Book Reviews

What I’ve Been Reading: South and West by Joan Didion

I am always impressed by writers who have the ability to record intricate details of their experiences while traveling. I don’t feel like I can write well when I’m on a vacation or some excursion far away. I’m always either doing my best to soak up the experience or resting from the exhaustion of doing just that.  I suspect that there are two major reasons that I have not developed the skill to thoroughly document any travel experiences:

  1. I’m probably more crunched for time versus writers who are on some kind of writing assignment or simply take longer trips than my typical getaways. When I travel, it’s usually with a pretty specific purpose of visiting somebody, celebrating a wedding, or golfing. Whatever it is I’m doing takes up most of my time and renders me zapped of enough energy to do any writing.
  2. I am not -and have never been- any good at daily journaling. Many writers journal every day as an emotional release and/or as a way to just make sure they write every day in some capacity. I absolutely see the value in journaling for some people. It’s just not something that ever became a habit for me. I have a feeling that writers who already journal every day are, as a result, much better at writing while they’re traveling since it’s already a natural part of their day to write at some point.

I don’t know for sure, but I would guess that Joan Didion probably kept a daily journal/diary for most of her life. The style and precision in her *travel writing seems like it almost had to be honed through keeping a daily record of her life with some regularity. She certainly kept notebooks in her adulthood, and the contents of South and West are pulled from some of those notebooks. These notebooks began as scribblings for a Rolling Stone story that was never written. Released as a book, these notes seem deeply personal in addition to being detailed and observant regarding what she was seeing while traveling in several southern states. In her notes, she also compares her own upbringing in California with the culture she was viewing (often starkly in contrast to what she was used to). Didion is well-known for her essay and article writing. It seems like her process was essentially to **journal her experiences, then drastically cut that material down into a smart, poignant piece that was digestible for the average reader.

I wrote a post last year after reading Play it as it Lays by Didion. Her fiction is dark and intriguing, but her non-fiction will be her legacy. Didion captures some kind of inarguable truth, while also injecting her own thoughts and feelings, and is simultaneously humorous and depressing. In short, she exhibits all of the characteristics of one of the finest non-fiction writers of the twentieth century.

As far as South and West goes, readers who enjoy a slowly paced journaling style of writing will appreciate the book very much. By that, I mean you have to enjoy chapters that dwell closely on the minutia of everyday life. This is a book that favors introspection and dissection over narrative. If you’d like to read Didion but don’t feel like digesting an entire notebook of her thoughts, check out some of her excellent essays to get a more concise version of her writing.

*I use the term “travel writing” in the more literal sense rather than the touristy sense. I mean simply the writing that she did while traveling, not a blurb for a timeshare pamphlet.
** I should point out that her “journaling” was probably better than most writers’ polished final, final drafts.

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