Sunday, March 11, 2012

We Tell Stories: Joan Didion

PUBLISHED IN 1970, Joan Didion's The White Album is a scrapbook of the political/pop culture landscape of California of the late 60s and 70s. California, and Los Angeles in particular, was lucky to have such an eye turned on the length of its expanse. Deeply reported and even more deeply felt, Didion is able to convey not just political climate, social disarray and personal upheaval but the very texture of the era's tensions, fears, confusion and sense of possibility. As a journalist and essayist, Didion set not just a tone but presented a different template. She was a model for many aspiring reporters and writers who wanted to dig deeper and peer behind perception. Her stories had more than resonance they left an afterimage.

As we turn the corner and begin to contemplate your final pieces -- writing the Los Angeles you see into being, we'll be looking at different writers -- journalists, essayists -- who have left indelible impressions about their Los Angeles. As you think about putting together your reported observations, think about creative ways to weave the facts with observations. Details, very simply set down, are often key in writing prose that draws you in with its careful rhythms.

Here is a sample from The White Album in which Didion recollects the night that the Manson Family murders were set in motion:

"We put 'Lay Lady Lay' on the record player, and 'Suzanne.' We went down to Melrose Avenue to see the Flying Burritos. There was a jasmine vine grown over the verandah of the big house on Franklin Avenue, and in the evenings the smell of jasmine came in through all the open doors and windows. I made bouillabaisse for people who did not eat meat. I imagined that my own life was simple and sweet, and sometimes it was, but there were odd things going around town. There were rumors. There were stories. Everything was unmentionable but nothing was unimaginable. This mystical flirtation with the idea of 'sin' -- this sense that it was possible to go 'too far,' and that many people were doing it -- was very much with us in Los Angeles in 1968 and 1969. A demented and seductive vortical tension was building in the community. The jitters were setting in. I recall a time when the dogs barked every night and the moon was always full. On August 9, 1969, I was sitting in the shallow end of my sister-in-law's swimming pool in Beverly Hills when she received a telephone call from a friend who had just heard about the murders at Sharon Tate Polanski's house on Cielo Drive. The phone rang many times during the next hour. These early reports were garbled and contradictory. One caller would say hoods, the next would say chains. There were twenty dead, no twelve, ten, eighteen. Black masses were imagined, band bad trips blamed. I remember all of the day's misinformation very clearly, and I also remember this, and wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised."

-- L.G.

photo credit: us mcmillian

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