Joan Didion (born December 5, 1934) is an American author best known as a novelist and writer of personalized, journalistic essays. The disintegration of American morals and cultural chaos upon which her essays comment are explored more fully in her novels, where the overriding theme is individual and social fragmentation. A sense of anxiety or dread permeates much of her work.
"A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.""Americans are uneasy with their possessions, guilty about power, all of which is difficult for Europeans to perceive because they are themselves so truly materialistic, so versed in the uses of power.""Ask anyone committed to Marxist analysis how many angels on the head of a pin, and you will be asked in return to never mind the angels, tell me who controls the production of pins.""Grammar is a piano I play by ear. All I know about grammar is its power.""I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.""Of course great hotels have always been social ideas, flawless mirrors to the particular societies they service.""Self-respect is a question of recognizing that anything worth having has a price.""The fancy that extraterrestrial life is by definition of a higher order than our own is one that soothes all children, and many writers.""The willingness to accept responsibility for one's own life is the source from which self-respect springs.""The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to their dream.""To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves - there lies the great, singular power of self-respect.""Was it only by dreaming or writing that I could find out what I thought?""Was there ever in anyone's life span a point free in time, devoid of memory, a night when choice was any more than the sum of all the choices gone before?""We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.""Writers are always selling somebody out.""You have to pick the places you don't walk away from."
Joan Didion was born in Sacramento, California, to parents Frank Reese and Eduene (Jerrett) Didion. Didion recalls writing things down as early as age five, though she claims that she never saw herself as a writer until after being published. She read everything she could get her hands on after learning how to read and even needed written permission from her mother to borrow adult books, biographies especially, from the library at a young age. With this, she identified herself as being a "shy, bookish child", who pushed herself to overcome these personal obstacles through acting and public speaking.
As a child, Didion went to kindergarten and first grade; however, as a direct result of her father's involvement in World War II in the Army Air Corps, she did not attend school on a regular basis because of her family's constant relocation. It was not until the age of nine or ten that her family stopped moving around, settling back in Sacramento in 1943 or early 1944. During this time, her father went to Detroit to settle defense contracts for World War I and II. Didion states that moving as often as her family did had a profound influence on her, claiming that she often felt like a perpetual outsider. Didion later used these experiences when writing her 2003 memoir Where I Was From.
In 1956, Didion graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a Bachelor of Arts in English. During her senior year, she participated in an essay contest sponsored by Mademoiselle, winning the first place prize of a job at the magazine's New York office.
After landing her job at Vogue right out of college, Didion worked her way up from promotional copywriter to associate feature editor, remaining there for two years. While at the magazine, she wrote her first novel, Run, River, which was published in 1963. A few years after returning to California with her new husband, John Gregory Dunne, Didion published Slouching Towards Bethlehem in 1968, her first work of non-fiction.
With her husband, Didion has also co-written a number of screenplays, including the screen adaptation of her novel Play It As It Lays and Up Close & Personal.
The White Album, a collection of journalistic essays from her time at Life, Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post, The New York Times, and The New York Review of Books, was published June 17, 1979 by Simon & Schuster. It is said to function as a sort of follow-up to Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
Play It As It Lays, set in Hollywood, was published in 1970 and A Book of Common Prayer was published in 1977. Her 1983 essay, Salvador, was written after a two-week long trip to El Salvador with her husband. She also wrote Democracy in 1984 which deals with her concern for the loss of society's traditional values. Her 1987 nonfiction book, Miami, looked at the Cuban expatriate community in Miami. In 1992, she published After Henry, a collection of twelve geographical essays. In 1996, she published The Last Thing He Wanted, a romantic thriller.
Didion began writing The Year of Magical Thinking on October 4, 2004, and finished 88 days later on New Year's Eve. She went on a book tour following the release of this memoir, doing many readings and interviews to promote it. She has said that she found the process very "therapeutic" during her period of mourning.
In 2006, Everyman's Library published We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, a compendium of much of Didion's writing, including the full content of her first seven published nonfiction books Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album, Salvador, Miami, After Henry, Political Fictions, and Where I Was From, with an introduction by her contemporary, the noted critic John Leonard.
In 2007, she began working on a one-woman adaptation of The Year of Magical Thinking. Produced by Scott Rudin, this Broadway play featured Vanessa Redgrave. Although at first she was hesitant about the idea of writing a play, she has since found this new genre to be quite exciting.
Didion wrote early drafts of the screen play for an HBO biopic directed by Robert Benton on the famous newspaper dame Katharine Graham. It currently remains untitled. Sources say it may trace Graham's paper, The Washington Post, in its dogged reportage on the Watergate scandal which led to President Richard Nixon's resignation. However, Didion is no longer working on that project.
While in New York and working at Vogue, Didion met her future husband of almost forty years, John Gregory Dunne, who at the time was writing for Time Magazine. The couple married in 1964 and moved to Los Angeles, California, soon after, with intentions of staying only temporarily. California ultimately became their home for the next twenty years.
In the title essay of The White Album, Didion documents a nervous breakdown she experienced in the summer of 1968. After undergoing a psychiatric evaluation, she is diagnosed as having had an attack of vertigo and nausea.
In December 2003, in the midst of dealing with their only daughter's life-threatening illness, Dunne suffered a fatal heart attack one night while at the dinner table. At the time of her father's sudden death, Quintana Roo Dunne was in the ICU with pneumonia, which subsequently put her into septic shock and a coma. Didion put off Dunne's funeral arrangements for approximately a month until her daughter was well enough to attend the service; however, it was not long before tragedy struck Joan Didion once again. Her daughter collapsed from a massive hematoma after deboarding a plane at LAX. She required six hours of brain surgery at UCLA Medical Center. Quintana died on August 26, 2005, during Didion's New York promotion for The Year of Magical Thinking. She was thirty-nine.
Physically, Didion is most commonly described as being a thin, frail woman. Even at the younger age of 44, Didion was said to weigh just 95 pounds at 5 feet 2 inches in height. She claims to have an Okie accent, which she attributes to attending Sacramento high schools.
In 1979, Didion was living in Brentwood Park, California, a quiet, residential suburb of Los Angeles. As of 2005, Didion has resided in an apartment on East 71st Street in New York City.
New Journalism seeks to communicate facts through narrative storytelling and literary techniques. This style is also described as creative nonfiction, intimate journalism, or literary nonfiction. Tom Wolfe, author of The New Journalism (1974), popularized this style and pointed to the fact that "it is possible to write journalism that would ... read like a novel." New Journalist writers tend to turn away from “just the facts” and focus more upon the dialogue of the situation and the scenarios that the author may have experienced. The style gives the author more creative freedom and blends elements of fiction, opinion, and fact. This can help to represent the truth and reality through the author's eyes. Exhibiting subjectivity is a major theme in New Journalism. Here, the author’s voice is critical to a reader forming opinions and thoughts concerning the work.
Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem exemplifies much of what New Journalism represents as they explore the cultural values and experiences of American life in the 1960s. Didion includes her personal feelings and memories in this first person narrative, describing the chaos of individuals and the way in which they perceive the world. Here Didion rejects conventional journalism, and instead prefers to create a subjective approach to essays, a style that is her own.
Writing style and themes
Didion views the structure of the sentence as essential to what she is conveying in her work. In the New York Times article, Why I Write (1976) Didion remarks, "To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed...The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind...The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what's going on in the picture."
Didion is heavily influenced by Ernest Hemingway, whose writing taught Didion the importance of the way sentences worked within a text. Other influences include writer Henry James, who wrote "perfect, indirect, complicated sentences" and George Eliot.
Because of her belief that it is the media that tells us how to live, Joan Didion has become an observer of journalists themselves. She believes that the difference between the process of fiction and nonfiction is the element of discovery that takes place in nonfiction. This happens not during the writing, but rather during the research.
Like any writer, there are rituals that are a part of Didion's creative thought process. At the end of the day, Didion must take a break from writing to remove herself from the "pages." She feels closeness to her work; without a necessary break, she cannot make proper adjustments. Didion spends a great deal of time cutting out and editing her prose before concluding her evening. The next day, Didion begins by looking over her work from the previous evening, making further adjustments as she sees fit. As this process culminates, Didion feels that it is necessary to sleep in the same room as her book. In Didion's own words, "That's one reason I go home to Sacramento to finish things. Somehow the book doesn't leave you when you're right next to it."
Didion has received a great deal of recognition for one of her more recent books, The Year of Magical Thinking, which was awarded the National Book Award in 2005. Documenting the grief she experienced following the sudden death of her husband, the book has been said to be a "masterpiece of two genres: memoir and investigative journalism."
In 2007, Didion received the National Book Foundation's annual Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters for "her distinctive blend of spare, elegant prose and fierce intelligence." This same year, Didion also won the Evelyn F. Burkey Award from the Writers Guild of America.
In 2009, Didion was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by Harvard University.