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10 Reasons To Love: Joan Didion

5th Dec 2014

Joan Didion
Author and literary journalist Joan Didion has much to teach us about the craft and practice of writing, but also some deep life lessons which she explores in her work. Her thoughts on self-respect, honesty and grief make for compelling reading...

1) The Year of Magical Thinking

“You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends”

After the death of her husband Joan Didion tried to make sense of her bereavement through the therapeutic act of writing about the event. The Year of Magical Thinking is particularly hard hitting because the first year following the death of a loved one is the time when anything miraculous could happen. The period of time isn’t big enough to mean that they couldn’t simply walk back through the door at any moment.

Didion recognises this wishful thinking that walks hand in hand with grief, but equally recognises “if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.” For many of us that is the hardest truth of all to accept.

2) She is the most famous woman of new journalism

The original proponent of the term, Tom Wolfe, immediately recognised Didion’s writing as new journalism. She wrote non-fiction that was just as enthralling as the storytelling you might read in a piece of fiction. She merged techniques that resulted in a creative non-fiction genre that was very powerful.

At a time when women were still fighting to prove their place in writing and the world in general, Joan Didion’s writing featured alongside Hunter S. Thomson and Truman Capote in the 1973 New Journalism collection.

3) She helped young writers relate to themselves

“What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.”

Didion once wrote an essay answering the question that the majority of writers are asked: “Why do I write?”

Her honest, unguarded answers are inspiring for those writers who fear the hurdles that face them, or, who fear that they are no good at all. Didion voices what so many writers are thinking and therefore makes the world of a writer a more comfortable place to be.

4) Slouching towards Bethlehem solidified Joan Didion’s place in the new journalism era

This extraordinary set of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, describes Joan Didion’s journey through California in the 1960s as she meets stars like Joan Baez and John Ford. Didion’s crisp, clean style of writing and her masterful method of storytelling captured and fixed the world’s attention.

5) She demonstrated that gender was irrelevant when it came to being a clever writer

She rejected previous notions that women writers were only identifiable through techniques that would reveal their sensibility, thus meaning they were not as viable as their serious male counterparts.

Didion wrote about topics that were unequivocally attuned to the heart, that could bring you to tears, but through the style of clean, succinct sentences like those of Hemingway.

6) She views the rich and famous with rigid objectivity

To ever describe her experiences as interviews does not seem correct. To describe them as quiet observations – that reveal more than the generic interview ever could – seems more apt.

From her piece on John Wayne, to sitting through a Doors recording with Jim Morrison, there is never much of a sense that she is in awe of the greats before her. Considering how a lot of modern interviews are punctuated by a sense of how dazzled the journalist is, often to the detriment of the piece itself, this still makes her truly unique.

7) She made bold statements about the women’s movement

In 1972 Didion published an essay called The Women’s Movement, which was at times widely criticised. In it, she criticises her gender for being defined as its own class and writes:  “If the family was the last fortress of capitalism, then let us abolish the family.”

Didion did not mean to condemn the original aim of the women’s movement, but she did want to point out that she felt the original founding purpose had travelled in the wrong direction. Perhaps the point is that in voicing and publishing her opinion on the matter, she widely opened the topic up for discussion once again.

8) She challenged and made us re-think the concept of self respect

Do you have self-respect? Upon immediately being asked this question most of us would say ‘yes, of course!’, but Didion explores the true meaning of self-respect and how it relates directly to our character in depth.

She notes that, “the charms that work on others count for nothing in that devastatingly well-lit back alley where one keeps assignments with oneself.” In other words, self-respect forms the groundwork for every facet of our lives. Who are we without it?

9) Her confessional style of writing remains unchallenged

Didion more or less makes herself invisible in her non-fiction work and it is quite easy to forget that someone is actively telling this story to us – until she reminds us of her place in the story. In fact, it would be easy to simply lose yourself in the immediacy of the moment. What we forget is that Didion is the one colouring our experience; it is her head that we are in and through her eyes that we see the scene before us.

10) She endured unimaginable tragedy and survived to tell more tales

Despite the death of her husband and daughter Quintana, she not only continued to live but lived fully. She published more books and was presented with the National Medals of Arts and Humanities  in 2013.

This unrelenting quest for living always makes me think of a piece of advice from Ernest Hemingway: “Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell.”

According to her friend and fellow writer Nora Ephron, she has a wonderfully infectious laugh, described as being surprising for such a small woman. I think this belief that her small stature should ever denote her person sums up Joan Didion in more ways than one.

[Title Image: Wikipedia Commons]

What’s your favourite Joan Didion book? Who are the other women of new journalism who should be on our to-read list? Leave us a comment below.