Category: Stuff We Love

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Stuff We Love: Joan Didion

A warmly welcomed word from Beth Monaghan, founder and CEO of Inkhouse PR. 


The man who runs this enterprise would caution against author crushes. Should I tell Stuart that I named my new electric car Joan Didion? This thought fluttered briefly the first time a notification flashed on my phone:


Why would someone name their car after an author? Well, if you’ve ever had to rely on books to help you survive life, you get it. I always chose irreverent and courageous female authors who left guides for that survival behind. In fact, I loved books before I loved writing.

My crush on Didion began in college when I read Play It As It Lays. I still have the used copy I bought from Follett’s Orange Bookstore in Syracuse, New York for $6.75. Back then I didn’t write in my books so I don’t have a key to my favorite parts. But I remember the feeling when I finished: she was showing me how to stand inside my own darkness while still being able to take a look around. I wanted that.


When I began typing my own words, I wanted to write beautiful sentences. They’re how most of my author crushes begin. He looks shaken by this request, but still I monster on about it. Jenny Offill carving a moment in Department of Speculation. On and on she’ll go, the way she does when she thinks she doesn’t understand something and she’s scared, and she’s taking refuge in scorn and hypercriticality. A single sentence in Vivian Gornick’s memoir, Fierce Attachments, that tells us everything we need to know about her mother.

Time is the school in which we learn. That’s Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking, her memoir about her husband’s death. She possessed the power to go through grief while witnessing it, which is how we make things make sense. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all. Didion again, in that book that made my crush run amok. I wanted to write and live like Joan.

When I read Didion back through time, I also wanted to be her in 1968. In The White Album she published her own psychiatric report. She’d gone in for vertigo and nausea, but was kept there because of her “fundamentally pessimistic, fatalistic and depressive view of the world around her.” After a page-long reprint of her fragile mental health, Didion wrote, “By way of comment I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does now seem to be an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.” Her packing list that year included 2 leotards, a mohair throw, cigarettes, bourbon and a typewriter.

Didion lives deep, lets herself off the hook, and never assumes she knows everything. I hoped reading her words would work like osmosis, but that’s not how writing or life go down well. The shift from reader to writer asked me to type my own way into living.

These days I read in between writing projects, but rarely during them. Didion’s new volume of essays, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, just arrived and I haven’t opened it yet. In advance of its release Time asked her what it meant to be the voice of her generation. Didion: “I don’t have the slightest idea.” I fell for her all over again, for a single line that is both humble and arrogant. However, I know I can’t pull that kind of thing off; it’s not who I am. It’s okay to have stuff we love, as long as it helps us create our own stuff we love.

Stuff We Love: Spring Training

Everyone has their own personal new year. For some, it’s New Year’s Eve, or the Lunar New Year, or the first thaw of spring when the crocuses burst from an impossibly frozen ground. Mine is going to see some Spring Training baseball.

I have been fortunate enough to go to Arizona four times now, where the teams from the western part of the US tune-up their skills. The first time I walk out onto the concourse and glimpse the field in its entirety, my heart bursts open. Coming from New England every time but this last, I would have said it was largely the weather. But now that I call Southern California home, I know it is something else. It is possibility.



As a writer, I interpret this possibility in the light of a new project I am embarking on, or a fresh draft of an existing one. Commitment, or recommitment, it doesn’t matter a whole lot. It’s the knowledge that a new season is at hand.

We can get better at certain parts of our game—and there are drills for that. There are even exercises with aptly named “resistance bands.” We can refresh our strengths while we dig into tools we fear are missing. There are coaches, there is sunshine. And the best thing of all…we don’t have to be game-time ready yet. In that sense, this edition of Stuff We Love has a lot in common with the piece we ran on demos last month. It’s the same feeling of we’re just getting started here.

At the early stages of a new process, the first requirement is to announce to yourself what you are doing. Invite the work. It is one of those paradoxes of creativity: you have to prepare yourself to receive.

Now, not every idea that tries out is going to make the team. It would be foolish to say there is no competition here. But there is a moment, in the first few weeks, when the intensity of an inning isn’t turned all the way up. Everyone is on their own journey: young kids seeking their long shot or on a meteoric rise, depending on how the papers write about them, alongside mature veterans looking to hold onto their peak of mastery.

Some ideas will get sent down to the minors, the developmental leagues, but those decisions aren’t being made this week. Coaches are still trying to familiarize themselves with players, more than evaluate them. And the players are playing hard—but it doesn’t matter if they win. Imagine that for a minute. So many other things will have to fall into place before you get your jersey assignment. Right now, your best is all that matters.

Without the shadow of constant competition, players hang out in centerfield before the game, joking with members of the other team. The heckling from the stands is a little softer. The stadium staff, the fans, the players—numbered #0 to #99—stand in that possibility that anything can happen. This team can win the World Series.

In a similar way, there is nothing to say this piece isn’t going to go all the way, provided you can just keep that love of the game.



Stuff We Love: Demos

For a good solid year of my tour, I opened up a session on The Book Architecture Method by playing two clips from the Beatles’ song “Sexy Sadie” in succession. The first 0:46 was basically just John playing some dusky chords into a two track recorder in India. Then I played the first minute of the finished version and we talked about how George changed the lyrics to make them less of a direct attack on his guru at the time, Paul brought some bright piano chords right off the top followed by Ringo’s shuffling drumming, and they all contributed sarcastic La-la-la-la’s  in the background. 

The Beatles – SexySadie from Stuart Horwitz on Vimeo.

If someone walked in late, looking confused, I asked them, Are you here for the class on the White Album? My point was to show the distance traveled between the initial, halting idea for a song and the polished and produced version. We hear the latter and we thing: I could never do that… We hear the former and we think: Interesting. 

It’s the same across genres and media. It’s one thing to examine a smudged charcoal landscape sketch of Van Gogh’s and quite another to be engulfed by the final days intensity of “Wheatfield and Crows.” We get confused. Confused that art isn’t made, by somebody, over a succession of drafts, each improving, if not entirely, on the version that came before it.

And that’s why some Stuff We Love are demos. I recently treated myself to a box set of Bob Dylan’s studio recordings from 1965-1966. It contained the finished songs from this era, which I had heard a hundred times each. There were multiple master takes so I could listen to just the piano and the bass on “Like a Rolling Stone.” But there were also a series of screw-ups and false starts, experiments, arguments, breakthroughs and new directions until some of these famous songs were codified.



I love hearing the banter between Dylan and his bandmates, such as lead guitarist Robbie Robertson soon to be of The Band. Among the 25 takes of “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” you can hear the following exchanges:


Dylan: “Can you do that, Robbie? But I don’t mean just, I don’t just mean that. Can you do anything else? But not that. Some kind of a… no, no, no. Yeah, I do want it, but not so specific.”


Dylan: “I don’t think that’s the right way… do you think so?”


Robbie: “I’m going to modify it a little bit. To make it blend with what he’s doing.”

Dylan: “Sure! Tell me what you mean…”



I don’t know what Dylan means when he complains to Rick Danko, “No! I don’t like that bass run. That’s… that’s modal.” I’m not even sure he does. These tapes communicate being in the wilderness with only a small spark of an idea, and tending that flame so it can get air under sheltered conditions until it begins to burn on its own. 

And that’s why we recommend looking for demos—translated to whatever art and taste suits you—when you need to be reminded of not just your humanity but the humanity of the artists you admire. Their experience of being lost, then gradually found, through a combination of curiosity and faith, looks like something we could call perseverance—if it wasn’t fueled at least as much by residing in the delight of creation.