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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray

“Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind, there would have been no reason to write,” the writer Joan Didion said in a speech discussing the reasons and methods behind her writing. “I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means.” 

When I first read that speech in an online archived edition of The New York Times with a strangely etched illustration of Didion’s face, desperately trying everything I could to improve my writing in the midst of college application season, I was puzzled. The idea that putting words on paper in order to learn what you’re thinking, rather than making up your mind about every idea before committing them to a Google Doc or journal page, was foreign to me. So while I appreciated some of the speech, I resigned myself to the idea that I was not a “writer” in the way that Didion described.

And yet in the past year, I find myself increasingly awake at night or distracted at coffee shops, with the urge to open the notes app on my phone and figure out what I’m thinking. The result of this is often bleak, despondent soliloquies; I tremble at the thought of anyone reading them. And yet, they have so often lifted weeks-long fogs over my mind, allowing me to see what it is that is weighing on me or what I am truly scared of. 

They’re not all apocalyptic or miserable, too, and on the occasion of this Inside Column, I come to my computer, ready to write, with a question far more boring than my previous contribution to the Viewpoint pages: Why am I obsessed with Californian identity?

So many times in high school, I told my mother and anyone who would listen how much I disliked California, how much I couldn’t wait to leave to another state that was less frustrating or insane. It didn’t help that I lived in Sacramento, epitomizing to my restless adolescent self both the dysfunction of our state’s government and the utter boringness of west coast suburbia (see: Lady Bird).

I didn’t feel exactly that way when I left home for my freshman year, but in the time I’ve spent here, I constantly think about how much I’m a Californian and how alien that can be. The tears I cry while watching Lady Bird have become so much more palpable, and there is so much more weight to hearing Lana Del Rey croon about the California sun and the movie stars, or the way the Beach Boys say “Californ-aye-a” on “Surfin’ U.S.A” or the Mamas and Papas’ lyrics that the title of this column is lifted from.

I was in office hours with my political theory professor last year, and our conversation somehow made its way to how Didion’s work was increasingly conquering the shelf of books in my dorm, as I bought secondhand copies of everything she wrote on weekend trips to Chicago bookstores. I had no doubt that her writing prowess and the resonance of her work was part of that, but a huge part was seeking to understand California, to feel it even while trekking through the South Bend snowbanks. Professor Kaplan told me something that has stuck with me: “There’s something about this place that lets people really learn about who they are.”

I think that in many ways, my obsession is silly. I visited a friend in Virginia a couple times this summer from my internship in Washington, D.C. As we drove through the Virginia countryside, I kept coming up blank in response to questions about how things were like in California. The state is massive; there’s little my sleepy, suburban Sacramento adolescence or childhood in San Francisco shares in common with the dozens of Orange County residents I’ve met here. And yet, as I spent those months in D.C., I kept noticing things: our summers are browner in California, our old houses aren’t as old, the heat’s a different creature.

I genuinely think there are things that unify California, that define its identity and spirit. But I think that perhaps this obsession, this fixation comes not from a need to define myself or to categorize various feelings of alienation and homesickness. I don’t know. I wrote, and I did not receive a definitive answer.

But I did finish my Inside Column — see you back in the (superior) News pages.

You can contact Isa Sheikh at

The views expressed in this Inside Column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.