I was at an Arists’ Residency, far from home, and things weren’t going well. There was lots of chatter about people you knew in New York, and I didn’t know anybody in New York unless you count my college roommate who lives in Harlem and my cousin who lives in New Jersey. The people I knew were “people I loved,” but they weren’t “people you knew in New York.” I mean, I don’t think they went to the same parties. So, over dinner, I stayed mute. People didn’t want to know about my small town friends, my cousins, my community organizing extravaganzas for towns of 1,500 people. My towns were not New York.
So, I was blue. Also, the writing wasn’t going well. I’d look out my window, watch antelope zoom like shape-shifters over the dry hills, and think, “Well, this is going nowhere.” My novel was so long, I couldn’t even remember what was in it. I had so many characters, I didn’t remember who they were. And I couldn’t find things. So I spent three weeks reading and indexing, using a system I made up out of the blue, a system that no other novelist has ever used, but I might. The novel sucked, but the system was actually kind of cool. “You’re here because of an award,” I told myself. “You’re supposed to be a good writer.” Then I would roll on the floor and groan.
One night, over dinner, having imbibed a second glass of wine, I resorted to talking to visual artists, who it seems to me have way more fun than writers, and aren’t so obsessed and climby, but maybe it’s because I don’t feel it’s absolutely necessary to know who they know in New York. Out of the blue, I found my voice saying, “Have you ever seen Joni Mitchell on You Tube? I mean, the really early days.”
“Yes!” an artist said. “No!” an artist said. “Let me show you,” I said. My laptop was good for something after all. The truth is, we were on the older side of the demographic, us Joni Mitchell fans. We’d had the words creased into our brains when we were young. We started singing along to “California,” from the Blue album, and pretty soon we were having fun like only depressed / obsessed Joni fans can. (Here’s the version from the Johnny Cash show we watched.)
“California” is all about being lonely, far from home, getting the blues. It made us so happy. “Will you take me as I am?” Mitchell asked. Yes. Yes, we would. Joni had saved my life during my roving years, my vagabond days, and now she was doing it again.
Last year I wrote an essay about growing up with Joni Mitchell songs, and I read it in San Rafael, California, which seemed the right place for it. Read my essay “Dear Joni Mitchell,” in Idol Talk: Women Writers on the Teenage Infatuations that Changed Their Lives. https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/idol-talk/