Six letters in Didot line the underflesh of my right arm, a sprinkling of small ‘x’s preserved as cadence, not meaning. These letters I had pushed under my skin, years before I truly understood what they would come to represent. When the artist asked what they stood for, I told her they were code for the name of someone I had never met, only glimpsed from afar. I can tell you that now, in this story, that person is Joan Didion—but in a later chapter, she is also me.
For I too was twenty years old when I first saw light fall across the brownstones in New York, and knew that I would never be the same. I too wrote not out of choice or instinct, but out of necessity. To find out what I was thinking, and what it meant. And I too knew the rhythm of what I wanted to say before I knew how to say it, laying out Xs for a map of my thoughts, to be returned to and excavated later.
“The number of such symbols had a meaning,” Joan wrote in Blue Nights. “The arrangement was the meaning.”
I gasped when I read it for the first time. I, too, was her magic, an instinct for eliciting both emotional and intellectual empathy, a derivative of a singular style of writing that is at once solipsistic and acutely observational. When you’re a young writer looking for your own magnetic field, her words are easy to collect and store as mental provisions.
We eat things up so that they become a part of us. It is the quickest way to do so; the shortest distance to travel between our current selves and our future, better selves. Voraciousness, after all, is a supplement. By taking in more than you’ll need, you’re free to leave the rest. This is an incorrigible habit that we incur in our youth: reading under our sheets, tearing pages from glossy magazines, scribbling the lyrics to our favorite songs in our diaries over and over again until we know all the words. We are what we eat, of course. But more importantly, we eat to find out who we are.
At twenty, I consumed Joan Didion. Word by word, essay by essay, I read, underlined, highlighted, posted to Tumblr. She was an obvious choice for a role model, an easy patron saint to lift onto a pedestal: vulnerable and candid, yet bitingly critical. Fragile but powerful. A woman writer that men read. She packed mohair throws for her airplane rides, loved Henri Bendel jasmine soaps. Her name was to me, for a time, synonymous with discerning taste, and to love her, to emulate her, was to rise to her ranks, permeate this cool, luxurious world that seemed ripe with significant moments and talismanic artifacts.
It’s easy to imagine a young immigrant girl—having yet to reconcile herself to her race and identity in this world—desiring nothing more. I did not see then, of course, that this veneer of upper-middle class white-girl-cool was the very layer that would forever separate me from Joan Didion. That the universal experience she so carefully crafted would never be my personal experience, no matter how much of it I took in. That I could eat as much as I wanted, but never feel full. That I would have learn to feed on myself.
“Despite having seen Joan in person at readings, this was the most human she’s ever felt.”
We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live, an upcoming documentary on Joan’s life and body of work, launched as a Kickstarter campaign in the fall of 2014. It shifted our virtual tectonic plates—we all oohed and ahhed, and the campaign ended up raising over three times its original goal. Here is a woman who has disclosed so much about her life, she’s said nothing at all; the same woman who became the face of French fashion house CÉLINE, but has “no idea” why a single photograph of her broke Instagram. Recalcitrant, cool Joan Didion—whom the entire world has learned by heart and copied endlessly—flayed before those most voracious for the sinews of her life? Finally, the curtain is lifting, and we hungrily await the reveal.
One of the rewards for backers of the documentary was a cookbook. Interest piqued. I received it as a .PDF file, succinctly titled “Joan’s Recipe Book”: a small collection of her favorite recipes and dinner menus, categorized by seasonality. The pages are a charming mix of photocopies and handwritten notes, stained, on occasion, by small splatters of sauce. I tried to run my fingers over them, expecting some texture of life, only to be met with the austere smoothness of the photocopied page. Yet, despite having seen Joan in person at readings, this was the most human she’s ever felt.
In this recipe collection, I discover that Joan Didion enjoys borscht and gumbo in the fall, and when it gets colder, lentil and sorrel soups (Nora’s, a handwritten note says of the latter—Ephron). I learn that she plans dinner menus for dozens of people at once, that she makes parsley salad for “35-40” people, that her dinner guests include Patti Smith and David Halberstam. I imagine the setting for summer meals in her garden:there are vines, and tealights, and personal chocolates. A recipe for Chicken Hash calls for “1 fowl.” I picture Joan holding a quail by its feet, which she plucks by hand while crying. Of course, what I am really seeing is a version of myself.
“We cook to explore the topography of our own palate.”
As documentary artifact, it’s tempting to search for a narrative seam to this cookbook, to cherish it as a piece of Joan’s very elusive puzzle. But it raises more questions than it answers: Why are some notes so thorough, and others so sparse? Why does she serve Tomme Fleur Verte with almost every meal? Would she prepare the fowl with tenderness, or with rehearsed, clinical precision? It’s the Joan Didion spell—the inclination to extract meaning from every experience. But here’s the thing about cookbooks, and books, and cooking, and writing: the experience we savor isn’t in what’s available for consumption, but in the process of making.
Some time ago—not far back, but with enough distance that I no longer recognize the person I used to be—I would study Didion’s sentences like a recipe for writing: a specific melody, just the right touch of grace, a balanced ratio of observational sentences and personal disclosures. It wasn’t a model of success as much as a safety net against failure: with these ingredients at hand, surely my writing would appeal to someone. But the first person to develop a distaste for it, it turns out, was me.
If we write to tease out our thoughts, we cook to explore the topography of our own palate—adding, modifying and substituting ingredients until we are satisfied with the result. Cooking, too, is self-discovery. I still admire Didion’s work, but no longer as a framework for myself: the immigrant daughter who, desperate to blend into the landscape of the high school lunchroom, bought ham and cheese sandwiches to eschew the embarrassment of smelly home-cooked leftovers, but who, as an adult, finds herself deeply nostalgic for her parents’ cooking.
Flipping through the pages of this collection, I wanted to find a recipe I could make as an experiential component to this piece; evidence of those threads of commonality. But even though the dishes run the gamut of traditional North American flavors and classic European influences, I found them fundamentally uninspiring. Gone is the magic, the shared experience. What this cookbook has imparted is not wisdom, but recognition: as my voice as a writer has strengthened, so have my tastes. I can no longer devour Joan Didion as I used to. These recipes are—I’ve finally come to accept—not written for me.
Tracy Wan (@astroblemes) is a writer based in Toronto.