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Lions Roar : January 2007
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2007 47 started every day with a walk in the park, worked in offices in the apartment through the day, and often emerged at night to dine out with friends. Once, when they were living in L.A. and she had to overnight in San Francisco, John flew up for dinner. “They often finished each other’s sen- tences,” fellow writer Calvin Trillin told me. He is the unnamed friend in Magi- cal Thinking whom Didion thanks for riding his bicycle up from Chinatown every day for weeks with the only food she could stomach, ginger congee. “John was enormously proud of her. If Joan won a prize she wouldn’t say anything, but John would call. He wasn’t just her editor, but her booster.” Walking out on stage, Didion looks tiny and frail. (Trillin has famously said, “She is tougher than she looks, but then anyone is tougher than she looks.”) She is barely tall enough to reach the top of the podium; just her head pokes above it. She begins to read in a soft, precise voice. More than seven hundred peo- ple—two-thirds are women; most are under thirty-five—pay close attention. On my flight to New York I had sat beside a woman who said her husband of fifty-one years had passed away the year before. When I mention Didion’s belief that we are not allowed time to grieve, her eyes fill with tears. “After just a few days,” she says, “even friends don’t want to hear about it. They would rath- er you act ‘normal.’” Normal has never been acceptable to Joan Didion. Normal suggests a lack of cu- riosity, laziness, an unseeing eye. Nor has she time for cynicism or dreaminess. She scratches away at actual experience, to reveal its context and roots. Part of her philosophy, she says, is this: how much we learn in life is based on our ability to be self-aware. “If you don’t know what you’re learning, you’re not learning it,” she says. “I mean, if you can’t register what the experience is, the experience hasn’t happened in a way.” The reading’s moderator, Philip Gourevitch, editor of The Paris Review, told me he admires Didion for her “incredible clarity in a plain American voice.” She has, he says, “an un- flinching gaze for looking at things. She’s not interested only in how something presents itself, but what’s really there.” It is a rare writer, Gourevitch points out, whose magazine pieces are being read forty years later, both for the quality of the informa- tion and as enduring literature. Didion achieves her remark- able clarity, he says, because “quite often she is cutting through conventional wisdom, preconceptions, and misapprehensions. She makes the whole process of thinking part of the process of observation and comprehension.” For the reading in Central Park, Didion has selected pages from early in The Year of Magical Thinking. She is coming home from the hospital with her husband’s wallet, keys, and clothes. Alone. Didion and actresss Vanessa Redgrave discuss Redgrave’s role in the one-woman stage show adapted from The Year of Magical Thinking, scheduled to open on Broadway in March. CHESTERHIGGINS,JR./NEWYORKTIMES