an open letter to Joan Didion

As you may or may not have seen, a group of variously-qualified folks just completed funding for ‘We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live’ (the Joan Didion Documentary) on Kickstarter. If you know me, you know I think she’s pretty much the best thing ever, so I was eager to help preserve her legacy. After some reflection, the ‘reward’ offered for my donation sat rather strangely with me. What follows is the very letter I recently mailed to one of my writing heroes.

Ms. Didion,

The irony of this situation is not lost on me. It’s just the sort of thing that you would like, I imagine. I paid half a month’s rent to fund an already-funded documentary about your life for the privilege to send a two-page letter that will allegedly be read to you by an intermediary. That is, if my letter is not too late for this session at which eighteen such letters are read aloud to you as you wear large sunglasses and aloofly smoke cigarettes. At least, that’s how I imagine it. There is no way for me to know you will ever hear these words, so I spent all of that money to buy belief. Which, we may proffer, is priceless. So perhaps that was a bargain.

When I discovered the Didion Documentary project on Kickstarter it was already well-funded, with such appealing options as “YOUR FAVORITE BOOK BY JOAN. Signed by Joan. Domestic shipping included! Plus, all the digital rewards above,” already sold out. If I wanted to make a meaningful contribution, I’d have to pony up for the option to have my words read aloud to you. I felt heroic, preserving your legacy for my generation, buying the privilege to tell you why this matters to me. It’s hard to imagine how I felt so empowered by my meager writer’s wages whenever I eagerly clicked through the donation and payment pages.

To say that I regret the donation would be going too far. As an artist, it feels good to be a patron of the arts at such a young and irrelevant age. I recognize the value of being told that your work matters to people, which you’ve heard so many times that this will be a shout into a cacophonous void, but perhaps my scrawled signature can provide sincere evidence of a human life improved by yours. I, too, was once a dreamer of that golden dream, a disillusioned ex-Central Time transplant to the unreal sprawl of Los Angeles. I felt validated by Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream, with its archetypal street names and delusional protagonists that I knew all too well, for it told me that this was not just a very long nightmare.

I found that elusive thing that great art supposedly has, a reassurance that I was not alone in thinking that we tell ourselves stories in order to live. I’ve always been reluctant to label myself a writer, because really I’m just a survivor.

I use your work to try to tell my story to those around me, handing out copies of Slouching Towards Bethlehem to women I want to love like I used to burn identical CDs and assure two girls at once that Billy Joel’s Scenes From an Italian Restaurant was “our song”. I have since traded my bottles of red and my bottles of white for the plain stated truth: “innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself.” A rather romantic sentiment to share with someone you hope likes you back.

I am grateful for your brand of girl power, which taught me about a timeless and tasteful feminism that resonates far more than anything my generational peers can create. I consume your sentences and ideas with an alacrity reserved for almost nothing else. I know I’m not alone in my feelings, because you’ve had them too, because other people have the same ones about you. That’s worth more than the three hundred and fifty dollars and forty seven cents this letter cost me.

More than anything, I found that once the fundraising was over and the donation cleared and I was sent the address to mail this letter, I barely wanted to write it. You put yourself in the ether through your writing, the same way I’ll put this letter in the mail and on the web. I will let people read slivers of my dutifully bared soul and wince when they try to talk to me about it. Vulnerability depends on a certain printed anonymity.

So, with all due respect, I would rather find my own poetically anachronistic billionaires than discuss Howard Hughes’ hairdresser with you. Of course, you would rank somewhere between Jesus and Abraham Lincoln on the list of guests for one of those all-star dinner parties we are always asked about, but they are always hypothetical.

1 Comment

  1. Fantastic letter john. I did not know that joan didion was your fave or one of your fave writers, persons, women, story teller and how great that this opportunity was taken by YOU!!!!! there will be no regrets with regard to this endeavor and isn’t that just the most bodacious WIN ever?

    So happy to be on your list of recipients. Love you much, mimi xo

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