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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Saint Joan

by Philip Martin | December 28, 2021 at 3:10 a.m.

Everyone who works in the editing trade knows the feeling.

A story falls through--maybe you lose your faith in a writer or a source, or someone just flat blows a deadline--and you are faced with a hole to fill. This is always disappointing, but usually not a real problem. Most publications have a reserve of copy which can be used to paper over the hole, leaving the reader none the wiser.

That is why newspapers subscribe to wire services, why editors commission "evergreen" material they can hold until they need to run it. Sometimes you can just make the photographs larger.

But on that day in 1961, when a piece fell through, Joan Didion stepped into fill the void. She was 26 years old and had been at Vogue for five years, having been offered a job as a research assistant after winning the magazine's "Prix de Paris" essay contest as a college senior.

She had risen to associate feature editor and had published several articles for the magazine when she wrote the piece that was originally headlined "Self Respect: Its Source, Its Power" to fill a two-page gap.

She wrote not to a word count or a line count, but to an exact character count. Didion was a consummate pro.

In her 1978 essay about her time at Vogue, "Telling Stories," Didion writes that at the magazine "one learned fast, or one did not stay, how to play games with words, how to put a couple of unwieldy dependent clauses through the typewriter and roll them out transformed into one simple sentence composed of precisely 39 characters.

"We were connoisseurs of synonyms. We were collectors of verbs . . . We learned as reflex the grammatical tricks we had learned only as marginal corrections in school ('there are two oranges and an apple' read better than 'there were an apple and two oranges,' passive verbs slowed down sentences, 'it' needed a reference within the scan of the eye), learned to rely on the OED [Oxford English Dictionary], learned to write and rewrite and rewrite again. 'Run it through again, sweetie, it's not quite there.' 'Give me a shock verb two lines in.' 'Prune it out, clean it up, make the point.' Less was more, smooth was better, and absolute precision essential to the monthly grand illusion. Going to work for Vogue was, in the late 1950s, not unlike training with the Rockettes."

That's the discipline that underpins and educes the art that is the essay. Didion's insight was that, despite the platitudes we habitually apply, it is actually quite difficult to lie to oneself. For we have access to information that others who might easily be deceived don't.

"The charms that work on others," she writes, "count for nothing in the devastatingly well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself: no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn list of good intentions ... The dismal fact is self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others . . . has nothing to do with with reputation, which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O'Hara, is something people with courage can do without."

One of the ways to do this job badly is to latch upon every passing of every notable and express the obvious. You, as someone who is reading the editorial section of a daily newspaper, probably already know that Didion died last week. She was 87 years old. We might call that a fair run, hardly a tragedy.

Didion is more important to me than I am sometimes willing to acknowledge. Her sentences are balanced and deft, precision weapons that sing rather than clatter and slice rather than bludgeon. In a way her work reminds me of that of another called-to-California poet, Joni Mitchell. There is a clear-eyed heartlessness to their work, a willingness to observe and report without concern as to what the audience might think of the observer-reporter.

In the title essay of "Slouching Toward Bethlehem," Didion describes a scene where a hippie mother in Haight-Ashbury has dosed her 5-year-old daughter Susan with LSD. The girl, who tells Didion she is in "High Kindergarten," sits on the living room floor and reads a comic book.

"She keeps licking her lips in concentration and the only off thing about her is that she's wearing white lipstick," Didion writes. "She lives with her mother and some other people, just got over the measles, wants a bicycle for Christmas, and particularly likes Coca-Cola, ice cream . . . and the beach."

She tells Didion that, of her classmates, only "Sally and Anne" also get stoned.

When an adult on the scene asks about another classmate, "Lia," Susan points out that she "is not in High Kindergarten."

I think about the job a lot, maybe too much, and in many ways Didion defined it. The job is not to comfort or afflict, but to describe a world that is terrible and hard and deeply interesting to those who will see it. The job is not to write for everyone. The job is not to be popular or celebrated or to go viral or to sell books or collections of your greatest hits, but to see and tell.

In the fine 2017 documentary about her life and work, "The Center Will Not Hold," her nephew, actor and filmmaker Griffen Dunne, asks her about that scene. What is it like to be in the presence of a small child who was tripping?

Didion, now an old woman, stylish in a gray cashmere sweater with a fine gold chain around her neck, tells the truth.

"Well, it was . . ." She pauses, for an uncomfortably long time.

"Let me tell you, it was gold," she finally says. "You live for moments like that, if you're doing a piece. Good or bad."

Because that is the job.

You cannot really report over the phone; it is at least as important to observe as it is to ask questions. You need to look, to see the disorder for yourself. For a writer, everything that is horrible is also gold. It is as important to be honest with yourself as it is with the reader.

You are not to worry about what they think of you.

"There is a common superstition that 'self-respect' is a kind of charm against snakes, something that keeps those who have it locked in some unblighted Eden, out of strange beds, ambivalent conversations, and trouble in general," she writes in that 1961 essay. "It does not at all. It has nothing to do with the face of things, but concerns instead a separate peace, a private reconciliation."

Sometimes I take satisfaction in the cruel thought that we all know exactly who we are, no matter what Bible verses we tweet or how humbly we brag. Didion didn't care what we thought of her. She just did the job.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@adgnewsroom.com.


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