Authenticity is the word of the hour. Somewhere in the last five years, we became obsessed with being authentic. Perhaps it’s a reaction against the social media-induced blitz of picture perfect lives we endure daily. Maybe it’s an expression of our political suspicions or a fatigued response to the withering American Dream. We are confronted by industry disruptions, the rise of new economies, less stable job markets, increased international tensions, and prolonged adolescence; life feels more out of sync. Whatever: authenticity is our motto and it’s not a bad one. The impulse to chase after authenticity reflects an awareness that being human isn’t picture perfect, that jobs don’t always show up after four years of undergrad, that finding love sometimes takes time, that we are a little uncertain. But for all this hand-wringing, authenticity is still elusive, gone in the night like a wanted man.
Writers especially agonize about authenticity, not just as people, but also in terms of our craft. Writing authentically seems to suggest adopting a certain degree of vulnerability and transparency. Yet writing as a craft demands refining and cutting. It means pacing around the room, organizing our desk several times in procrastination, then sitting down and killing our darlings, sometimes the most authentic ones. This is perhaps one of the greatest paradoxes in storytelling (and also life): the most authentic stories (lives) typically sprout from a place of discipline. But...isn’t discipline antithetical to authenticity? What’s the balance between the two?
If we were to toss this question in Joan Didion’s general direction, I think she would stare at us cooly, much in the same way that she does from the cover of Slouching Towards Bethlehem. She probably wouldn’t answer the question, but if we insisted, she might say it’s a false conundrum, this perceived tension between living/writing well and living/writing authentically. Her work strikes the reader as authentic because she pays attention to the world, to people. When writing about Las Vegas weddings in “Marrying Absurd,”she notes, “the bride in a veil and white satin pumps, the bridegroom usually in a white dinner jacket, and even an attendant or two, a sister or a best friend in hot-pink peau de soie, a flirtation veil, a carnation nosegay.” Details take work, but because we writers like people, we do the work of noticing them. We notice the way our characters walk, the way they order their coffee, the material of their favorite scarf (ask if you don’t know). We should note if they double dip their chips and where they hide when they are nervous at dinner parties. This kind of reporting on life demands curiosity and ideally leads to more empathetic storytelling. There can be no real, true stories if we fail to pay attention.
Didion used details to say something truthful about being human. This truth-telling furthers the authentic feel of her work. She reported not just the political and cultural realities of her time, but also truths about cities and relationships. She preserved dialogues, characters, street names, and her own thoughts. She told things just how she saw them. And in her trapping, she makes room for nuance, for silliness, for hidden motives. She reminds us that people sometimes say hurtful things, that cities can break your heart, that we aren’t always loved as well as we think we ought to be, that we are all looking for paradise and coming up short. Didion:
Perhaps the best thing about Didion is she doesn’t feel the need to tie up her writing with a sudden jolt of optimism. “The only people around were Don and one of Sue Ann’s macrobiotic friends and somebody who was on his way to a commune in the Santa Lucias, and they didn’t notice Sue Ann screaming at Michael because they were in the kitchen trying to retrieve some very good Moroccan hash which had dropped down through a floorboard damaged in the fire.” This is how Didion ends an article about children enrolled in “High Kindergarten.” Not with any sort of commentary, just an honest portrayal about people trying to live. She knows it doesn’t do anyone any good to live with an inflated sense of things, so she leaves things the way they are, just as they are. She accepts that some characters say dumb things or die in the middle of the story, that semicolons don’t always make sense, and ellipses never find closure. She shows us that listening is sometimes more important than resolution. She shows us that waiting for life to unfold is sometimes more courageous than embarking on five year plans. In a world of well-timed photos, stories with good endings and life plans that actualize, Didion gives our voices permission to trail off into the night and she considers it beautiful. This is the greatest gift she gave to us and maybe one of the greatest gifts we can offer to a generation anxious about never arriving.
Tiffany Owens is a writer and Journalist living and working in New York City.