The week before last my Readings class read Didion’s essay “The White Album,” the first line of which is a famous quote of hers: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
I have seen this quote pretty often, and have probably used it more than once. It stirred me in the deepest places; it rang as true. It’s always presented as inspiring, affirming–which, standing there by itself, it is.
However, “The White Album” is one dang depressing essay. At the risk of being too reductive, the feeling it leaves you with is that the stories we make of our lives are largely meaningless and artificial. Although she is a writer, and thus always creating stories and attempting to impose meaning on events, she ends the essay by saying:
Writing had helped [Paul Ferguson], he said, to “reflect on experience and see what it means.” Quite often I reflect on the big house in Hollywood, on “Midnight Confessions and on Ramon Novarro and on the fact that Roman Polanski and I are godparents to the same child, but writing has not yet helped me to see what it means.”
Although I’ve gotten better at reading stories as they are, I occasionally struggle with projecting a tone or atmosphere on them and rejecting them for something that isn’t there. For example, when I first read Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, I didn’t realize it was funny. I thought it was horribly depressing. Then I saw Smoke Signals and thought that perhaps I shouldn’t have written a long letter to my cousin complaining about how awful the book was. When I reread parts of it they make me laugh.
So it is quite possible that when I say I sense this meaninglessness in Didion’s prose, I could be reading it into the stories myself. I sense a searching, a struggle, a determination to try and make meaning anyway; but in the end the best you can do is make yourself feel a little better. And it makes reading Didion unpleasant for me, unless I really zero in on the craft of her sentences, her dialogue, what a marvelous talent she has.
This week one of our readings is Flannery O’Connor’s “The Nature and Aim of Fiction.” Joel asked me to present it–whether by intuition, perception, or chance, I don’t know, but I am very grateful–and in fact, I am a little stuck, because she lays things out so clearly there’s not much more to be said.
This presentation is actually what I should be working on right now.
It’s due tomorrow evening.
BUT. This post is relevant.
One of the things Flannery explains is that she does not write “to make the reader see what I see,” and that writing is not “a missionary activity.” This is very different from Joan Didion’s statement that writing is a hostile act, “of saying I, of imposing upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.”
But this springs from an even more fundamental difference in their views of writing and what it does. O’Connor sees stories as aiming after truth. Not truth as an abstract concept, but as expressed and embodied in reality. This is what makes writing art. She explains:
[…] all I mean by art is writing something that is valuable in itself and that works in itself. The basis of art is truth, both in manner and in mode. The person who aims after art in his work aims after truth, in an imaginative sense, no more and no less.
(See? How am I supposed to talk about this, when she’s already explained it all so beautifully?)
Flannery O’Connor believed in the vision of truth her stories presented. Joan Didion, it seems, didn’t believe such a vision was possible. I admire Didion for continuing to write nonetheless, for looking chaos in the eye and staring it down. But whose stories are more powerful?
To search for truth seems one of the fundamental marks of being human. To believe what you’re searching for isn’t possible is madness.