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Discovering Joan Didion

It is the spring of 1971—a few months before I will turn 21—and I am not feeling the power of pending adulthood. Instead, I walk sheepishly from class to class at Sac State. I spend most days wishing I’d been able to leave my home town of Sacramento—to go away to school as my wealthier and more confident high school friends have. I am also buried deep in that early-adult fog that prevents even an inkling of a clear road ahead. I don’t know what I want to study, what I want to pursue for a career, or who I imagine myself becoming. I think I want to write, but I can’t imagine myself as the author of novels or as a reporter who covers car accidents and city council meetings. To make matters worse, on each of the treks from my Shakespeare seminar to the geography lab I am almost flunking, I carry with me the knowledge that I am a lesbian—just as I’d done all through high school. I barely even know what this means, much less how I can explain it to my parents or my friends, but it is still not anything I can ignore.

It is a talisman in those years, when I do finally come out, when I decide to major in journalism, and when I begin to see the formation of a person inside myself.

My one bright light is the 50 minutes I spend each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning in “Basic News Reporting,” a class taught by a sweet, smart man who mostly talks about writers he likes. He does occasionally discuss the inverted pyramid form of writing news stories, but quickly lapses into reading from books he has recently discovered, sharing passages from Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and Hunter S. Thompson. One morning, he holds a blue paperback in his hand and is clearly excited. “This woman,” he says, pointing to Slouching Towards Bethlehem, “is from Sacramento. You must read her.” He goes on to tell us how the author, Joan Didion, has written essays for Vogue and The Saturday Evening Post and The New York Times Magazine, and how many of those pieces are in this book.

I am already intrigued, but more so when he reads from “On Keeping a Notebook.” In the essay, she writes of the need to keep track of what we hear and what we see, and eventually what we remember about ourselves. “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be,” she writes, “whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”

I can barely sit still until the class ends and then, as quickly as I can, I make my way to the bookstore to find my own copy. It is there because it is required reading in several English and journalism classes. For the next many years, I keep it with me, underline passages, share it with people I know, and re-read it regularly. It serves as a writing guide, a cultural almanac, a mirror, and a small, quiet promise that something lies ahead. Very soon, my copy opens automatically to Page 145, where I have highlighted this: “Nonetheless, character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life—is the source from which self-respect springs.” It is a talisman in those years, when I do finally come out, when I decide to major in journalism, and when I begin to see the formation of a person inside myself.

A few years later, opening Christmas gifts with my family, my sister-in-law Alice hands me a small package that is clearly a book. When I tear off the paper, I see my own copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I look up at her quizzically and she nods toward the book. “Open it,” she says. There, on the title page, in a handwriting that isn’t easy to read, it says: “For Ginny McReynolds, Christmas, 1975. May that flat valley horizon stay in your mind as fixedly as it has in mine. Joan Didion.” I am speechless. Alice tells me how she contacted a relative of Didion’s to explain how much the book means to me and what a gift it would be for her to write in it. Since this is long before celebrity stalking, she gets Didion’s address and sends her the book. I actually meet Didion at a writer’s conference the next summer and thank her for the inscription. She remembers, or says she does.

I have read so much of Didion’s writing over the years, as most of us have, but it is always her essays that pull me in and urge me to keep looking closely at myself and at the world. They remind me, too, of those years so long ago, and how lucky I was to have discovered this other soul from my city. I am retired now from a long career teaching journalism, and happily married to a woman who is always willing to let me read some meaningful passage to her. When I heard that Didion died, all of this tumbled back, and I thought of that 20-year-old me, and those paths we all walk when we can barely see what’s ahead.


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