Learning (Once Again) from Joan Didion

There’s time now that graduation is over and my grades have been turned in to begin reading in earnest again, and I’ve done so, with Michael Martone’s Michael Martone (a collection of quasi-fictive/quasi-nonfictive contributor’s notes about which I take back everything I’ve said over the past week regarding the demand for factual purity in writing; I want to know everything in that book that is true solely to bask in the thing’s pure truthness), and now I’m about halfway through Didion’s After Henry.

It’s an essay collection, and after reading this paragraph, from “Pacific Distances”…

Etcheverry Hall, half a block uphill from the north gate of the University of California at Berkeley, is one of those postwar classroom and office buildings that resemble parking structures and seem designed to suggest that nothing extraordinary has been or will be going on inside. On Etcheverry’s east terrace, which is paved with pebbled concrete and bricks, a few students usually sit studying or sunbathing. There are benches, there is grass. There are shrubs and a small tree. There is a net for volleyball, and, on the day in late 1979 when I visited the Etcheverry, someone had taken a piece of chalk and printed the word RADIATION on the concrete beneath the net, breaking the letters in a way that looked stenciled and official and scary. In fact it was here, directly below the volleyball court on Etcheverry’s east terrace, that the Department of Nuclear Engineering’s TRIGA Mark III nuclear reactor, light-water cooled and reflected, went critical, or achieved a sustained nuclear reaction, on August 10, 1966, and had been in continuous operation since. People who wanted to see the reactor dismantled said that it was dangerous, that it could emit deadly radiation and that it was perilously situated just forty yards west of the Hayward Fault. People who ran the reactor said that it was not dangerous, that any emission of measurable radioactivity was extremely unlikely and that “forty yards west of” the Hayward Fault was a descriptive phrase without intrinsic seismological significance. (This was an assessment with which seismologists agreed.) These differences of opinion represented a difference not only in the meaning of words but in cultures, a difference in images and probably in expectations.

…I suddenly realized a key characteristic of Didion’s writing, itself a good central tenet for the writer of nonfiction.

I don’t know what to call it, but I almost called it “subjective objectivity” which is a phrase terribler than any other I can hope to imagine. Self-protective objectivity? No. Forget it. The idea is this, and it comes often from my students: we want to believe that there are two sides to every story. We want to give both sides of an argument. We want a fair and balanced account. These are all valid desires for the nonfiction writer, student or otherwise, but their direct implementation—covering one side, covering the other, calling it a day—does not fully constitute the writer’s job.

It is not enough to, say, tell the reader the Group A wants to go north but Group B wants to go south, and that debate has commenced and by all accounts is likely to continue, and maybe that the north has been ravaged by hungry beasts and monsters with a taste for human blood whereas the south has been beset upon by wizards with overactive wands. It’s not enough to then let your reader decide which group she wants to go to. The job of the writer—and this is the job Didion seems to know is hers every day—is to understand completely where the people on both sides are coming from and then report the story above or behind their polarized stories, i.e. that, regardless of which direction people want to go, they live on a large sphere and so will inevitably end up back together again. And thus that these mininarratives of north versus south are not polarized as each group might like to think, but are really just two self-interested aspects of the same meganarrative: We All Want to Flee. The writer’s job should be to tackle that impetus for flight.

(My rhetorical example felt stronger in my head while reading the rest of Didion’s essay.)

What I mean is that most writers follow the narrative they’re handed—the narrative authored by the writer’s subjects. Didion’s talent is authoring her own narrative, keeping her subjects as characters therein. This is somewhat along the lines of what Deena Winter wrote last week in the Journal Star regarding Lincoln’s proposed Haymarket Arena, but not quite. Her assessment of both sides of the debate concludes thusly:

Arguably, the city has done more research and planning for every last detail than most cities do before embarking upon such projects.

Let’s vote, already.

Voting is today, of course, but we won’t know the end of the story for decades.

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