For the last fifteen years, I’ve misremembered the reason why Joan Didion writes. Mr. Girion had us read her essay “Why I Write” in the eleventh grade, and what resonated most was when she said, “I remember a particular woman in the airport.” I always thought that it was the fact of the woman at the airport that captivated me. If she had not been there at that time, in that way, in shadow or in of a certain kind of light, the book might never have happened.
Earlier in the essay, Didion describes how images fuel her when she works: “When I talk about pictures in my mind I am talking, quite specifically, about images that shimmer around the edges.” She says, “You can’t think too much about these pictures that shimmer. You just lie low and let them develop. You stay quiet.” Because the idea of an image of a woman in the airport reminded me of the moments when I feel compelled to do something artistic—when I’m bored and waiting, idly or actively gazing at people while we wait to board the plane—I latched onto this airport woman as a key to understanding my own way into writing. Over time, this woman took on the air of a creation myth for why I’m attracted to nonfiction in particular. Actual people with actual lives in an actual airport breathing the actual air and perceiving, subconsciously or not, that we share the same space.
Just like the day when my neighbor, Kay Parker, moved away from our apartment building, and I ran upstairs to a legal pad, flooded with this thing that I’d never felt in this particular way, or if I had, that I had not yet connected to the act of writing until that moment. It is the accident of the world as it exists that puzzles and drives me to the page. Like a conversation I had with some writer friends last night about collage. That silk-screened photograph of JFK is on the upper right hand corner of Rauschenberg’s canvas, next to an eagle and above a parachute. The undone feel of the composition, the realness of the image and the roughness of the paint, suggest the ways in which we can’t go back. Just like how the house can’t be un-robbed. The bike can’t be un-struck. And if you want to get political about it, your great, great-grandmother can’t be unborn into slavery. Your parents can’t uncross the border. Now what.
But in all this time, until re-reading the piece today, I forgot this one important detail about Didion’s vision of the woman at the airport: the woman wasn’t there. The sentence was, in fact, “I could tell you that I remember a particular woman in the airport” [emphasis added]. She explains: “I made this woman up, just as I later made up a country to put the airport in, and a family to run the country.” After Mr. Girion’s class, I went out and bought A Book of Common Prayer, the novel Didion wrote while under the influence of this imagined woman in an airport. I navigate the scenes and sentences as one would an interactive exhibition of Didion’s brain. For years I was confused about the plot, but I was never confused about the fact that it was fiction. I just had it in my head that there had been a flesh and blood moment at the root of that fiction. As it happens, in “On Keeping a Notebook,” Didion writes, "I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters." And I can’t say that the truth or fiction of the woman in the airport matters to me now either, so much as it matters that I resonated with the feeling behind the idea of “seeing” that woman in a moment of waiting, that the image of her shimmered.
On an episode of Louie, Louis C.K. gets into a fight with a woman at Ikea when asked if he likes a rug. “It’s a rug,” he says. “It’s fine, that’s the level of passion that a rug warrants. It’s a rug, it doesn’t solve all my problems, but it doesn’t make me angry. It’s a rug, it doesn’t smell bad. It’s flat, it’s blue, it goes on a floor, it’s not coated with AIDS, and it’s not a portal to another place. It doesn’t make me come, but it’s fine.” This is how the world feels most of the time. In writing, I notice myself trying to pretend that this is not the case. I feel pressure to be consistently fascinated, or to make my thoughts appear this way on the page. But if it were not the case that things are mostly boring, why would it matter that some things, sometimes, shimmer?
Recently, a friend lent me the essay collection, Video Green. In it, Chris Kraus starts off with a longer, segmented piece entitled “Art Collection.” There are some very important sections about the LA art scene, about the way the art world has been held hostage by MFA programs. These are at once theoretical and critical of what theory can do to art. Then she talks about a very nice real estate lawyer in LA, and a man who crossed the border from Mexico and opened a gallery. She talks about moving to Hudson Falls, New York, where a poet and art collector named William Bronk lived. His poems are, she writes, “intellectually elegant, annealed and raw… tiny arguments for the power of intangibility, mounted with a gravelly kind of pragmatism.” Also, she tells us about an S/M affair that she began online with a man named Martin.
Again, I’m brought back to the boredom of Didion’s airport. Or the boredom of waiting in the car while running errands with my father, which is how I first discovered magazines like Granta, stuffed into a bag with a newspaper or tossed onto the floor of the back seat. Kraus writes for a while about something that bores or bothers her. Then she talks in a slightly less academic voice about something she admires. And then she leads us, with little warning, to a moment of actual, physical excitement. All the while describing a man who, quietly and alone, enjoyed art in his room. This shift in subject matter can’t help but make the earlier sections seem dry, and the unceremonious turn is executed with a kind of cockiness that I appreciate. “What?” She seems to be saying. “I’m just telling you a story.”
I like how Didion admits to daydreaming when she should have been paying attention. In “Why I Write,” she describes how it was difficult for her to finish her degree because she let her mind flit toward random images instead of the lecture on Milton. “In short my attention was always on the periphery, on what I could see and taste and touch, on the butter, and the Greyhound bus.” Maybe what I am trying to say is that I like essays that remind me of traveling. They lie low. They don’t try quite so hard to prevent me from being bored. They are confident enough to admit that they are nothing more than a rug, and in doing so, have the ability to take it out from under me.
Aisha Sabatini Sloan's book of essays, The Fluency of Light: Coming of Age in a Theater of Black and White was published by the University of Iowa Press in 2013. She is currently a contributing editor for Guernica: A Magazine of Art & Politics.