And then there’s Joan Didion.
Her style is so clear and so crafted and it inspires me all the time.
She will use a phrase like this all of the sudden “I am telling you this because…”
Her craft is part of her craft, she is part of the story.
Although she’s from the same generation as Sontag, what I like about Didion’s style is its indifference. She covered murders, movie stars, her Californian heritage, and, most of all, herself. Even when she’s telling you the report on her mental breakdown, the take on most everything is always sort of “well, that happened…”
Didion’s style is very…warm? You could say it was cool, but it’s realness and her inserted opinion (often through writing style and structure, not direct comments) make it warm to me. And part of it is her role in the story - she’s very gonzo without all the machismo of Hunter Thompson.
What inspires me as a writer is to see the fingerprints of how she works, often deliberately left in the text, as with the packing list. When I look at this list, I identify with the utility of it, planning out how the writer will engage with the subject, try to pass in different circles, and then do the actual work of writing it down.
I like the see the artists fingerprints on their work. Like the way the fur in The Fantastic Mr. Fox moves around imperfectly, all of how Wes Anderson makes films. Knowing that there’s a lot of work, opinion, and persistence that goes into something that seems effortless is a good reminder.
All of these people had to find, experiment, develop, and work on their selves, their style. You can see that play out in their journals, their work, their biographies.
Knowing how all these people thought and worked reminds me of the more important thing: if you have a style, and opinion of how things should be done, how they look, the work can be fun because the work becomes you. This isn’t that American phrase of “live to work,” nor is it the other side, “work to live.” Instead it’s about eliminating the idea of “work” entirely and just having it be life that you happen to be writing down.
Of course these two struggled financially and in their personal lives - they were writers! And, you know, people. But they worked long and hard to find, develop, and defend their style, their tone, their life. They did great work all throughout.
Living Through Writing
I want to spend less time chasing what people want me to do, complying to their priorities and needs, compromising what I’m good at, what I enjoy, and my mental-space to satisfy others. I too often doubt my convictions, my style, because I’m not certain what other people want. Or worse, because I don’t get any feedback once I click publish, good or bad. When I think about Sontag and Didion, they both lived by their own style and fit their work to what they knew was needed. And, at some point, you can see that they were writing to please themselves, or at least, to figure things out.
So, that makes me evolve that initial piece of advice I got. Now I think of it like this: “We hired you for who you are, not who you aren’t.” I’m hoping that’s a good tool to make sure I’m in a state where I can do work that makes happy.