Right now I am re-reading Joan Didion’s “Play It As It Lays,” a novel she wrote in 1970, and one I return to every year or every other year. One thing that fascinates me this time around is how masterful she is at structure. I think it’s something I missed before, how deliberate she was. I also noticed that while it feels Didion-esque in the sense of atmosphere, the sentences of her fiction are different from her nonfiction. They’re so tightly wound — like a spring threatening to uncoil, or a rattlesnake — which, if you’re familiar with Didion, you’ve seen in much of her work, lurking as a motif of fear and anxiety and dread, often appearing in the midst of desert, of nothing, of blank open space.
Appropriately enough, searching for a cover of the book to include here shows just that: a coiled rattlesnake, poised to poison.
The experience of reading it now is very different than what it felt to first read it years ago. Didion is a master of atmosphere, of evoking feeling, and especially creating a sense of darkness and dread with her writing. But I remember feeling some frustration with its pace, with the lack of things happening, with what felt, to me, like a lack of story. As it often goes with time and hindsight, I see it all very differently now. The fear is expertly rendered, the text creates a sequence of pictures like a movie, Maria’s dread is just as much a central character as Maria herself. The action is obscured because Maria is obscured, even from herself. Until she’s not.
I suppose if you’ve never read this you’re wondering what I’m going on about in a typically literature-nerd sort of way, so let me offer this brief synopsis of the novel from writer Nicholas Rombes (he talks about why he loves this book so much on Electric Literature):
The novel is about 31-year old Maria Wyeth, who is confined in a psychiatric hospital. It is from her point of view, mostly, that we learn in fragments the details of the journey that led her here: her divorce from her filmmaker husband Carter Lang, the fragility of her four-year old daughter Kate, the abortion Carter forces her to have. While these plot details (and others) are important, it’s the incredibly glinty way the book unfolds, sentence by sentence, that makes it something you just can’t shrug off after reading.
It feels fitting, at least for me, to read Didion at a time of general unease. I don’t read to cheer myself up, I read to more fully immerse myself in a feeling, to find a mirror that expands my experience. She captures the mood of unease perfectly; nothing’s overwrought. And so when I feel my own anxiety and dread well deep and rise up, it’s usually her work I turn to. I’m not looking for a way out of this feeling, but rather looking for another way to feel it, to turn it, to see it in the light. In the reading, I realized just how much of my own earlier work is inspired by hers, and more specifically, the character of Maria — see my short stories “The Haunt of Santa Fe” in Hobart, and “Salted Wounds” in PANK.
In part, I might have decided to read the novel because I am avoiding what might be too much: re-reading “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” or “The White Album,” both essays that sit squarely in the chaos of American life, highlighting a specific moment in time where history, present day, the culture, the countercultures, politics, and unrest collide. Those essays don’t necessarily convey anger, but rather a bewilderment that might feel too exacting for me right now.
I suppose I should offer a caveat: there is nothing, at least on the surface, causing me unease. It’s deeper than that, something I can attributed to a few things: the weather (I deal with seasonal depression, and the lack of sunlight right now is getting to me), the fact that this year has been exhausting (Dayton has suffered some big blows this year, and collective trauma takes a toll on a community), and my general anxiety, which I’ve had my entire life, and which is amplified by the others. It is everything, and it is nothing. It’s the beneath-the-surface.
“Everything goes. I am working very hard at not thinking about how everything goes.” (Joan Didion, ‘Play It as It Lays’)
One thing I’ve learned from this is that I’m finished with the idea of “habits” that are actually just extensions of a capitalist definition of productivity. I spent too many years wrapped up in this idea of productivity and efficiency, trying to learn how to do more in less time, to be better, to do all of the things, and it just doesn’t serve me. It has helped teach me the ways in which I best get work done, which is useful. I’m better at managing my time and I know how to prioritize, but this is probably of no use to you, because we’re different people.
An example: each year, I keep a list of the books I’ve read. This has been spurred on by hashtag trends like #52in52, a suggestion that a book a week is a likely or reasonable goal that might not make you hate yourself when you fall miserably short, which I have every year. I read a lot, but reading for quantity has actually made my reading worse: I stopped reading as closely, I skimmed more often, I found myself actually agitated that I couldn’t read faster. It was a really good idea that actually made reading more difficult and less pleasurable for me, so I’ve stopped. I’d rather leave a book unfinished than suffer through to the end to meet an arbitrary goal. I’d rather read and reread things that I feel most interested in, or that I feel will help me with the work I’m doing in my own writing. And so I’m done with all that, and I’m refusing to commit to goals that feel useless except for the sole purpose of hitting a quota.
This year has been pretty rich in experiences. I attended my first non-school writing workshop with Tin House, which has been a bucket list dream of mine for years. I spoke on a panel at my alma mater, Ashland University, about “Life after the MFA” (fam photo below). I met some incredible writers I’ve admired from afar, like Elissa Washuta and Hanif Abdurraqib. I’ve met some incredible writers that I clicked with immediately, floored by their talent and generosity (looking at you, Kelly Sundberg and Paige Webb). I’ve been reading more interviews with writers and listening to more writer podcasts (my current favorite is Between the Covers with David Naimon). I vacationed with my husband, spent some time at the beach and in the mountains.
I’ve been cooking and baking new things, thanks to my crush on Alison Roman, who writes for Bon Appétit and NY Times Cooking. I would follow her off a cliff if the recipe required it, and since she told me she was proud of me and my Deep-Dish Honey Apple Galette on Twitter, we’re basically BFFs now (proof below, along with photo of my gorgeous galette).
Some favorite recipes, in addition to the above galette: Spiced Chickpea Stew with Coconut and Turmeric, Vinegar Roasted Beets with Onions and Yogurt, and Salted Butter and Chocolate Chunk Shortbread cookies, which I made this weekend for my parents’ visit — so addictive, they’re almost gone.
It’s no surprise that I ended up here, at the juncture of talking about food and dread. Food has always been my counter to that: eating it, making it. Cooking and baking requires a level of taking care that doesn’t have much use for malaise. It’s hard to be hopeless when fresh cookies come out of the oven, or when you see a loved one’s expression as they try a bite of a new recipe you made for dinner. This weekend, I will be making big batches of homemade pasta — my first time making it in the new house. I’m going to put on some Christmas music, put on a pot of coffee, and begin the dough. Little things. As Didion writes, “everything goes.” So it does.
(This first appeared in my TinyLetter. If you want an informal essay in the form of an email sent to your inbox 4-5 times a year, consider signing up here.)