A Contemplation: The Center Will Not Hold
By Emily Moses
I’ve offered to write about Joan Didion and, as I sit here, watching The Center Will Not Hold for the fourth time in half as many weeks, I regret my offer. I am not sure what I thought I would find in Griffin Dunne’s new documentary, but I realize now that I did think I would find something.
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When I changed my major to English, midway through my junior year of college, I intended to follow the academic path all the way through to a Ph.D. in Shakespearean tragedy. I could still do that, I suppose. The summer before my senior year, though, as I began to collect the necessary materials to apply to MA Literature programs, I picked up Joan Didion’s The White Album.
We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.
This sentence changed the trajectory of my life. This sentence was taped on my wall, above the chair from which I wrote. This sentence was the prayer I whispered as I submitted my application to graduate school to work on my Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing. This sentence taught me to reach desperately for the narrative line, which I knew—was confident and certain—would help me organize the experiences I did not understand.
This sentence failed me.
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Something about the way that Joan gesticulates in the documentary as she responds to her nephew’s questions has me enchanted, horrified. Though I’ve memorized the iconic photos of her leaning on her Corvette Stingray, of her standing in a crowd, looking to the side with a scarf tied around her neck, of her standing on the beach, I am startled as I watch her moving, speaking, active, and very much alive.
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When, in Richard McCann’s creative nonfiction workshop, we discussed Didion’s work—more often than not, specifically the essay, “In the Islands,” which initially ran as an introductory column in Life in 1969—as work of tension, of frankness, of voice. Richard often assigned the workshop the task of introducing ourselves, in 500 words (strictly 498-502, no exceptions), by establishing a voice as strong as Didion’s.
Each of the four semesters I took Richard’s workshop, I wrestled over this assignment. How do I write myself like Joan?
I see now that, for years, I missed the point.
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In the five years since I first encountered Joan Didion’s work, I’ve devoured every word of hers I could find. I’ve read The White Album cover to cover six times. I’ve memorized “On Keeping a Notebook,” and referenced it in my graduate school application. I’ve argued with friends about The Year of Magical Thinking.
Didion’s oeuvre served as the foundation of muse texts for the graduate thesis I eventually completed. As I wrote myself onto the page, wrote myself into inked existence, I wrote with Didion’s clean sentence structure, her distinct and clear voice in mind.
It has been a while since I’ve looked at the essays I wrote during that time, but I feel confident that, when I do go back to them, I’ll struggle to recognize the pulse of my work.
It’s not that I believe what I was writing was untrue, or misguided. I believe it is more that, as I struggled to find my footing, to gain confidence in the inherent value of my work, I attempted to infuse value into my work by following the light of the candle I had lit for my patron saint, Joan Didion. I shoved the shifting phantasmagoria of my life into messy narrative lines, jagged and incomplete.
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Perhaps I should, as Joan apparently used to do, put this drafted essay in my freezer in the hopes of figuring out whatever is eluding me.
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“For the mastery of style in writing, exploring the culture around us, and exposing the depths of sorrow, Ms. Didion has produced works of startling honesty and fierce intellect, rendered personal stories universal, and illuminated the seemingly peripheral details that are central to our lives.”
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Perhaps it is a good thing that this is not meant to be a review of The Center Will Not Hold. There are plenty of those online, already. Anyway, if you do not already know a lot of information about Didion’s life and work, you will likely not fully enjoy or understand Dunne’s documentary. Like much of her work, the film is fragmented, quickly interacting with time and space and concept in a way that is mesmerizing, that will leave you feeling the good kind of exhausted.
Still, after watching the documentary four times, I am thinking only of what a treat it was to see Didion speak, her hands reaching out above and around her as she worked to articulate what she needed to say. This physical act of grasping, of intentional and continued stretching toward understanding and expression, is now the only way I can see Didion in my mind’s eye. And that, among all other things, makes perfect sense.
Image: Vanity Fair
Emily Moses is a guest contributor to Café MFA. She is a graduate of American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.