Inside the Writerly Life of Joan Didion
A Look at How She Did What She Did
Joan Didion’s life as a writer began at five years old when her mother gave her a black Big 5 school tablet. She gave it, as she explains in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, “with the sensible suggestion that I stop whining and learn to amuse myself by writing down my thoughts.” Her first entry? A story about a woman freezing amid an Arctic night who wakes to discover herself actually perishing in the Sahara heat.
In essays, addresses, and interviews Didion sometimes revealed how she developed as a writer following that inaugural effort, opening windows on her work. In South and West she even published raw notes of two abandoned projects, providing glimpses of her writing process with half-gestated thoughts, suggestions, and impressions.
How the Sentences Work
Talent showed itself early. Didion served as editor of her high-school newspaper, McClatchy’s The Prospector and wrote a column there. While still a teen she also wrote for Sacramento’s rival papers, the Bee and the Union. One reader who later edited Didion’s essays said he could see the trajectory of her work in those early outings. “The voice is there,” he said. “The sensibility is there. Like a lot of the key things I love about her, that sort of . . . world-weariness, a little bit of despair or resignation or whatever it is . . . it’s already in place. It’s kind of fascinating.”
She nurtured her own skill and sensibility with careful observation and persistent practice. “I was very influenced by Hemingway when I was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen,” she told Sarah Davidson of the New York Times Book Review. The publisher Melville House included the 1977 exchange in their collection, Joan Didion: The Last Interview. “I learned a lot about how sentences worked. How a short sentence worked in a paragraph, how a long sentence worked. Where the commas worked. How every word had to matter. It made me excited about words.”
Years later, when talking with Hilton Als at the Paris Review, a 2006 conversation also included in the Melville House collection, she returned to Hemingway’s influence. “There was just something magnetic to me in the arrangement of those sentences,” she said. At fifteen she determined to unravel the magic. She began by retyping his stories. “I could see how [the sentences] worked once I started typing them out,” she said. “I would just type those stories. It’s a great way to get rhythms into your head.”
She also read and loved Joseph Conrad and Henry James for similar reasons. “The sentences sounded wonderful,” she said of Conrad. And in James, who she began reading in college, she noticed the accumulation of clauses in sentences “had to do with keeping the options open, letting the sentence cover as much as it could. That impressed me a great deal,” she said.
This close engagement of others’ work taught her the mechanics of writing at an intuitive level. “Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned,” she said in her 1976 Regents’ Lecture at University of California, Berkeley, collected in Let Me Tell You What I Mean under the title “Why I Write.” “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.”
While working on her English degree at UC Berkeley, Didion placed a short story at Mademoiselle and garnered a role as guest fiction editor. A year later, during her senior year, she won first place in a writing contest sponsored by Vogue. The award? A job at the magazine. Didion’s mother had encouraged her many years before. “You could win that,” she said of the annual prize. “When the time comes. You could win that and live in Paris. Or New York. Wherever you wanted. But definitely you could win it.” It proved prophetic, though her mother later forgot she ever mentioned it.
After college, Didion moved to New York with a job writing marketing copy for Vogue. They saw what others saw, and soon she graduated to writing editorial copy. “It is easy to make light of this kind of ‘writing,’” she admitted in the essay “Telling Stories,” collected in Let Me Tell You What I Mean, before raising a rousing defense. It’s enjoyable enough to quote at length:
It was at Vogue that I learned a kind of ease with words, a way of regarding words not as mirrors of my own inadequacy but as tools, toys, weapons to be deployed strategically on a page. In a caption of, say, eight lines, each line to run no more or less than twenty-seven characters, not only every word but every letter counted. At Vogue one learned fast, or one did not stay, how to play games with words, how to put a couple of unwieldy dependent clauses through the typewriter and roll them out transformed into one simple sentence composed of precisely thirty-nine characters. We were connoisseurs of synonyms. We were collectors of verbs. . . . We learned as reflex the grammatical tricks we had learned only as marginal corrections in school (“there were two oranges and an apple” read better than “there were an apple and two oranges,” passive verbs slowed down sentences, “it” needed a reference within the scan of the eye), learned to rely on the OED, learned to write and rewrite and rewrite again. “Run it through again, sweetie, it’s not quite there.” “Give me a shock verb two lines in.” “Prune it out, clean it up, make the point.” Less was more, smooth was better, and absolute precision essential to the monthly grand illusion. Going to work for Vogue was, in the late 1950s, not unlike training with the Rockettes.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem includes two pieces she originally wrote for Vogue, “On Self-Respect” and “Guaymas, Sonora.” Along the way, she developed the reportorial technique of participation, characteristic of the New Journalism.
Her focus on style transcended prose mechanics to encompass the role and perspective of the author in contributing to their voice. “I admire objectivity very much indeed, but I fail to see how it can be achieved if the reader does not understand the writer’s particular bias,” she said in 1968, talking explicitly about underground newspapers but implicitly about her own approach. “To think that these papers are read for ‘facts’ is to misapprehend their appeal. It is the genius of these papers that they talk directly to their readers. They assume that the reader is a friend, that he is disturbed about something, and that he will understand if they talk to him straight. . . .” She was describing her own appeal.
Didion included herself in her stories and became a subject of her own investigations, which seems all the more natural and fitting when you reflect on the role of self-discovery in her work.
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Writing as Thinking
As a high schooler, Didion used to haunt the home of her friend Nancy Kennedy, editing articles for the class paper. Nancy was, as it happened, the older sister of eventual Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. “She and my sister Nancy would talk about themes that Joan had in mind,” the justice remembered of Didion. “Then Joan would think and write and think and write all over again and think and write all over again.”
Thinking and writing form an inseparable pair in Didion’s process. “I’m terribly inarticulate,” she told Sarah Davidson in 1977. “A sentence does not occur to me as a whole thing unless I’m working.” Writing was how she thought. “Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write,” she said in “Why I Write.” “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.”
She said something similar to Terry Gross in 2005 when discussing her book, The Year of Magical Thinking, on NPR’s Fresh Air. “It’s the way I process everything, by writing it down. I don’t actually process anything until I write it down, I mean, in terms of thinking, in terms of coming to terms with it.” When writing, subjective impressions become objects of study on the page or screen. Thus, the writing process itself provided Didion the in-the-moment feedback necessary to sustain and elaborate her thinking process.
Intriguingly, Didion recognized that, given her dependence on writing for thinking, her tools might shape her thoughts. In high school, using money she earned working for the Sacramento Union, she bought an Olivetti Lettera 22 (the favorite model of typewriter aficionado Tom Hanks). While living in New York she used her Olivetti, propped up on a chair, to write her first novel, Run River, as a way of grappling with the difficult emotions of living across the continent from home.
Cormac McCarthy typed most everything he wrote on an Olivetti Lettera 32, and famously never used a computer. Didion eventually did, migrating to a computer in 1987. The transition proved difficult at the start. “I thought I won’t be able to write anymore,” she told Dave Eggers in Salon, “so I thought I’d go back to the typewriter. But you couldn’t go back to the typewriter after using the computer, so finally after about a month I got proficient enough that I could actually work on it without being distracted by it. . . .”
By the time she spoke with Eggers in 1996, she was using an IBM ThinkPad, and she felt it affected her thought process. “I think my pieces get more and more complex ever since I’ve started using a computer,” she said. “It started making me a whole lot more logical than I ever had been.” How so? The word processor enabled her to reshape and refine her sentences in ways too cumbersome on a typewriter, facilitating more thinking in real time through the keys.
Before I started working on a computer, writing a piece would be like making something up every day, taking the material and never quite knowing where you were going to go next with the material. With a computer it was less like painting and more like sculpture, where you start with a block of something and then start shaping it. . . . You get one paragraph partly right, and then you’ll go back and work on the other part. It’s a different thing.
Both the Gross and Eggers interviews are included in Joan Didion: The Last Interview.
The Process Itself
Every writer has their quirks. Didion’s involved retyping her work each day. “When I’m working on a book, I constantly retype my own sentences,” she told Hilton Als in the Paris Review. “Every day I go back to page one and just retype what I have. It gets me into a rhythm.” She kept that up until she exceeded a hundred pages, give or take. Once she passed that threshold, she wouldn’t go back all the way to the start but still far enough to completely immerse herself in the work.
She also edited as she went. Once finished for the day, she’d pour herself a drink and read over all her pages, editing and annotating as she went. “The drink loosens me up enough to actually mark it up,” she told Sloane Crosley in a conversation hosted by the New York Public Library. “You don’t edit very dramatically when you’re—you’re not very hard on yourself, you’re not very loose with yourself most of the day. Really, I have found the drink actually helps.” Then, with her edits captured, she felt prepared to start the following morning. “It gets me past that blank terror,” she told Als.
Terror? “Writing fiction is for me a fraught business,” she explained, “an occasion of daily dread for at least the first half of the novel, and sometimes all the way through.” The reason? “You have to sit down every day and make it up.” Didion found herself on the hook to generate whole worlds every morning. Beginning with the work from the prior day helped ease her into the process. So did advance ideation in the form of notes but, when it came to fiction, that only helped so much. “The notes give you only the background, not the novel itself.”
Nonfiction was different, especially reporting. “In nonfiction the notes give you the piece,” she told Als. It’s “more like sculpture”—that metaphor again—“a matter of shaping the research into the finished thing.” We get to see that process in action in South and West, that collection of rough notes and unfinished passages published in 2017.
It is, says Nathaniel Rich in the foreword to the book,
the most revealing of Didion's books. This might seem a far-fetched claim to make about an author who has written about her ancestry, her marriage, her health, and, with painful candor, her grief. . . . But the writing itself—the cool majesty of her prose, written as if from a great, even empyreal distance, elevating personal experience into universal revelation—has an immaculacy as intimidating as Chelsea porcelain. South and West offers for the first time a glimpse inside the factory walls.
The book is composed of the raw materials for two projects, an article about the South she researched in 1970 and furtive stabs at understanding California she began in 1976 under the aim of possibly covering the Patty Hearst trial for Rolling Stone. She never did finish the first project. The second eventually gave rise to Where I Was From.
We can, however, be grateful she never finished. Instead, we get the rare glimpse of an author in the act of writing, in the middle of the process, like an action sequence frozen mid-frame in the form of her notebooks. Says Rich,
The notebooks . . . include transcriptions of her observations, which she typed at the end of each day. These notes represent an intermediate stage of writing, between shorthand and first draft, composed in an uncharacteristically casual, immediate style. There are sentences that are ideas for sentences, paragraphs that are ideas for scenes: “The land looks rich, and many people from Birmingham, etc. (rich people) maintain places here to hunt.” “The country way in which he gave me names.” “The resolutely ‘colorful,’ anecdotal quality of San Francisco history.” “The sense of sports being the opiate of the people.” “The sense of not being up to the landscape.”
“The effect can be jarring,” says Rich, “like seeing Grace Kelly photographed with her hair in rollers or hearing the demo tapes in which Brian Wilson experiments with alternative arrangements of ‘Good Vibrations.’” You can see some some of these bits in action. For instance, notes captured in South and West about an extended stay in Durham, North Carolina, appear selected, smoothed, and polished in Where I Was From—some details migrating to their final expression, others dropped and lost if not for this frozen-in-the-moment picture.
Despite her manifest abilities, Didion confessed sometimes lacking confidence in her writing. It bothered her from the beginning, as revealed by an apocryphal story going back to her work at the McClatchy Prospector. “Didion would throw stories she wrote in the trash, thinking them no good, only for someone else to fish them out,” the student paper’s faculty adviser would sometimes tell her charges to encourage them. We can be grateful Didion kept at it despite her occasional doubts.
We can also be grateful her mother gave her that Big 5 tablet all those years back when Didion griped of being bored. “Write something,” she said. “Then you can read it.” Yes, and so can we.
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