Why I Write by Joan Didion

This week, I want to share the essay that started the questioning for me many years ago: Joan Didion’s “Why I Write.”


Image credit: http://www.vogue.com/865398/in-sable-and-dark-glasses-joan-didion/

Image credit: http://www.vogue.com/865398/in-sable-and-dark-glasses-joan-didion/

Why I Write
by Joan Didion

Of course I stole the title for this talk from George Orwell. One reason I stole it was that I like the sound of the words: Why I Write. There you have three short unambiguous words that share a sound, and the sound they share is this:


In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions—with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating—but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.

I stole the title not only because the words sounded right but because they seemed to sum up, in a no-nonsense way, all I have to tell you. Like many writers I have only this one “subject,” this one “area”: the act of writing. I can bring you no reports from any other front. I may have other interests: I am “interested,” for example, in marine biology, but I don’t flatter myself that you would come out to hear me talk about it. I am not a scholar. I am not in the least an intellectual, which is not to say that when I hear the word “intellectual” I reach for my gun, but only to say that I do not think in abstracts. During the years when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley I tried, with a kind of hopeless late-adolescent energy, to buy some temporary visa into the world of ideas, to forge for myself a mind that could deal with the abstract.

In short I tried to think. I failed. My attention veered inexorably back to the specific, to the tangible, to what was generally considered, by everyone I knew then and for that matter have known since, the peripheral. I would try to contemplate the Hegelian dialectic and would find myself concentrating instead on a flowering pear tree outside my window and the particular way the petals fell on my floor. I would try to read linguistic theory and would find myself wondering instead if the lights were on in the bevatron up the hill. When I say that I was wondering if the lights were on in the bevatron you might immediately suspect, if you deal in ideas at all, that I was registering the bevatron as a political symbol, thinking in shorthand about the military-industrial complex and its role in the university community, but you would be wrong. I was only wondering if the lights were on in the bevatron, and how they looked. A physical fact.

I had trouble graduating from Berkeley, not because of this inability to deal with ideas—I was majoring in English, and I could locate the house-and-garden imagery in The Portrait of a Lady as well as the next person, “imagery” being by definition the kind of specific that got my attention—but simply because I had neglected to take a course in Milton. I did this. For reasons which now sound baroque I needed a degree by the end of that summer, and the English department finally agreed, if I would come down from Sacramento every Friday and talk about the cosmology of Paradise Lost, to certify me proficient in Milton. I did this. Some Fridays I took the Greyhound bus, other Fridays I caught the Southern Pacific’s City of San Francisco on the last leg of its transcontinental trip. I can no longer tell you whether Milton put the sun or the earth at the center of his
universe in Paradise Lost, the central question of at least one century and a topic about which I wrote 10,000 words that summer, but I can still recall the exact rancidity of the butter in the City of San Francisco’s dining car, and the way the tinted windows on the Greyhound bus cast the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits into a grayed and obscurely sinister light. In short my attention was always on the periphery, on what I could see and taste and touch, on the butter, and the Greyhound bus. During those years I was traveling on what I knew to be a very shaky passport, forged papers: I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was.

Which was a writer.

By which I mean not a “good” writer or a “bad” writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper. Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind?

When I talk about pictures in my mind I am talking, quite specifically, about images that shimmer around the edges. There used to be an illustration in every elementary psychology book showing a cat drawn by a patient in varying stages of schizophrenia. This cat had a shimmer around it. You could see the molecular structure breaking down at the very edges of the cat: the cat became the background and the background the cat, everything interacting, exchanging ions. People on hallucinogens describe the same perception of objects. I’m not a schizophrenic, nor do I take hallucinogens, but certain images do shimmer for me. Look hard enough, and you can’t miss the shimmer. It’s there. You can’t think too much about these pictures that shimmer. You just lie low and let them develop. You stay quiet. You don’t talk to many people and you keep your nervous system from shorting out and you try to locate the cat in the shimmer, the grammar in the picture.

Just as I meant “shimmer” literally I mean “grammar” literally. Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed. Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences. The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind. The picture dictates the arrangement. The picture dictates whether this will be a sentence with or without clauses, a sentence that ends hard or a dying-fall sentence, long or short, active or passive. The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture. Nota bene.*

It tells you.

You don’t tell it.

Let me show you what I mean by pictures in the mind. I began Play It as It Lays just as I have begun each of my novels, with no notion of “character” or “plot” or even “incident.” I had only two pictures in my mind, more about which later, and a technical intention, which was to write a novel so elliptical and fast that it would be over before you noticed it, a novel so fast that it would scarcely exist on the page at all. About the picture: the first was of white space. Empty space. This was clearly the picture that dictated the narrative intention of the book—a book in which anything that happened would happen off the page, a “white” book to which the reader would have to bring his or her own bad dreams—and yet this picture told me no “story,” suggested no situation. The second picture did. This second picture was of something actually witnessed. A young woman with long hair and a short white halter walks through the casino at the Riviera in Las Vegas at one in the morning. She crosses the casino alone and picks up a house telephone. I watch her because I have heard her paged, and recognize her name: she is a minor actress I see around Los Angeles from time to time, in places like Jax and once in a gynecologist’s office in the Beverly Hills Clinic, but have never met. I know nothing about her. Who is paging her? Why is she here to be paged? How exactly did she come to this? It was precisely this moment in Las Vegas that made Play It as It Lays begin to tell itself to me, but the moment appears in the novel only obliquely, in a chapter which begins:

“Maria made a list of things she would never do. She would never: walk through the Sands or Caesar’s alone after midnight. She would never: ball at a party, do S-M unless she wanted to, borrow furs from Abe Lipsey, deal. She would never: carry a Yorkshire in Beverly Hills.”

That is the beginning of the chapter and that is also the end of the chapter, which may suggest what I meant by “white space.”
I recall having a number of pictures in my mind when I began the novel I just finished, A Book of Common Prayer. As a matter of fact one of these pictures was of that bevatron I mentioned, although I would be hard put to tell you a story in which nuclear energy figures. Another was a newspaper photograph of a hijacked 707 burning on the desert in the Middle East. Another was the night view from a room in which I once spent a week with paratyphoid, a hotel room on the Colombian coast. My husband and I seemed to be on the Colombian coast representing the United States of America at a film festival (I recall invoking the name “Jack Valenti” a lot, as if its reiteration could make me well), and it was a bad place to have fever, not only because my indisposition offended our hosts but because every night in this hotel the generator failed. The lights went out. The elevator stopped. My husband would go to the event of the evening and make excuses for me and I would stay alone in this hotel room, in the dark. I remember standing at the window trying to call Bogotá (the telephone seemed to work on the same principle as the generator) and watching the night wind come up and wondering what I was doing eleven degrees off the equator with a fever of 103. The view from that window definitely figures in A Book of Common Prayer, as does the burning 707, and yet none of these pictures told me the story I needed.

The picture that did, the picture that shimmered and made these other images coalesce, was the Panama airport at 6 A.M. I was in this airport only once, on a plane to Bogotá that stopped for an hour to refuel, but the way it looked that morning remained superimposed on everything I saw until the day I finished A Book of Common Prayer. I lived in that airport for several years. I can still feel the hot air when I step off the plane, can see the heat already rising off the tarmac at 6 A.M. I can feel my skirt damp and wrinkled on my legs. I can feel the asphalt stick to my sandals. I remember the big tail of a Pan American plane floating motionless down at the end of the tarmac. I remember the sound of a slot machine in the waiting room. I could tell you that I remember a particular woman in the airport, an American woman, a norteamericana, a think norteamericana about forty who wore a big square emerald in lieu of a wedding ring, but there was no such woman there.

I put this woman in the airport later. I made this woman up, just as I later made up a country to put the airport in, and a family to run the country. This woman in the airport is neither catching a plane nor meeting one. She is ordering tea in the airport coffee shop. In fact she is not simply “ordering” tea but insisting that the water be boiled, in front of her, for twenty minutes. Why is this woman in this airport? Why is she going nowhere, where has she been? Where did she get that big emerald? What derangement, or disassociation, makes her believe that her will to see the water boiled can possibly prevail?

“She had been going to one airport or another for four months, one could see it, looking at the visas on her passport. All those airports where Charlotte Douglas’s passport had been stamped would have looked alike. Sometimes the sign on the tower would say “Bienvenidos” and sometimes the sign on the tower would say “Bienvenue,” some places were wet and hot and others dry and hot, but at each of these airports the pastel concrete walls would rust and stain and the swamp off the runway would be littered with the fuselages of cannibalized Fairchild F-227’s and the water would need boiling.

“I knew why Charlotte went to the airport even if Victor did not.

“I knew about airports.”

These lines appear about halfway through A Book of Common Prayer, but I wrote them during the second week I worked on the book, long before I had any idea where Charlotte Douglas had been or why she went to airports. Until I wrote these lines I had no character called “Victor” in mind: the necessity for mentioning a name, and the name “Victor,” occurred to me as I wrote the sentence. I knew why Charlotte went to the airport sounded incomplete. I knew why Charlotte went to the airport even if Victor did not carried a little more narrative drive. Most important of all, until I wrote these lines I did not know who “I” was, who was telling the story. I had intended until then that the “I” be no more than the voice of the author, a nineteenth-century omniscient narrator. But there it was:

“I knew why Charlotte went to the airport even if Victor did not.

“I knew about airports.”

This “I” was the voice of no author in my house. This “I” was someone who not only knew why Charlotte went to the airport but also knew someone called “Victor.” Who was Victor? Who was this narrator? Why was this narrator telling me this story? Let me tell you one thing about why writers write: had I known the answer to any of these questions I would never have needed to write a novel.

* “Note well.”

(Published in 1976)

Joan Didion is an American author known for her novels and literary journalism. Some of her works include, among many others: The Book of Common Prayer, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Play It as It Lays, The White Album, The Year of Magical Thinking, A Star is Born, and Blue Nights.





Why I Write by Camille Cole

Please welcome Camille Cole, the next in the series of Writing Through the Body’s guest blog posts responding to the prompt: Why I Write.


Why I Write
by Camille Cole

I write to untangle the confusion of my life, to remember the five year-old me, the twelve year-old me; me at thirty and fifty years-old. I can evoke the feelings and thoughts and conversations on the occasion of my sixtieth birthday party. Several of my close friends, my daughter, nieces, and a former nanny gathered at a beach house on the Oregon Coast on the weekend I turned sixty. It was an excuse to get together, honor our friendships, make vision boards, and for my friends, a chance to remind me that I am important to them. Even now, it’s hard to put that notion to paper because like many, I sometimes find it difficult to believe that others care about me.

There are events in our lives—it might be a moment, or a day, or longer—that reside in our memories like old friends who never go away. They are there when we’re hurt, when we have something to rejoice, when we’re worried or wondering which way to turn. When I write, my memory opens like a flower to the sun. As I put words together to form thoughts, tell stories, mine my deepest memories, the act of my fingers engaging with the keyboard, the process of calling up my muse and my memoirs opens worlds forgotten—a young girl who lays awake at night, afraid she might wet the bed; an older girl whose feet are too small to wear the new shoe style of the late 1950s. Her father drives her from shoe store to shoe store all over Syracuse, but there are no pointed toe flats in size 4 triple A. Once there was a young woman nursing her baby girl alone in a house truck in the Oregon woods. The baby’s father had abandoned her and she quietly stroked her daughter’s head, trying to understand what she had done to deserve this—surely it was her fault. On her fiftieth birthday another husband took her on a surprise trip, keeping the reveal to himself until they arrived at the beautiful bed and breakfast at the ocean’s edge. He had arranged dinner and made reservations for the best room. Before she turned sixty, he would abandon her, too, and she would work hard over the next ten years to be a better person, a woman who deserved loyalty and love.

The year she welcomed her sixth decade of life, her friends put aside their busy schedules, their obligations and deadlines and dogs and traveled great distances to celebrate her life.

As I write this I can see the horizon where the sky meets the sea beyond our beach house. Boxes of garden vegetables and fixings for four nights of dinners, and five days of breakfast, lunch and general snacking that litter the vast counter space in our three-story beach house. My heart swells as my friends arrive carrying presents and offerings for this time I will forever be able to evoke through story. Memories preserved in joy are as vivid to summon up as memories preserved in pain. All the days of my sixty-six years are important to me and are there for me to excavate whenever I sit before my computer or pick up a pen and paper and let my dream self and my hands work independent of my thinking mind.

All the events and affairs of my life—details I’ve seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and felt—are part of my heartbeat and my breath. When I was five I fell from my bike into the mud; at twelve I heard the mill train in the distance one lonely night in the new town where we had moved. As a young woman I tasted broccoli for the first time, smelled the smoke of a crackling fire that would destroy my home, and at all ages, I felt the pain of abandonment and the joy of discovering a new friend every year, for all my days. These experiences are part of my body’s blood, and I can call them up any time by transporting myself to another season, another geography, with my pen or my computer.

I write to remember, to spread my life out in story and discover the ways in which the pieces fit together. I write so that others might recognize our bond in the ways we are trying to figure out how to live.


Camille Cole is an author, writing coach, grant writer, and a retired classroom teacher and education administrator. Her most recent book, The Brass Bell, tells a story about the history of American schools and the life of an American educator, her Great Aunt Marion Parsons. Camille is a co-author of Videoconferencing for K-12 Classrooms and author of Connecting Students to S.T.E.M. Careers, Social Networking Strategies.

Camille works with emerging fiction and non-fiction writers, guiding them in the process of organizing their work; developing story and content; finding and approaching potential agents and publishers; and developing their author platform. She writes grants for schools and non-profit organizations nationwide and has raised over $5 million dollars for distance learning, educational technology projects and arts programs over the past ten years.

Camille is currently working on a YA novel, Nine Mile Creek.  She lives in Portland with her dog, Lily.

Writing as Public Testimony by Sarah Hoggatt

Please welcome the next in the series of guest bloggers to Writing Through the Body: Sarah Hoggatt.


Writing as Public Testimony
by Sarah Hoggatt


I sit before a blank page wondering what I want to say. It never gets any easier no matter how many books and articles I’ve written before. It’s still that same sheet of paper, that same mind searching across my inner landscape for a focus, the same hesitancy to share more of myself than I’m comfortable with. I can already feel my soul wanting to wiggle out of the spotlight, away from having to open my heart in such a public forum. It’s hard to share such intimate thoughts nearly every time I pick up a pen with a purpose to publish. Is writing about my inner world worth it? Will it actually help another person and bear fruit or is it the soundless mutterings of a soul driven by the need to pour out her world in lead and pink eraser bits? This is a question I get to ask but is rarely answered. As a writer, I don’t get to know what comes of my written words. I don’t get to see the fruit they bear or any good they do. I cannot see this yet I write with the blind hope someone will come across these words and their world will be a little better for it. I speak with the prayer I can walk the line of living out my humanity and, at the same time, speak for God. It’s a crazy and risky business―speaking for God, writing about my spiritual journey and that of others daring to believe I have something to contribute to the conversation and that God supports me while doing it.

If it’s so risky, why do I write at all? Why stare at the blank sheet of paper time and time again? Why the blind hope? It’s because I simply have to write. There’s nothing for it. Writing is so deeply integrated into who I am that sharing myself, my heart and my thoughts, with the world—with you, fulfils what I’m called here to do. It’s how the river of God, that endless stream, flows out of me. It’s how I feel alive. We are all made to share our experience of God, to offer “public testimony” to the community around us in a variety of ways. Through sharing my heart on the page, listening to the call inside, I am sharing the voice of God and ideally, encouraging people to hear it for themselves.

For the last two years I’ve been working on a new book of poetry to be released sometime this year. In my opinion, it’s by far the most daring, the most thought-provoking collection I’ve put together. It reflects what I’ve been learning about love on the deepest levels and incorporates the conversations God and I have had back and forth about it. I’ve never asked these questions before and the answers I share so boldly are ones I’m still soaking in even as I write them down. After pushing the boundaries in other writings, are readers finally going to think I’ve gone too far? Is my concern about other people’s opinions even one I should be thinking about or should I leave my quality control at being true to the voice of God in my ear? When it comes to writing as public ministry, how do you know when to share it?

So often, we like to share only when we are sure of what we’re saying, sure of what we know. Though I certainly try to write well, I know from experience the poems people love are rarely the ones written when I was sure of myself, but, rather, are the ones I just had to get off my chest, the ones I spilled out between tears, the words I howled to the wind as I stood on my soapbox crying out to the wilderness. These words, these broken, beautiful words, touch people deep inside. Because I was willing to be vulnerable first, they can join me in that cry of, “me too!” and find healing when they know, after all, they are not alone.

Being so vulnerable in my writing is a constant reminder, too, I do not do this alone. Only someone infinitely wiser than I with Divine understanding could transform such a questioning and thirsty heart’s thoughts into words people find meaningful in their own lives. I have learned first-hand that what is honest and true in expression is more powerful than well-compiled and packaged phrases. Powerful writing such as I hope mine is, comes out of the blend of God and I together, out of our relationship. It is not one of us alone. I am not a puppet writing for God nor am I running off by myself. What I write is a joint effort between us. The ingredients going into what I’m learning and in turn writing about, have been guided by God. The best teacher, God has brought books to my attention at the precise time I needed to read them, given me words through a friend when my heart ached to hear them, and gave me those bits of inspiration I later scribbled across the page. God is in my intuition when I know something is worth sharing and when I know to keep it for myself. God also has a way of giving me that nudge when I struggle to write by having someone tell me how much my words have meant to them. When that happens, I look at God and say, “Okay. I needed that reminder. This is why I lay my life down in such a public manner. It really does matter. Thank you.”

Holding the vulnerable words in my hands God and I have birthed between us, I release them as leaves in a river. The pages, now filled with my thoughts and the love underlying all, find their way to where they’re meant to go. It’s usually not my privilege to know where my words end up or what change they effect, but still, I have my hopes for what they do. I hope the words remind someone there is an underlying love connecting us all, that they are an intimate part of a wider truth in a much deeper way than they have yet guessed. I want to challenge their limits, challenge the theological boxes into which they’ve placed the One who can never be contained. I want to inspire journeys of their own―journeys they’ll dare to take because I’ve shared my own. Ralph Waldo Emerson once advised, “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” This is my goal: to search, to explore, to walk with God where there is no way and to let my writing be the trail.

Sarah Katreen Hoggatt has been writing for over twenty years and is the author of several books and numerous articles. She is a freelance writer, international speaker, editor, and spiritual director with a passion for ministering to fellow souls. She holds a Master of Arts degree in Christian Ministry from George Fox Evangelical Seminary in addition to her Bachelor of Science degree from Oregon State University. Sarah currently makes her home in Salem, Oregon where she loves hiking, dragon boating, art, and photography. She is passionate about living her life as a gift. For more information and to read her blog, go to SarahKatreenHoggatt.com.