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Friday, January 28, 2022

Explained: The legacy of American writer Joan Didion, who passed away at 87

For over five decades, one of the US’s most well-known writers and journalists, Joan Didion was known for doing just that — using her personal experience as a framework to make sense of the world.

Written by Paromita Chakrabarti | New Delhi |
December 26, 2021 10:12:31 am
Author Joan Didion poses for a portrait in her New York apartment in 2005 (AP)

In The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), her extraordinary memoir on coming to terms with grief after the death of her husband John Gregory Dunne in 2003, Joan Didion wrote, “As a writer, even as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish.

“The way I write is who I am, or have become, yet this is a case in which I wish I had instead of words and their rhythms a cutting room, equipped with an Avid, a digital editing system on which I could touch a key and collapse the sequence of time, show you simultaneously all the frames of memory that come to me now, let you pick the takes, the marginally different expressions, the variant readings of the same lines. This is a case in which I need more than words to find the meaning.”

For over five decades, until her death on December 23 at the age of 87 years, one of the US’s most well-known writers and journalists, Joan Didion was known for doing just that — using her personal experience as a framework to make sense of the world.

By putting the first-person firmly at the centre of reportage and still practising an unerring sense of journalistic detachment, Didion became a central figure in the New Journalism Movement (a literary movement in the US, championed by writers such as Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer Truman Capote and Gay Talese, that experimented with techniques of fiction writing in reporting) in the late Sixties and early Seventies.

Didion expanded and changed the scope of the field, marrying a writer’s flair for emotional range with an editor’s precision in retaining only that which was of value to public life.


Born on December 5, 1934 in California’s Sacramento, Didion’s writing was largely influenced by the state and its distinctive culture, although New York, where she later lived and died, had an equal stake on her affections and writing lens.

Her first book was a novel, Run, River (1963), set in California, but it was with Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), a collection of essays in which she examines San Francisco’s hippie culture; records her impressions of Los Angeles, where she would find fame in Hollywood writing screenplays with her husband; and pays tribute to New York, that Didion came into her own.

Over the next several decades, she would go on to publish five novels and 12 works of non-fiction, besides several screenplays, including the 1976 A Star is Born, featuring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson.

Joan Didion in New York, Jan 5, 2007. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

An aesthete, Didion, who counted American writer Ernest Hemingway among her influences, was deeply invested in the craft of her work, chiselling sentences to perfection, chipping aways at rough edges till they acquired her desired precision and distance.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live… 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,” wrote Didion in White Album (1979).

While deliberations on mortality was a recurrent theme in her work, Didion’s writing displayed a remarkable range, embracing memory and nostalgia, culture and politics in its sweep. Her deliberations on grief, love and loss in books such as The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights (2011), in which she writes about losing her ailing daughter a year-and-a-half after her husband’s death have become hallmarks of literary memoirs.

Life and legacy

In the 2017 Netflix documentary, Joan Didion: The Centre Will Not Hold, by her nephew Griffin Dunne, Didion spoke of how, as a shy child, she discovered writing at her mother’s encouragement early in life.

She was a student of English Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, when Vogue announced its competition for college seniors, the Prix de Paris. “First prize, a job in Paris or New York,” she says in the documentary.

Didion went on to win the competition and landed a job at the fashion magazine’s New York office. She was 20 then.

Didion worked at the magazine from 1956 to 1964 and would meet her future husband, writer Dunne, during her time in New York. The two would marry in 1964, and, in 1966, adopt a daughter whom they named Quintana Roo.

The self was central to her writing but Didion used it as a launchpad for an examination of the ruptures in American society — the irreversible sweep of the anti-establishment counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s and how it was changing the nature of institutional, personal and political lives of Americans down the ages, her quirky interest in fashion, and why one must be alive to the possibilities of the present moment at all times.

She was a chronicler of times, not just marking change but also its varying registers and impact. As she put it at a commencement address she delivered at the University of California, Riverside, in 1975, “I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package,” she said.

“I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture.”

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