Creative Nonfiction: Didion and Sedaris

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My focus for this reading response is on the following four essays: Joan Didion’s Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 3-28), California Dreaming (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 73-78), On Going Home (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 164-168) and David Sedaris’s Go Carolina (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 3-15).

I enjoyed all four essays but to different extents and for different reasons. While I appreciated the first two (Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream and California Dreaming) primarily from a stylistic standpoint and because they gave insights which sparked my curiosity, I connected on a more personal level to the other two (On Going Home and Go Carolina).

In Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 3-28), Didion tells the story of “Lucille Marie Maxwell Miller” (AKA: Lucille Miller) who allegedly murdered her husband, Gordon “Cork” Miller by setting his car on fire with him still alive in it late one night on Banyan Street nearby their home in the San Bernardino Mountains in California. While Lucille Miller eventually gets convicted and sentenced for this crime, Didion never seems to pass judgment on her or settle on any particular conclusion of guilt or innocence in the story she tells. Instead, Didion seems to use this particular story as commentary on this place and the type of people who live there, as well as food for thought on the case, our legal system and society itself.

Stylistically, this essay struck me as both beautiful and functional. Didion’s transitions worked especially well as they allowed her to move the essay masterfully back and forth between the facts of the case and the illusions of opinion. Transitions like “Of course she came from somewhere else” (7) and “Unhappy marriages so resemble one another that we do not need to know about the course of this one” (8) gave Didion the ability and flexibility to weave in and out of the information she wanted to share and leave out things she deemed unimportant to her essay. These transitions allowed Didion to tell an otherwise tangled tale in an easy-to-digest way.

Didion’s California Dreaming, a much shorter essay though equally revealing story, is about the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, “the current mutation of the Fund for the Republic.” It’s in the little details where we as readers learn the most. For example, by choosing to use the word “mutation” here Didion is able to make a subtle though still poignant statement. In this essay, Didion takes what’s on the surface, or otherwise known as public knowledge,” and adds details, like the nepotistic aspects of the society for example, and even makes a few cult-like parallels, to make us curious about what is really going on here. Though Didion herself avoids making accusations and seems to almost dance around what she really thinks, she gives enough information so we, as readers, can come to our own conclusions.

In both essays, Didion take news stories and public information and dives deeper into them to reveal the aspects anyone not paying close attention may have missed. In doing so, she provides a unique insight into California culture while showing an uglier side of the so-called “American Dream.” In both essays, Didion uses imagery and description exceptionally to add layer after layer, while transitioning smoothly between those layers, to build toward climax. I felt myself being pulled so deeply into these stories that I was itching to know what would be revealed at every turn. And, even though neither essay provided a sense of closure, both gave me so much to think about that I could happily chew for days on certain paragraphs in an effort to try to figure out what Didion really thought about the people and events she was writing about.

On the downside, both Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream and California Dreaming struck me as a bit rushed, perhaps due to the sheer quantity of information being shared. And by rushing and squeezing so much in, I think, both essays also dismissed a sense of human connection and feeling. These essays, while profoundly interesting and stylistically beautiful, struck me at times as a collection of informative facts and quotes with little to no emotion.

The final two essays, Didion’s On Going Home (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 164-168) and David Sedaris’s Go Carolina (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 3-15), also made good choices stylistically but they didn’t make those choices at the expense of emotion and in doing so they were able to reach the next level by making the personal connections the other two essays missed. Both relied more heavily on opinion and feelings over “just the facts” and gave very personal accounts of the writers’ lives to give insight into perhaps why they are who they are.

In On Going Home, Didion tells the story of a time when, without her husband, she took her daughter “home” to celebrate her first birthday in the home where Didion grew up and with her premarital family. The essay deals with Didion’s personal issues as she compares and contrasts her current life with her husband and their child versus her life and experiences growing up. Didion shares vivid details to make her points about the differences between her current life/family and her background and in doing so she reveals positive and negative qualities about both. For example, I loved the story about the dust. By telling us that it was so dusty that her husband could literally write the word “dust” in it, it shows how unkempt the house is while also showing the condescending and pretentious qualities of her husband.

I really loved this story, and will likely use it as my second reading response later this week. I loved it so much, I think, because I could relate to it. It connects so well to the feeling many, including myself, get when they grow up, marry or enter a commitment with someone from a wildly different background. It’s so easy to see the differences, both positive and negative, between the families we are given and the families we choose. For example, I grew up in the inner city in Philadelphia while my husband grew up on a farm in Iowa (keeping in mind that while I grew up in Philly, I currently live in Iowa with my husband and daughter). It’s impossible to ignore the many glaring differences between the two that I often find myself loving and hating one over the other and shifting back and forth between which one wins or loses the individual battles of comparison. For example, while I love that my husband comes from a large laid back family with so many cousins all living nearby and the fun and festivities which come naturally with that, I hate that everyone knows each other’s business. Of course, there are also things I love, especially by comparison, about my own premarital family, too, like the faster paced life of the city and the way that how we, as a small family, act in times of struggle like it’s us against the world and how we all truly seem to “get each other.” But while I love “going home,” when I do there are moments when I feel like Didion as she revealed in her essay.

Not only was this story far more personal and emotional than Didion’s other two essays, in the other two she goes to great efforts to set up her stories before revealing the underlying issues and elements, while in this one she gets to the main points almost immediately and was far more conversational and raw, both personally and emotionally, than the other two.

Go Carolina (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 3-15) by David Sedaris made similar emotional connections for me as Didion’s On Going Home but while it had some similarities to Didion’s other two essays it maintained a style of its own. Like Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream and California Dreaming by Didion, Sedaris goes to great efforts to set up his story before jumping into its true themes and getting to the good stuff, so to speak. I liked his quirkier style and specifically how he used elements from a young boy’s imagination, like referring to the speech therapist as “Agent Samson” and his younger self’s creative problem solving, like avoiding the Ss. But what I really liked about this particular essay was the smart humor throughout and the way in which Sedaris set up this story—how he leads us to believe that this is a story about a boy who battled a speech impediment, but as the story builds the story behind the story is revealed and this is where Sedaris shares a far more personal journey and his issues with his sexuality.

Like Didion’s On Going Home, my favorite aspect of this essay is how Sedaris lets us in. He welcomes us into a very personal part of himself and does so in such a way where we feel like we belong there, like we’re not snooping around in someone else’s business.

Didion’s Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream, California Dreaming, On Going Home, and Sedaris’s Go Carolina are exceptional examples of how to weave a story that will grab and maintain a reader’s attention from start to finish. In all four of these essays, Didion and Sedaris use dark humor to deal with dark topics and some intense issues as they lead us down various well detailed paths in what felt to me, at times, like layered labyrinths. But none of them strolled too far down any particular path long enough for me to nod off, stop reading or skip ahead.

What I admire most and aspire toward, as a writer and writing student, is how Didion and Sedaris masterfully set up and paced their stories, as well as how they grabbed and kept my attention from start to finish by revealing just what I needed to know just when I needed to know it. Each told unique stories in his and her own unique ways and in reading them I feel satisfied by what I’ve consumed and yet I am still left thinking and wondering and wanting more.

Works Cited:

Didion, Joan. Slouching Towards Bethlehem. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.

Sedaris, David. Me Talk Pretty One Day. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2001.

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