesting that sometimes lip service is paid to truth by those who really want latitude with their story.

Still, as “Liar’s Club” and “Lit” author Mary Karr said last year, “the least of my problems as a memoirist, as a writer, is getting my facts right.” Even if the standard of factual accuracy is met – and no one seems to be suggesting that Joyce Carol Oates, for example, is making things up – what additional accountability to truth does the memoirist have?

Writing about atrocities, Vanderbilt University professor Kelly Oliver describes the value of testimony. She argues that bearing witness is not just the presentation of a series of facts, or even the revelation of true but unknown information. If accuracy were all that stories relied on, then it would be enough for anyone to present those facts, and we would not value testimony the way we do. In spite of the tendency for factual errors to be part of eyewitness accounts, such stories have a complex cultural value.

Extending Oliver’s ideas, I would say that powerful nonfiction writing comes from a kind of truth-in-story that maintains accuracy while simultaneously accomplishing even more. Oliver argues that bearing witness speaks to the very events that facts alone can’t illustrate, a kind of path into another’s experiences accompanied by the realization that those experiences cannot be fully comprehended.

While Oliver writes about epic horrors of history, her ideas also apply to the domestic tragedies of parental cruelty, the loss of a child or the death of a spouse. The best memoirs recount loss and change in a way that offers more than thrills based on peeking into someone else’s suffering. Instead, the most powerful stories say something unknown about the person’s life, touching on universal experiences while giving us a glimpse of the ultimately unknowable aspects of another’s existence.

Beyond not making stuff up, we want to know that a deeper honesty is in play – that despite the impossibility of complete understanding, the author is permitting us to be present for the serious examination of a life.

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