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Joan Didion: Exercising Narrative Rights

June 5, 2011

joan Didion

C-Span Interview with Joan Didion

In a 1996 C-SPAN Book TV interview, Joan Didion speaks about her body of written work. Incredibly the interview lasts for three hours and includes a huge space for viewers to call in and ask her questions. (As a side note, it is incredible to see such a large amount of time, audience participation, and interest in writing being dedicated by a network. What does this say about the change in audience participation and attention spans?) In this clip, Didion speaks specifically about her first experience of being published and her first encounter with the American political process.

Publishing her first novel at the age of 28, Didion is asked about her first experiences with writing, publishing and rejection. Considering the continuity of her writing career, the interviewer is surprised that Didion had ever been rejected at all. Didion’s response is to articulate that the experience of being rejected is inseparable from the experience of writing, and that somehow the writer gets through it. At the end of the clip, Didion is asked if she likes speaking about her writing. She responds that she does not mind speaking about what she has already written, however she does not talk about what she is currently working on, or thinking about.

Though this is only a brief clip, two points about Didion’s writing process are made clear. Firstly, that the experience of rejection (whether literally or psychologically) is apart of writing. Rejection is an active part of presenting creative work to an audience. Secondly, the process of actively writing is private and that there is a clear boundary between what will be shared and what be kept private. Clearly, a boundary is being established to protect her writing process from being overwhelmed by the projected expectations of others. The line between the individual and the group enables the potential for new perspective.

The second theme of the discussion focuses on the American political process. Having not encountered this process until being assigned a reporting job, Didion reminisces that the experience was jarring. Why? Because “the narrative is already in place.” The dialogue that takes place within conventions, tours, debates, and candidate speeches has a known goal, effect, and script. There are no surprises, which in itself, is the surprise.

Who is the author of the American political process? Is it a narrative defined by the needs of the people? An institution?  In an additional interview taken earlier in Didion’s career, she states that one of the reasons she likes to write is that she is “in control of this tiny, tiny world.” Does the predictability of the American political narrative provide a sense of control through its consistency? The issues vary little, and the polarity between the Democrats and Republicans is only becoming more streamlined. The narrative is less and less a debate and more and more a binary divide, yes or no.

The challenge of the writer is to establish engagement with his or her audience. Engagement may come from new content, different forms, or extraordinary craft. The goal is to create an experience that the reader can interact with, feel, or find new perspective from. Conversely, the narrative structure of American politics does not change either form or content. Which leads us to question if engagement is part of the plan. And if not, then what purpose is being met?

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