“In fact it was difficult in the extreme for me to understand those young women for whom New York was not simply an ephemeral Estoril but a real place, girls who bought toasters and installed new cabinets in their apartments and committed themselves to some reasonable furniture.”

-Joan Didion, “Goodbye to All That”

Since I will only be in New York City for a few months, I do not have to even think about buying any furniture. But when I came across this line in Didion’s essay a few days ago, I still felt I could sympathize with her in a small way.

I just signed up for an account with a grocery delivery service a few days ago (I know, I know… but delivery only costs $6! And the grapefruit is so juicy!), and even that felt like too big a commitment. Creating a login name and password for FreshDirect means that I plan to order groceries again from them, and the fact that I plan to order again means that I plan on still being here, in New York City, the next time I need groceries.

The simple question “How is New York City? You liking it there?” baffles me. All of a sudden I am directly linked to this foreign thing, this city I have heard about all of my life, and I should have something to say about it. I ride the subway every day, I intern on 5th Avenue, but in my mind this will always be just a “visit.” And that makes sense. Doing a 3.5 month program here does not mean I will tell people that I “lived” in New York City. Maybe I “stayed” here, or “studied” here, but not lived.

According to Didion, even if I were here indefinitely, my mind-set might not be that much different. She argues that, for those of us not from here, there is something inherently uninhabitable about New York City:

“To those of us who came from places where no one had heard of Lester Lanin and Grand Central Station was a Saturday radio program, where Wall Street and Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue were not places at all but abstractions (“Money,” and “High Fashion,” and “The Hucksters”), New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself.”

New York City will always be romantic to me, just like Southern California. Not because I haven’t stayed in NY or LA long enough (though obviously I haven’t), but because I lived 20 years hearing street names and seeing postcards before I ever went to either place.

Now I walk on the streets and take my own pictures, and more than I would guess, they match the ones I had in my head.

Times Square

9/11 Memorial

9/11 Memorial

Chelsea Galleries

Chelsea Galleries

Our studio, before anyone "moved in"

Probably my favorite part of the studio...the kitchen. Free coffee all the time.

Finding out

January 9, 2011

Joan Didion. (Photo by Julian Wasser//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Since yesterday’s reflections on what writing (non-fiction in particular) is teaching me, I went back to an essay I read months ago by one of my favorite essayists, Joan Didion, entitled “Why I Write”. I resonate with a lot of what she has to say in this short piece, one paragraph especially:

“Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

I used to think writing was simply about sharing one’s thoughts. I suspect that was when I was in love with the idea of writing, not the actual practice. A few years ago I started the discipline of writing short, organized reflections a few times a week, regardless of inspiration or motivation. Though I wasn’t necessarily conscious of it at the time, I think this was when I began to use writing in the way Didion does: to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. Of course, the difference between Didion and me is that her “finding out” just happens to be an extremely intelligent and audience-worthy process (I do not mean to be self-deprecating; I have made my peace with the fact that I will never be a Joan Didion).

Here in lies my conflict with the idea of blogging. I am afraid that “posting” something might infringe on my own process of “finding out.” It is not a problem inherent in the blog itself, but stems from my own self-consciousness. If I look at a blog post as a declaration (“this is what I have to say today, world” … or, more realistically, “this is what I have to say today, mom and 2 friends”), it becomes intimidating and silly. But can a blog post be closer to “this is me finding out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means”?  It must be, for me at least. Partly because I am a sheltered 20-year-old with little-to-no sense of authority in talking about life, but also because that is what most writing is on some level, whether we admit it or not. At least at this point, my writing is infinitely more valuable to me than it will be to anyone else, and that is okay.

P.S. One more excerpt from Didion, this one from her fantastically intricate essay “The White Album”:

“We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

(I looked up synonyms for phantasmagoria: dream, hallucination, mirage, fantasy. Interestingly, it was “a form of theater which used a modified magic lantern to project frightening images such as skeletons, demons, and ghosts onto walls, smoke, or semi-transparent screens, frequently using rear projection” according to Wikipedia. What a delicious word.)

Still wrestling with this one.