Sunday, June 8, 2008

More Than Just the Facts, Ma'am -- Madonna Hamel

The White Album; Didion, Joan

As a child, I wrote before I read. I know that sounds pompous. And it makes no sense. (I didn't say my spelling was any good.) But I really did. I'm sure I felt compelled to wriggle out of, and away from, my singular reality and the way to do that was to try to describe it and thus bring myself into the clear light of a shared day of humanity. I had a small perfectly square orange scribbler (that came in packs of four primary-coloured scribblers) into which I poured configurations of feelings. I didn't read (that is, I didn't actively seek out reading material) because I didn't need or want more of the world pouring into me. Too much information confused and disoriented me. I needed to find a familiar space with easy-to-follow directions and a simple, manageable beautiful view. And that space was between the covers of my perfectly square scribblers.

I didn't realize at the time that I was telling myself stories in order to live. That's a paraphrase of the opening lines to Joan Didion's "cover essay," 'The White Album', from her landmark collection of creative non-fiction essays of the same name. The book came out in 1979, the same year I finally found "my people", a group of mature students who, collectively, specialized in the literatures of Japan, France, the Soviet Republic, Ireland, England, Australia, South Africa, and Canada. My own fascination was with the writers of the American south. I was twenty-one at the time. But I could have used that book when I was eleven.

Growing up in north-central BC, in Prince George, the pulp and paper capital of the world, I knew I had to tell the truth but I wasn't capable of telling it without feeling, or without extensive details that went beyond "just the facts, ma'am." I didn't know that there was a style of writing that was being developed at the time by writers who felt the same way: Truman Capote, Tom Wolf, Gay Talese, and Joan Didion, among them. However, I was developing a growing awareness that stories had a "saving grace-quality" to them: as the years stumbled along, I learned that relationships, vacations, fashions, meals, and many half-baked projects and notions could crash and burn, but at least they made good copy.

What I didn't realize, until I discovered Didion, was that an artist could write about a huge global event right alongside her own little life as if her life, also, mattered. Personal catastrophes could intermingle with social ones and the news quality of the overall "piece" could still retain its integrity. You could be considered both journalist and diarist and no one would think the less of you, or raise an eyebrow at your fanciful rhetoric. As long as the all the decimal points were in the right place, they would still respect you in the morning. Here was a writing style that owned up to myriad influences, be they neuroses, family, alma mater, geography, anatomy, diet or addiction.

Didion's particular personal influences, when writing The White Album, included a looming possible divorce, a "certain organic disorder of the central nervous system", a packing checklist for last-minute flights and the fearful prospect of driving a rented car over the Carquinas Bridge. And these influences were as relevant to the overall text and carried as much literary weight as receiving the news of Bobby Kennedy's death while standing on a balcony in Hawaii, awaiting the arrival of Jim Morrison in a recording studio, discussing the commercial prospects of Soul On Ice with Eldridge Cleaver and his parole officer and hearing the news of Sharon Tate-Polanski's death while sitting in the shallow end of a swimming pool in Beverly Hills.

I learned of Sharon Tate's murder from "The Vancouver Sun", the big city paper we only got on weekends. It made front page news, with a disturbingly sexy photo of the "Valley of The Dolls" starlet juxtaposed under the headline. That was my first exposure to the coupling of sex with violence and it packed a psychic punch. I had, at eleven years old, somehow surmised that pretty women were susceptible to violent deaths. I glanced at the article against my better judgment, catching phrases "pregnant. . . dead baby", "the word 'PIG' in blood. . . on the door", "stabbed sixteen times" then left the kitchen, chilled to the bone, despite the August heat. I sat on the back stoop pondering my fate and how, inexplicably, it was intertwined with Tate's. I sat there for the better part of the afternoon, dreading nightfall and the fact that I wouldn't get any sleep because the murderers were still at large and might well be headed for the border.

I'm forty-eight years old and, last week, I was in a Philadelphia bookstore talking with my lover's cousin Cleat about the things we fear and love. I was beginning to believe that we resonate with others based on whether or not we look at the world through enough of the same fear and love lenses. Cleat loves jazz and theatre. I love travel and books. We both fear poverty of all kinds. While comparing phobias and philias, I spotted on a shelf directly over his left shoulder a big book with the title "We Tell Each Other stories In Order to Live". I thought to myself: I know this phrase. It's the kind of thing despairing artists say to talk themselves off the ledge. And walking over to the shelf, I saw it was the title of a new anthology of Didion's non-fiction books. I bought the book with the intention of rereading The White Album, the essay. I wanted to see if it still hit as hard as it did upon first reading back in '79, when it came out, and I was an impressionable "comp lit" student, with my first real boyfriend and a newly-acquired taste for espressos.

It did. Especially section 10 of the essay. (The essay is divided into fifteen sections.) It talks about how, in those days (the late 60's) in LA, "everything was unmentionable, but nothing was unimaginable". There was a "mystical flirtation with the idea of sin" and with "the idea that it was possible to go too far". Her own community in Hollywood was experiencing "the jitters". She claimed that "dogs barked every night" and "the moon was always full". (Which, of course, the latter wasn't, but the image lent emotional colour to the idea that a palpable insanity lurked behind every door.)

And this is the part I remember most: on August 9, 1969, she "was sitting in the shallow end" of her sister-in-law's swimming pool in Beverly Hills, when the phones started ringing with the news of the murders at Sharon-Tate Polanski's home. Speculations flew back and forth regarding methods of murder, number of murderers and the involvement of drugs. And then: "I remember all of the day's misinformation very clearly, and I also remember this, and I wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised".

I've now reread that essay four times and and I'm on the third reading of the book in its entirety. I observe that the story of Sharon Tate's murder has less hold over me now than than Didion's discussion of her marriage. While I appreciate the chill that ran through me reading Didion for the first time when I was twenty-one and was prompted to recall my reaction to the Tate murder when I was eleven, I also appreciate that stories change. Even the ones we think will keep us alive.

Sometimes telling stories discharges their "energy-hold" over us. Sometimes the telling wears the groove deeper and keeps an attachment alive. Stories, the Buddhists remind us, can become crutches, blinders, parentheses around a potentially much bigger reality. Stories can even become noisy melodramas that keep us from a life of simple, momentary pleasures. But Didion knew this, too. After that now-famous first line -- "We tell ourselves stories in order to live" -- she warns the reader not to get too dependent on personal stories: "I am talking about a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself... my entire education, everything I had ever been told or had told myself, insisted that the production was never meant to be improvised: I was supposed to have a script, and had mislaid it. I was supposed to hear clues and no longer did." Of course, given the events of those last years of the 60's, her reaction was understandable, some would even say, normal.

The White Album still confirms for me that even the most terrible human behaviour can be borne -- if only in a miniscule way -- by telling our stories with all that we love and and all that we fear. But I have also come to believe that, as writers, we should always be a little troubled and relieved by the premises of all our stories. And I am ever-thankful for Didion's stories, which relieve and trouble me still.

Madonna Hamel is a writer-broadcaster and monologist. Her band, "Auntie Maddy", was a regular feature on the Quebec City performance scene for eleven years. She is now based in Toronto. You can visit her website at .

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