A Journal of Life Pursued

Posts Tagged ‘Joan Didion’

Tell me a story.

In Books, Writers, Writing on January 15, 2013 at 6:00 am

421“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” That is the declaration by which Joan Didion begins her now-classic, The White Album (1979). The book is a highly literary, essay-slash-memoir collection exploring the 1960s and 70s in California. Martin Amis, in reviewing the book, called Ms. Didion, a “poet of the Great Californian Emptiness.” It was a time of personal challenge for Didion, chiefly of the mental-stability order, and the expanse of California as metaphor agitates as a perfect harmonic.  Central to the book is the unease of the era as exemplified by the Charles Manson Helter Skelter murder of Sharon Tate and friends. Tate was a friend of Didion‘s. (As a side note, if you pick up The White Album I strongly suggest–no, demand–you then read Battleborn, by Claire Vaye Watkins. Watkins is the daughter of Charles “Tex” Watkins,  Manson’s righthand-man. Battleborn is starkly, and breathtakingly, original.)

So as to not drop Ms. Didion’s quote out of context, here is the full paragraph for your reading pleasure:

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accident, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be ‘interesting’ to know which. We tell ourselves that it makes some difference whether the naked woman is about to commit a mortal sin or is about to register a political protest or is about to be, the Aristophanic view, snatched back to the human condition by the fireman in priest’s clothing just visible in the window behind her, the one smiling at the telephoto lens. We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely… by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria — which is our actual experience.”

I am unabashedly smitten by: “We live entirely…by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images….”

(Aside: I drifted to this shore while reading an article about the current line-up of new TV shows, in particular shows that qualify my loose definition of being narrative-driven. You know the shows: Downton Abbey, Shameless, Breaking Bad, Homeland and a few others. (Full disclosure, I watch–no, I drink thirstily–the mentioned shows.) Are these the stories we are telling ourselves in order to live? What does that mean?)

I have another quote from The White Album in my moleskine: “I tell you this not as aimless revelation but because I want you to know, as you read me, who I am and where I am and what is on my mind.” That is as beautiful an explanation of why a writer writes as ever I’ve encountered. I trust Vonnegut‘s “ink-stained wretches” are applauding furiously. This is the quote that comes foremost to mind when reflecting on that which is attempted here at …the house…. My personal bookend to Ms. Didion’s observation is that I read in the hope, maybe even in the faith, that I will find a writer who will not necessarily explain my life, but share it. That, my friends, is why we tell stories–which is to say, the declaration of our very existence.

The City Weird

In Photography, Travel on June 19, 2012 at 6:00 am

As noted previously, I’m traveling. This is a repost from January, 2010. Thanks for reading.

Street Photography, D. Bruns

Can there possibly be a greater American juxtaposition: Portland, Maine to Las Vegas, Nevada? But then Las Vegas (I feel weird calling it Vegas, we’re not that close) makes for a stark comparison to most any other place.

I had to go, yes, had to go, to Las Vegas to attend to some last-minute–and unexpected–business. This was my third time in that city. The first visit, I think six or seven years ago, was particularly weird. My daughter, Allie, and I had been climbing in Joshua Tree, dirt-bagging it, tearing our knuckles on those famous cracks, getting sunburned and thriving a pitch off the deck. Good stuff. Camp fire at night. Great stuff.

Carole and Jeff (I think Tim was in Michigan, at camp) flew out and met us in Sin City. Allie and I drove out of the desert, still dirty and thrilled at the great climbing, and into the evening glow of Las Vegas. As we pulled into town she looked at me like we’d just landed on a moon of Jupiter. “Las Vegas is weird,” she said.

In 1968 Joan Didion wrote Slouching Towards Bethlehem. In an essay called “Marrying Absurd” she wrote: “Las Vegas is the most extreme and allegorical of American settlements, bizarre and beautiful in its venality and in its devotion to immediate gratification…” That was a long time ago. But it still rings true. Las Vegas is an event seeking participants.

This time, a few years older and knowing what to expect, it is, well, still weird. There are some places that feel right. And some that don’t. More people than not, I think, find Las Vegas right. Not me. But I revel in contrariness. Maine feels right. Every other place seems by degrees a little weird from home. Some places more than a little.

Street photography, D. Bruns, Vegas Escalator

Bookends

In Books, Creativity, Literature, Memoir, Writers, Writing on May 2, 2012 at 8:00 am

This is a repost. I’m out of the country. As this piece is “published,” I will have touched down in Kathmandu, day one of twenty-two days away from home. That’s a long time.

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November 14, 1851, one-hundred fifty-nine years ago today Moby Dick was published. The Reader’s Almanac, “The official blog of The Library of America“,tells the story of Melville inviting Nathaniel Hawthorn, his reclusive neighbor to a celebratory dinner party as Moby Dick is came off the press. The article quotes a letter from a local Lenox resident:

Not very long ago the author of The Scarlet Letter and the author of Typee having, in some unaccountable way, gotten a mutual desire to see one another, as if neither had a home to which he could invite the other, made arrangements in a very formal manner to dine together at a hotel in this village . . .

If you love reading about the writing life, you will find short article of interest: “The happiest day in Herman Melville’s life.”

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The grand lady of American Letters, Joan Didion, has a new book coming out next year, a memoir about aging called Blue Nights. Didion, who almost single-handedly created the genre of literary non-fiction (a bit of an overstatement but close (enough) to true) has been a favorite of mine for many years.

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“What Bloggers Owe Montaigne” is a wonderful essay at The Paris Review by Montaigne biographer Sarah Bakewell.

Bloggers might be surprised to hear that they are keeping alive a tradition created more than four centuries ago. Montaigne, in turn, might not have expected to be remembered so long, least of all in the English language—yet he always believed that such understanding between remote eras and cultures was possible. “Each man bears the entire form of the human condition,” he said.

As you might know, from reading my posts here, Montaigne is the writer-thinker-friend I have turned to repeatedly for as long as it matters. As this article demonstrates, Montaigne continues to influence–to this day–as he did centuries ago. There is the hue of immortality to that.

And interestingly, to speak of current and lasting influence, there is this extended essay over at The Nervous Breakdown on all things Montaigne, thanks to Jason Chambers, Johathan Evison, Dennis Haritou and Jason Rice. Their piece is called: When We Fell in Love: Sarah Bakewell.

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A bit of Maine. My review of Maine writer, Susan Hand Shetterly‘s book, Settled in the Wild, is now up at Mostly Fiction dot com. As the dusk jack reads: “Like Annie Dillard and Mary Oliver, Susan Hand Shetterly takes a magnifying glass to the wilderness that remains, spending the time few of us take to really look.” I am, admittedly a fan of all things Maine (well, most all things…), but objectively, this is a wonderful little book.

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Read On!

Naive moose and other worries.

In Nature, The Examined Life, Writers on April 7, 2012 at 7:00 am

Repost from June 2009

Some cultures practice that a photograph steals part of the soul. The Sioux believed that each exposure dissolved some vital layer of life. I have a friend—he does not own a television—who says that T.V. robs us of our intelligence. That, I believe to be not far from the truth. A vital layer of life slips away in front of the T.V., a shard of life-force gone to rest. Another friend went off-line after finding herself aimlessly staring into her computer at night. She said she had “to get a life,” that the internet was stealing it. I sometimes wonder if we are losing bits and pieces of ourselves as we are given over to the subtleties of modern existence, not only its technology, but also its conveniences and entertainments?

There is a phenomenon in animals where they become “naive” if natural predators are removed. After a generation or so they forget their enemies. Wolves re-introduced into the wilds of Yellowstone had easy pickings until the moose realized they were going to be eaten by them. This is what I mean by the subtleties of modern existence. Predation and consumption are related and I fear that one easily morphs into the other. They become the beast that pursues and devours. I know. We were once intimate.

In 1965 Joan Didion wrote:

Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble.

She closes by saying, “And I suspect we are already there.” She was writing on morality and consumerism and of course the grand era of the ‘60s. But on a larger canvas, as it relates to our possessions, I think that we are close to trouble–as recent events, the crash and burn of consumerism, suggest. It seems to be the nature of things that the stuff we own will soon enough own us. I live in a world devoid of natural predators, yet fear being the moose in Yellowstone, growing forgetful and waxing naive.

I resist.

First sentences…

In Books, Literature, Reading, Thinkers, Writers on June 29, 2010 at 6:26 pm

…from a few of my favorite books:

“He awoke, opened his eyes.” The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles

“The difference between the Parthenon and the World Trade Center, between a French wine glass and a German beer mug, between Bach and John Philip Sousa, between Sophocles and Shakespeare, between a bicycle and a horse, though explicable by historical moment, necessity, and destiny, is before all a difference of imagination.” The Geography of the Imagination, Guy Davenport

“Life changes fast.” The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion

“They sometimes met on country roads when there were flowers or snow.” Dubin’s Lives, Bernard Malamud

“Standing amid the tan, excited post-Christmas crowd at the Southwest Florida Regional Airport, Rabbit Angstrom has a funny sudden feeling that what he has come to meet, what’s floating in unseen about to land, is not his son Nelson and daughter-in-law Pru and their two children but something more ominous and intimately his: his own death, shaped vaguely like an airplane.”  Rabbit at Rest, John Updike

“The amber light came on.” Blindness, José Saramago

“The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest.” Essays of E.B. White

“I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies.” Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

“When you write, you lay out a line of words.” The Writing Life, Annie Dillard

“When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only.” Walden, Henry David Thoreau

“Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo….” Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce

…and perhaps the best opening sentence in all of literature:

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez

“She spent her whole life trying to understand…”

In Books, Life, Literature, Photography, Thinkers, Writers, Writing on March 21, 2010 at 9:17 am

My Father

“She spent her whole life trying to understand...” caught my eye. It was a blurb in a New York Time’s obituary. The woman, recently deceased, spent her whole life trying, according to the obit, to understand the problem of poverty. An admirable pursuit, certainly. But what got me was the concept of devotion to an idea as a life-long pursuit. My mother once, many years ago, commented that I like ideas more than I like people. I don’t think it was a compliment. I’m not sure, either, if it is true–but I’m not saying it isn’t. Regardless, the notion of pursuing an idea, a life quest, has always been compelling. Trouble is, I don’t have a nagging singular curiosity. My curiosity is more broad-brush. Or is it?

I’ve been thinking, in this vein, about similarities, if any, between my photography, my reading, my writing and my thinking. Years ago, as an undergrad, I took a class in Joyce. We read Ulysses. Aside from all that suggests–the long sentences, the syntax, the difficulty, the beauty, the song, the brilliance–what I came away with was the understanding that the minutiae of life, observed and rendered by the artist, can be profound. Through the years this notion has only deepened; principally by my reading, Montaigne through Didion, and my study of photography, Cartier-Bresson through Friedlander, and its practice. I think that is why I am drawn to the streets as a photographer. (Or in the case of the image above, the pub. My father at the table, me in the mirror–a brief life moment, profound only in that sense. Or as the Zen Master might say, The world in a single atom.) These moments add up and together they suggest something more. That is why I practice the type of photography I do: I can’t afford to let anything slip by. It is ineffable, if practiced properly.

Which brings me back to the header, She spent her whole life…

I have not spent my life doing one particular thing with concentrated focus. But now, at this place, I see that I have been adding pearls to a strand, as it where. Together, perhaps they will make something beautiful, but that is a high-calling and I’m not sure my ears can pick up that frequency. Instead, I simply desire to stay aware of collecting them, the pearls. That would be good. What would be even better, what would be great, would be to stop collecting and simply stay aware.