Didion: I want to turn it every color

Despite occasional entreaties from readers, I haven’t been very good at staying on top of The Paris Review‘s DNA of Literature Project. It’s so impressive — so accessible and extensive — that I end up stalling every time the magazine posts another decade’s worth of interviews.

The 70’s interviews went up a few weeks ago, and I’ve finally read Linda Kuehl’s talk with Joan Didion. I make no secret of my Didion worship (although I don’t bow before all of her work equally). And since I keep mulling over some of her thoughts on writing, I thought I’d mention the high points.

Didion begins by explaining why she believes writing is “a hostile act”:

It’s hostile in that you’re trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture. It’s hostile to try to wrench around someone else’s mind that way. Quite often you want to tell somebody your dream, your nightmare. Well, nobody wants to hear about someone else’s dream, good or bad; nobody wants to walk around with it. The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream.

Of her influences, she says:

I always say Hemingway, because he taught me how sentences worked. When I was fifteen or sixteen I would type out his stories to learn how the sentences worked. I taught myself to type at the same time. A few years ago when I was teaching a course at Berkeley I reread A Farewell to Arms and fell right back into those sentences. I mean they’re perfect sentences. Very direct sentences, smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes.

Asked if what she calls her “harsh Protestant ethic … doesn’t hinger [her] struggle to keep all the possibilities open” in her writing, Didion responds:

I suppose that’s part of the dynamic. I start a book and I want to make it perfect, to turn it every color, want it to be the world. Ten pages in, I’ve already blown it, limited it, made it less, marred it. That’s very discouraging. I hate the book at that point. After a while I arrive at an accommodation: Well, it’s not the ideal, it’s not the perfect object I wanted to make, but maybe — if I go ahead and finish it anyway — I can get it right next time.


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