Joan Didion was a singular voice in 20th-century American literature. A writer of essays, articles, memoirs, plays, and novels, she captured life at its ugliest and most beautiful, covering everything from grief to politics to travel and culture.
Her first success as a young writer came during her senior year at the University of California, Berkeley, when she won an essay contest sponsored by Vogue, which led to a job in the magazine's New York office in 1956. She worked for seven years at the publication, eventually becoming an associate features editor, all while writing and publishing her own work. Her first novel, Run River, debuted in 1963, one year before she left Vogue, married fellow writer John Gregory Dunne, and moved to Los Angeles.
Much of Didion’s work after that focused on her experiences and impressions of life in California. Along with luminaries including Hunter S. Thompson, Truman Capote, and Tom Wolfe, Didion pioneered a different kind of reporting, called New Journalism, wherein writers embraced a more subjective perspective, often inserting themselves into their stories. Didion, for her part, wrote about 1960s counterculture in California, sharing her incisive observations in her first nonfiction book, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, published in 1968.
Didion further established herself as a towering literary figure over the next several decades, writing four additional novels, multiple plays and screenplays, and countless articles and essays, many of which were collected into books such as The White Album and Political Fictions. She also earned acclaim for her memoirs, most notably 2005's The Year of Magical Thinking, which recounted her experience with grief following her husband's sudden death in 2003.
Didion’s final book, a collection of essays titled Let Me Tell You What I Mean, was published in January 2021, just months before her death from Parkinson's the following December at age 87. A consummate observer of human nature, she left behind a collection of work that continues to inspire. The 15 quotes below are evidence of that.
Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.
Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.
I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.
Sometimes I get lonesome for a storm. A full-blown storm where everything changes. The sky goes through four days in an hour, the trees wail, little animals skitter in the mud and everything gets dark and goes completely wild.
Marriage is not only time: it is also, paradoxically, the denial of time.
I did not always think he was right nor did he always think I was right, but we were each the person the other trusted.
Maybe the most difficult, most important thing anyone could do for anyone else was to leave him alone; it was perhaps the only gratuitous act, the act of love.
A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.
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.
We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
Short stories demand a certain awareness of one's own intentions, a certain narrowing of the focus.
Grammar is a piano I play by ear.
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… The way I write is who I am, or have become.
You get the sense that it’s possible simply to go through life noticing things and writing them down and that this is OK, it’s worth doing. That the seemingly insignificant things that most of us spend our days noticing are really significant, have meaning, and tell us something.
I am still committed to the idea that the ability to think for one’s self depends upon one’s mastery of the language.
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