A tribute to legendary writer Joan Didion
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live…” ― Joan Didion, The White Album
The news broke on the afternoon of December 23rd: Joan Didion, the influential essayist, novelist, and screenwriter, died at the age of 87.
Tributes and evaluations are already appearing, and more will certainly follow in days to come. As well they should – Didion’s writing and sensibility are sui generis. She achieved recognition for her fiction – Play It as It Lays (1970) is her best-known novel – but it was her wide-ranging essays that brought her the kind of fame most writers dream of but almost never experience. Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), The White Album (1979), and The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) figure among her best-known nonfiction.
Along with contemporaries such as Tom Wolfe and Gaye Talese, Didion was a pioneer of what was referred to as “New Journalism.” Literary Hub’s Gabrielle Bellot described how practitioners of the New Journalism “used the techniques of fiction – narrative, narrative structures, point of view, deep characterization – to present nonfiction stories.” The writer’s personality and outlook received as much attention as the ostensible subject. Vox’s Constance Grady summed up the older writer’s work:
Didion wrote prose as clean and precise as a steel blade:
It cut, but only what she meant to cut. As a child, she used
to retype Hemingway’s chapters so that she could see how
his sentences worked (Bret Easton Ellis later did the same
thing with Didion’s work), but she had an austere elegance
all her own. She was a master of argument through style;
she rarely built out a formal thesis and supporting points,
but would instead put her ideas across through a series of
anecdotes, so carefully observed and beautifully rendered
that the argument seemed to emerge from the negative
space created by what Didion didn’t actually say. She
didn’t need to say it.
Born and raised in California, she attended University of California/Berkeley and graduated in 1956 with a B.A. in English. She married fellow scribe John Gregory Dunne in 1964. In between projects the two collaborated on the screenplays for Panic in Needle Park (1971) and the Barbra Streisand version of A Star is Born (1976). They also adapted each other novels on occasion: Dunne’s True Confessions (1981) with Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall, a fictional take on the gruesome murder of Elizabeth Short in post-war Los Angeles. 1972’s film of the aforementioned Play It as It Lays starred Tuesday Weld as a young woman who, in the words of movie critic Roger Ebert, “began life in a ferociously genuine Montana town, but has somehow found her way into the totally illusory world of the movies.”
Dunne died of a heart attack in 2003; only days before their adopted daughter Quintana was stricken with pneumonia and septic shock. Didion dealt with death and illness in the only way she knew – we wrote about it. The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) was the result. This blockbuster of a book won the National Book Award for Nonfiction and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize; Didion’s adaptation for the stage starred Vanessa Redgrave and ran for several months on Broadway.
Didion was clear about who she was and what readers had in store. “I want you to understand exactly what you are getting: you are getting a woman who for some time now has felt radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest people. You are getting a woman who somewhere along the line misplaced whatever slight faith she ever had in the social contract, in the meliorative principle, in the whole grand pattern of human endeavor.”
As a descendant of one of the survivors of the Donner Party, Didion’s lack of trust is understandable. But writers are hopelessly optimistic creatures; they have to be. Otherwise, who would do it? Even if this world is only an alienated and chaotic mess, one can still describe it. Making sense of herself and her experience was the task she set for herself. For more than 50 years Didion shared the conclusions she’d drawn with the world.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live...We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the "ideas" with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” ― Joan Didion, The White Album
Joseph Goodrich is an award-winning playwright. He edited the short story collection Shooting Script & Other Mysteries by William Link and Richard Levinson. His debut novel The Paris Manuscript (Perfect Crime Books) will publish this coming Spring.