We Tell Ourselves XX in Order to XXXX

One of my favorite passages of Joan Didion‘s new memoir, Blue Nights, is a bit in which she discusses writing her 1996 novel, The Last Thing He Wanted. Here’s an excerpt of her draft:

“What we need here is a montage, music over.
How she: talked to her father and xxxx and
“xx,” he said.
“xxx,” she said.
“How she:
“How she did this and why she did that and what
the music was when they did x and x and xxx—
“How he, and also she—”

“[W]hat I was doing then was never writing at all,” Didion writes. “I was doing no more than sketching in a rhythm and letting that rhythm tell me what it was I was saying…. A single ‘x’ differed from a double ‘xx,’ ‘xxx’ from ‘xxxx.’ The number of such symbols had a meaning. The arrangement was the meaning.” This is interesting to me, because as often as fiction writers like to discuss the “musicality” of their prose—we’re always reminded of how important it is to read it aloud—it’s unusual to see a writer concerned about that to the point where it’s the first part of the drafting process. She guesses that it’s a little like how music is written, and that sounds right. I suppose the rough equivalent would be a click track, or the way some songwriters start to come up with lyrics by singing nonsense words over music; once you’ve sorted out what the words should sound like and where you put the emphasis, the words themselves can be just a kind of a polish.

I don’t know how well this succeeds in Didion’s fiction, because though I’ve read plenty of her nonfiction books I haven’t tried any of her novels. (She includes a finished version of that bit of the novel in Blue Nights; the sentences have graduated into a set of Hemingwayesque shards, more percussive than lyrical.) Obviously the process has worked for her for a while, though. In a 1977 interview she explained how her 1970 novel, Play It as It Lays, was littered with TKs even in the late stages:

I made notes and wrote pages over several years, but the actual physical writing—sitting down at the typewriter and working every day until it was finished—took me from January until November 1969. Then of course I had to run it through again—I never know quite what I’m doing when I’m writing a novel, and the actual line of it doesn’t emerge until I’m finishing. Before I ran it through again I showed it to John and then I sent it to Henry Robbins, who was my editor then at Farrar, Straus. It was quite rough, with places marked “chapter to come.” Henry was unalarmed by my working that way, and he and John and I sat down one night in New York and talked, for about an hour before dinner, about what it needed doing. We all knew what it needed. We all agreed. After that I took a couple of weeks and ran it through. It was just typing and pulling the line through.

2 thoughts on “We Tell Ourselves XX in Order to XXXX

  1. Mark,

    As a writer I found that part of Blue Nights interesting as well. Did you read the article about the “feud” between Pauline Kael and Didion (I tweeted the the link).? It grew out of Kael’s review of Play It as It Lays and apparently continued for some time.


    1. Thanks, Harvey. I haven’t read the Kael-Didion piece yet, but I did like Matthew Specktor’s excellent review in the Los Angeles Review of Books, which gets at (if I understand right) some of the same issues of class and privilege in Didion’s work. Didion is a hard writer to love, and I think Specktor nails what works and what doesn’t about how she scrupulously manages her tone in off-putting ways:


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