You are what you wear? None more than Joan Didion. There has never been a writer I have wanted so much to dress like - never a writer whose wardrobe, Didion herself suggests, brings me closest to her work. Remember her famous packing list?
"To Pack and Wear:
2 jerseys or leotards
1 pullover sweater
2 pair shoes
nightgown, robe slippers
bag with: shampoo, toothbrush and paste, Basis soap, razor, deodorant, aspirin, prescriptions, Tampax, face cream, powder, baby oil
2 legal pads and pens
This is a list which was taped inside my closet door in Hollywood during those years when I was reporting more or less steadily. The list enabled me to pack, without thinking, for any piece I was likely to do. Notice the deliberate anonymity of costume: in a skirt, a leotard, and stockings, I could pass on either side of the culture. Notice the mohair throw for trunk-line flights (i.e. no blankets) and for the motel room in which the air conditioning could not be turned off. Notice the bourbon for the same motel room. Notice the typewriter for the airport, coming home: the idea was to turn in the Hertz car, check in, find an empty bench, and start typing the day’s notes.”
...and remember how, years later, she was criticised for Blue Nights' attention to designer names (the clear implication is that a woman who loves to dress may rightly suspect herself incapable of loving outside herself).
For Didion it's always the clothes - in, On Keeping a Notebook, the "plaid silk dress" with the hem let down, the "dirty crepe-de-chine wrapper", the "mandarin coat" - that persist long after their meanings are forgotten. All Didion knows - although the clothes are not always hers - is that they are pointers to "How it felt to me". And if she's forgotten the 'meaning' of the girl's plaid dress, she can invent one. She takes the material and turns it into the immaterial: words. Turning a plot is "setting a sleeve... Do you sew? I mean I had to work that revolution in on the bias". However much you strip her down to her 'meanings' there's always another dress.
"I do not think in abstracts," Didion said in Why I Write, remembering her college years. "I would try to contemplate the Hegelian dialectic and would find myself concentrating instead on a flowering pear tree outside my window and the particular way the petals fell on my floor... a physical fact."
If her appearance links her to her characters it's not always her intention: "There was a certain tendency to read Play It As It Lays as an autobiographical novel, I suppose because I lived out here and looked skinny in photographs and nobody knew anything else about me." (Paris Review)
Perhaps women who write are always in danger of being confused with their characters, mistaken for their muses, but Didion deliberately (the jarringly'deliberate anonymity' of her packing list) puts her own tyrannical tininess at the centre of her reporting: "My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrustive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests." (The White Album)
Didon insists on the physical both as itself and as something else. We're divided from her only by the "fifty yards of... transparent golden silk" that casts a "golden light" across her New York window in Goodbye to All That. We're divided by the sphinx stare of her author photos that - like her packing list - is both a description of how a writer becomes able to observe, and a barrier to being seen too closely.