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by Tiffany Kassab
The first panel I attended at AWP 2016 was “We Read Joan Didion in Order to Live: Five Writers on Learning from a Master,” in which those five writers discussed “the woman who owns California” and how she shaped their writing. I attended this panel to honor Joan Didion and because I wanted the five panelists to speak through Didion’s work and offer me a clear-cut way to write about place.
What can a writer learn about place from Joan Didion? Panelist Kelly Daniels, author of the memoir Cloudbreak, California, spoke about Didion’s mastery in recognizing the official narrative of a place. He used Didion’s essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem as an example. This is a summation of his point:
In the 60’s, Time magazine and other news organizations bolstered the free love movement and hippies as transformative, asking: what do the hippies have to teach us? This was the official narrative that defined California. The hippies were seen as profound, and yet Didion saw something else: the hippies were tragic, clueless runaways. They were not really a movement of free love but more like a bunch of young addicts who needed someone to step in and help them.
Didion understands that where begins with the people, as panelist Anna Redsand, author of the biography Viktor Frankl: A Life Worth Living, noted. Didion does a little with the beauty of the mountains and what she sees around her, but she also notices that there is always a man sleeping on the streets. Though sensory details are important, Didion’s writing teaches us that the true narrative of a place involves acute observation of our environment. In Where I Was From, Didion writes “In California we did not believe that history could bloody the land, or even touch it.” Didion does not simply record the California landscape, but how people affect the land.
Writers can take from Didion her ruthless objectivity when reporting about the people, the histories, and the conflicts that were, and are still, embedded in a place. And to report about place with such honesty that we go beyond what Daniels referred to as “the level in which we lie to even ourselves.”
The hippies teach us that the narrative of a story is as imagined as the free love they were addicted to, and that a place is not only defined by its borders but by the people who live within them. Didion teaches us that those people like to close their eyes to their own realities, and what’s left is the writer recording unabashedly who people think they are versus who they really are.
There is no one way to write about place. But if our where begins with the people, then we must be brave enough to go out and observe—allow place to shape our writerly persona, yet not allow who we are to influence what we see.
And so what else is there to do but plop down on a bench along Colfax, or San Thomas Expressway in California, or wherever else we may find ourselves, and observe the life that moves around us every day. And write.
Tiffany Kassab has a master’s degree in creative nonfiction from Regis University, and she is working on a collection of essays about living in the San Francisco bay area, a place in perpetual transition. Follow her on twitter @tiffanykassab.