Joan (Excerpt)

In this excerpt from the Byliner Original “Joan,” author Sara Davidson recalls a dinner party held at Joan Didion’s beachfront home, and an awkward interaction between the acclaimed novelist and a Hollywood star.

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    I came out early to help Joan get ready. I'd moved to Venice, California, after divorcing, and often spent the night on the convertible sofa in Joan's writing room. When I arrived the day of the party, she'd already cooked enough food for sixty people: Mexican chicken, her signature dish, which was chicken shredded and simmered with tomatoes, onions, peppers, and spices and served with handmade tortillas and elegant bowls of sour cream, avocado, salsa, and cilantro.

    We arranged her orchids and oil lamps about the rooms. Joan always kept orchid plants, and liked to linger in the greenhouse of a grower in Malibu, Amado Vazquez, who would name a pink-and-white-striped orchid Phal. Joan Didion Dunne. When everything looked as she wished, Joan, John and I went to get dressed and then gathered in her study. Wearing a rose-print batiste dress (one of a matching pair she'd bought for Quintana and herself in the children's department at Bonwit's), Joan lit a Pall Mall. "We're ready for the party," she said, adding that she was always nervous before dinner was served. Hired help arrived to tend bar and set up the buffet, and I remember Joan and I discussing what we might wear under the filmy see-through clothes that were becoming popular in L.A.

    An hour later, the great room and deck were overflowing with actors, writers, directors and producers, including Warren Beatty, who was in the middle of directing Shampoo, George Segal, Michael Crichton, Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, who'd teamed up to make Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, and Michael and Julia Phillips, who'd won Oscars for producing The Sting. Julia was the first woman to win the statue for producing and would later get divorced, dive into cocaine and write You'll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again.

    Warren Beatty was working the room, telling people he wanted to do some "gynecological detective work. I'm a combination gynecologist and detective." He took me aside and said he had a crush on Joan. "I want to see her fly."

    I told him I'd arrived early and given Joan a massage. He looked puzzled. "A verbal massage? Is that what you mean?"

    "A back massage."

    His eyes quickened at the suggestion of touching her tiny, delicate back. He walked to where she was seated, pulled up a rattan Huey Newton chair facing her, opened his knees and pressed her knees between his. "This is it for me," he said. "This is all I want, right here. I'm happy."

    Sitting down next to Joan, I asked, "For how long?"

    Warren looked at his watch. "I don't have to be on the set until ten Monday morning." He looked straight in Joan's eyes and, with a smile that could melt an ice queen, pressed his knees tighter around hers.

    She fidgeted. "This is not . . . "

    She moved her hand in circles in the air. John was not around to complete her sentence so she said, with a shy smile, ". . . feasible."


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Story Updates

  1. Since Joan was published, interviewers have been asking me: What was the most important thing you learned about writing from Joan Didion?

    I learned so much it was difficult to answer, but one precept stood out: Anything can be fixed.

    Whenever Joan was working on an article or book, she downplayed it, saying things like, “I’m having trouble,” or “It’s not going terribly well.” She never said, “It’s flowing,” or “This is a great subject.” Then, when it was published, it invariably would be a jewel.

    Joan gave a name to the anxiety I felt every morning. She called it, “Low dread.” It was fear, she explained, “fear that you won’t get it right, that you’ll fail.”

    I had High Dread with my first book, Loose Change. In 1975, I’d completed a draft but I was hung up on the prologue—the most important part. For weeks I’d been writing and rewriting the same six pages and I was so pained and scared I became paralyzed. I would wake up in the middle of the night and weep. When I called Joan and told her I was in a panic, she invited me to drive out to her house north of Malibu.

    She spread the pages on the dining room table so she could see them all at once and move her eye back and forth. I assume that’s what she did with her own work, and with her husband, John’s. While she read the pages, I sat frozen, praying and hoping against all reason that she would tell me it was fine and I was worried for nothing. But after reading the last page, she looked up and said, “You’re really having trouble with this, aren’t you?”

    She made suggestions, pointing to different spots and saying, “Try moving this here…” and “That’s good,” and “Maybe a few more sentences to let us know why it’s important…”

    Less than an hour later, it did seem to work and I drove home feeling life was worth living.

    Joan often spoke about the need to keep returning to your desk, even when you hate what you’re turning out. “You can have three days of writing terrible stuff but if you keep going back and working every day, something will break through.”

    It took me 30 years to have faith that this is true. Once you’ve got something on paper—anything, no matter how bad it seems—you can fix it, steadily, one word or phrase at a time. You can turn something awful into something reasonably good. Knowing this, I write with less anxiety these days but when I falter, I look at the words written in red on a card above my desk: “Anything can be fixed.”

Originally published in Byliner, October 2011