Joan Didion Signed My Book and I Wish She Hadn’t: On Book Signings and Mistaking the Writing for the Writer
Joan Didion signed my hardback copy of her just-released Blue Nights, and I wish she hadn’t.
This is the moment in which I should tell the too-oft-repeated tale of how, like many young writers, Didion is one of my favorites, that her books occupy a starring slot on my bookshelf, that Slouching Towards Bethlehem, her 1968 collection of essays, made me want to write nonfiction, that her sentences, curving and twisting as they do, awed me, that the structure of Magical Thinking made me look up from the book every few pages to announce to no one, She is too good. All of this praise for Joan Didion has been sung before, but it is all to say: lost in my own work, I often return to hers for guidance, and I was thrilled at the chance to see her in person.
The inaugural reading for Blue Nights was at Barnes & Noble in Manhattan, and an hour before go-time, the top floor was already packed with hundreds of admirers. Every few minutes, an employee would get on the microphone: “If there’s a free seat next to you, please raise your hand!” We waited, overheating in sweaters and coats, checking our iPhones, thumbing carefully through Blue Nights, an account of the death of Didion’s daughter, Quintana.
Finally Didion, along with Susan Cheever, who would be interviewing her, appeared. She is notoriously thin, but I was startled nonetheless: she looked like an intricate collection of tiny twigs covered by a translucent skin. One shoulder blade jutted out of her black shirt like a wing trying to help her take off. She had a staggering limp. I wouldn’t be surprised if she weighed 45 pounds. The only predictable thing was the haircut: the signature look, the clean line at her chin.
The two writers took their positions on stage. Arms rose above the crowd to snap photos. In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion writes, “My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests.” There was something inherently wrong with watching someone who had made her career out of her invisibility—her diminutive stature, her ability to disappear into the background to get the story—be so completely on display. There she was, the cool customer, the detached observer, with hundreds of sincere faces staring up at her. At Broadway and 17th Street, she was the story.
“When do you write?” Cheever asked. “What were you reading when you wrote The White Album?” The responses were short, funny (“a PC is just a fake Apple”), and ended without warning. She’d make us wait in the silence, and I felt her famous discomfort along with my own.
I had planned on leaving right after the talk, but before it even began, Barnes & Noble employees had wandered the aisles with yellow post-its, asking if we wanted our books personalized for the signing that would follow.
“Yes!” the readers in front of me said, handing over their copies. “Dixie: D-I-X-I-E.” “Mark with a K.” “Margaret.”
I hadn’t had a book signed by a writer I didn’t know but admired since I had stood in line for Calvin Trillin to sign About Alice years earlier. That time, I had eagerly tried to make conversation—something about sharing his daughter’s name—but he did nothing but grunt. For years I had flipped through The New Yorker looking for his byline, but after the signing, I read his work with an unshakable bitterness, and I blamed myself: The writer is not the writing. Learn the difference.
This was not a mistake I wanted to make again.
But inertia took over, and I found myself spelling out my name for the harried employee with her Sharpie. Although it felt like an embarrassing and ridiculous lie—what did it matter whether “For Abigail” was written above her name?—I reasoned that I could change my mind, pull off the post-it before handing her the book. Asking Joan Didion to write my name on her work seemed like just the sort of thing she would find meaningless. In any event, the only inscriptions I had ever prized were the truly personal ones from writers I knew. Why was I succumbing to this odd ritual? Why did everyone else—their books piled neatly on their laps—think this was such a good idea? Did we hope her greatness would rub off on us? Did anyone really believe that?
The talk ended and the signing began. Didion looked like a child at the grown-up’s dinner table, frozen at the sight of people coming toward her. The Barnes & Noble crew ushered us up, line by line. As I watched—for well over an hour, much longer than she had spoken for—I noticed that she took a second longer with the people who wanted their books personalized. She looked up. She listened. She signed. There was a long span of nameless copies during which she stared vacantly out into the crowd as open books were passed under her again and again, her hand moving on cue, a factory worker at a plant, mindlessly sorting through car parts or thimbles.
So I decided to use my name.
I fantasized about how much my children and grandchildren would appreciate it, and—shamefully—about how much a signed copy might be worth one day. (My not-very-rich uncle has a signed Diego Rivera on his wall that he’s saving for a torrential downpour.)
I got in line between two octogenarians—one of whom had a wind-up disposable camera at the ready and wanted Joan to sign the book, “Merry Christmas, Nancy!” This almost sent me over the edge. Still, I wondered why I hadn’t brought my dog-eared copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, or the Everyman’s Library edition of We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live? (But would that have been for my benefit, or to make myself look more literary in front of my idol?)
I approached the table. Her assistant said, “This is Abigail.”
I smiled, but she didn’t look up. She wrote, “For Abigail,” signed her name underneath, and peered up.
“Thank you,” I said, looking into her eyes. She nodded, noncommittally.
Fans had walked off the stage beaming, as though they had just been told they were pregnant or suddenly rich. I felt dirty, like I had turned into a predator, sucking her for something she wasn’t equipped to give.
I thought back to “Goodbye to All That,” Didion’s essay about leaving New York that I have pored over dozens of time, identifying the moment when youth gives way to adulthood; or to “On Keeping a Notebook,” when it dawns on her that the incoherent journalistic scrawls in her notebook are not about others after all: “Remember what it was to be me,” she writes, “that is always the point.”
The relationship, I saw with renewed clarity, is always to the writing—not to the writer. That fleeting moment Phillip Lopate calls a “shiver of self-recognition” comes from the ideas, the words themselves, meticulously lined up again and again, not from the person standing before a crowd, rereading them after the long struggle.
I knew all this before.
Next time, I told myself, I will listen, walk out into the street, travel the long avenues to the subway, get on the F train, find a seat, crack open the book, and find the writer where she longs to be: inside the words.
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