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  • In the Syntax:Rewriting Joan Didion's "Goodbye to All That"
  • Eula Biss (bio)

It would be Joan Didion, were I facing gates inscribed "abandon all hope," whom I would want to guide me through the architecture of hell. She is already half specter to me, a figure who walked my young mind until her pacings wore the floor. And she has already provided the most comprehensive tour of the damned I am likely to experience in this lifetime.

I read The White Album and Slouching towards Bethlehem in college, and then I read After Henry, Salvador, and Miami, and watched The Panic in Needle Park. I read and quickly forgot Run River, Play It As It Lays, and Democracy, but I didn't forget any of the essays. I moved to New York and read Political Fictions. I began graduate school in the Midwest, bringing with me Fixed Ideas. My husband gave me a hardcover of Where I Was From shortly after we met, and I finished The Year of Magical Thinking shortly before we married.

"I don't think someone your age reads the same book someone my age reads," my grandmother said of The Year of Magical Thinking. And I have no doubt this is true. I spent nearly a decade with a copy of "Goodbye to All That" somewhere on my desk, but now I no longer teach it and I no longer feel compelled to revisit it. I can still, nonetheless, nearly recite the essay from memory, owing to having once copied it out word for word and then slowly rewritten it.

Before I studied writing, I studied painting, and my training in that medium was satisfyingly systematic—we began with charcoal, then we moved to acrylic paint but only black and white, then only two colors, and so on until we arrived at a full palette of oil. At every stage we copied the masters, Kathe Kollwitz in charcoal and Matisse in acrylic and Cézanne in oil. This may help [End Page 133] explain how I misread an interview with Didion in which she suggested that she taught herself to write by copying Hemingway. What she meant, in that particular interview, was that she learned how to use a typewriter by typing out the opening to A Farewell to Arms. But I wouldn't return to that interview and see her meaning until long after I sat down with a rock propping open Slouching towards Bethlehem so that I could copy out "Goodbye to All That" and teach myself how to write.

"Goodbye to All That" is a narrative about narrative, like so many of Didion's essays. The setting is New York, and the narrative in this case is the story of arriving in New York young and leaving for California not so young, with the point being something less readily condensed. "It would be a long while," as Didion writes, "before I would come to understand the particular moral of the story."

Like Didion, I arrived in New York young and left for California not so young. I had, in fact, just left New York for California when I sat down to copy "Goodbye to All That." But very little of Didion's experience in New York agreed with mine. I never spent a single afternoon there drinking Bloody Marys, for example, and I didn't own perfume or nightgowns or chiff on scarves. I never set foot in Bloomingdale's or Bonwit Teller. I ate peanut butter and pasta in New York, and making a living did not seem a game to me then. I never liked going to parties, and it never occurred to me, at any time, that the days before I knew the names of all the bridges were happier than the ones that came later. But that is beside the point, or so I came to understand. Because the essay remained, for me, true—despite the dissonance I felt when I inhabited Didion's "I" by writing it with my own hand.

I was close in California to a composer who knew something about dissonance. He took me to concerts where one tone was played for...


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pp. 133-137
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