I don’t remember the first time I heard her name, or who told me I had to read her collection of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, but when I was twenty, I discovered Joan Didion. I felt like she was speaking to some tuning fork deep inside me. Everything she wrote, resonated. I hadn’t previously been drawn to non-fiction, but her work was more than just “reporting.” It was poetic, deep, and she wrote about real things that were happening in the world in a way that made them feel epic.
Her story Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream, not only told the story of Lucille Miller, a pregnant housewife in San Bernardino County who murdered her dentist husband by drugging him and burning him up in their Volkswagen (the banality of the crime was brutal,) but was about all of our corrupt dreams. As Californians.
Last week, my sister-in-law gave me a heads up about a new Neflix Documentary about Didion, THE CENTER WILL NOT HOLD. On Sunday, I curled up on the couch and watched it.
The reason I’m writing this blog (and encouraging you to watch the movie,) is that this film beautifully captures the intertwining of a writer’s work and her life. While Didion’s early career was focused on chronicling the 60’s and 70’s and writing screenplays, her later books touched on her grief at the loss of her husband John Gregory Dunne (The Year of Magical Thinking,) and the death of her daughter Quintana Roo (Blue Nights.) The film chronicles her journey from looking outward at the world, to looking within, and the shift it brought to her work.
THE CENTER WILL NOT HOLD, directed by Didion’s nephew Griffin Dunne, reveals the deepest heart of a writer. We see Didion in her glory days in Haight Ashbury, hanging out with Warren Beatty, who naturally had a huge crush on her. We also get her later years, where she’s stick thin and brittle, writing about her most personal and intense struggles with loss. The film is about the whole of a writer’s life.
And thus, my tears on a Sunday afternoon.
At the end of the movie, Didion speaks about her battle to get things down on the page. She says, “See enough to write it down, I tell myself. And then some morning, when I’m only going through the motions, and doing what I’m supposed to do, which is write, on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be, a forgotten account of accumulated interest. Paid passage back to the world out there. It all comes back. Remember what it is to be me. That is always the point.”
Watch THE CENTER WILL NOT HOLD.
And be inspired.
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