“See enough and write it down…”

Author Joan Didion died at her home in New York, United States on Thursday. She was 87.

Didion is regarded as one of the greatest writers of her generation, chronicling some iconic moments of American and world history, like the counterculture movement of the 1960s and the El Salvador civil war. A biographical documentary titled Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, directed by her nephew Griffin Dune in 2017, is out on Netflix.

Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold (2017).

The film reveals how Didion’s experiences shaped her body of work as well as highlights some of her most popular essays and books. It includes graphical representation of Didion’s formative years and interviews with her colleagues, editors, friends.

Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant. 
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. 

The question of self-pity. Those were the first words I wrote after it happened. The computer dating on the Microsoft Word file (“Notes on change.doc”) reads “May 20, 2004, 11:11 p.m.,” but that would have been a case of my opening the file and reflexively pressing save when I closed it. I had made no changes to that file in May. I had made no changes to that file since I wrote the words, in January 2004, a day or two or three after the fact. 

For a long time I wrote nothing else.
Life changes in the instant.
The ordinary instant. 

At some point, in the interest of remembering what seemed most striking about what had happened, I considered adding those words, “the ordinary instant.” I saw immediately that there would be no need to add the word “ordinary,” because there would be no forgetting it: the word never left my mind. It was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it. I recognise now that there was nothing unusual in this: confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy.

— Opening lines of The Year of Magical Thinking.

Didion was born and raised in California. She moved to New York City at 20 for a job with Vogue. “When I first saw New York I was twenty, and it was summertime, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already, even in the old Idlewild temporary terminal, and the warm air smelled of mildew and some instinct, programmed by all the movies I had ever seen and all the songs I had ever sung and all the stories I had ever read about New York, informed me that it would never quite be the same again,” she wrote in her 1967 essay, “Goodbye To All That”.

Didion won the Prix de Paris, a contest organised by the fashion magazine for a job in either New York City or Paris. Her first essay for Vogue, titled Self Respect – its source, its power, came to her accidentally when the writer it was assigned to failed to turn it in. In the documentary, Didion recalls how the piece was “unusual” for a publication like Vogue in 1961, which at the time mostly covered topics like “doing makeup, or something like that”.

Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold (2017). Courtesy Netflix.

She wrote in Vogue, “People with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve. They display what was once called character, a quality which, although approved in the abstract, sometimes loses ground to the other, more instantly negotiable virtues. Character, the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life, is the source from which self-respect springs.”

The documentary throws light on key events in Didion’s life, including her marriage to writer John Gregory Dunne. Dunne and Didion moved to California and adopted a daughter and named her Quintana Roo. Dunne died of a heart attack in 2003. Two years later, Quintana Roo died from acute pancreatitis.

I will be her witness. 

That would translate seré su testigo, and will not appear in your travellers’ phrasebook because it is not a useful phrase for the prudent traveller. 

Here is what happened: she left one man, she left a second man, she travelled again with the first; she let him die alone. She lost one child to “history” and another to “complications” (I offer in each instance the evaluation of others), she imagined herself capable of shedding that baggage and came to Boca Grande, a tourist. Una turista. So she said. In fact she came here less a tourist than a sojourner but she did not make that distinction. 

She made not enough distinctions. 

She dreamed her life. 

She died, hopeful. In summary. So you know the story. 

Of course the story had extenuating circumstances, weather, cracked sidewalks and paregorina, but only for the living. Charlotte would call her story one of passion. I believe I would call it one of delusion. My name is Grace Strasser-Mendana, née Tabor, and I have been for fifty of my sixty years a student of delusion, a prudent traveler from Denver, Colorado.

— Opening lines of A Book of Common Prayer.

Writer Susanna Moore, who lived temporarily with the family, recalls how Didion needed to have chilled Coca-Colas and salted almonds every day in the morning. “I had to have Coca-Colas in the refrigerator,” Didion says. “And they had to be really cold. And if anyone took my last Coca-Cola, we would have a scene in the kitchen.”

The 1960s were the peak of hippiedom in California. Later that decade, Didion published an essay on Haight-Ashbury, the San Francisco neighbourhood often touted as the centre of the counterculture movement of the decade.

“The idea that you could actually write the history of your time…and that it could be a form which would be as supple and as versatile, and as nuanced as fiction, is something quite extraordinary,” playwright David Hare says in the film.

In certain latitudes there comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long and blue. This period of the blue nights does not occur in subtropical California, where I lived for much of the time I will be talking about here and where the end of daylight is fast and lost in the blaze of the dropping sun, but it does occur in New York, where I now live. You notice it first as April ends and May begins, a change in the season, not exactly a warming – in fact not at all a warming – yet suddenly summer seems near, a possibility, even a promise. You pass a window, you walk to Central Park, you find yourself swimming in the colour blue: the actual light is blue, and over the course of an hour or so this blue deepens, becomes more intense even as it darkens and fades, approximates finally the blue of the glass on a clear day at Chartres, or that of the Cerenkov radiation thrown off by the fuel rods in the pools of nuclear reactors. The French called this time of day “l’heure bleue.” To the English it was “the gloaming.” The very word “gloaming” reverberates, echoes – the gloaming, the glimmer, the glitter, the glisten, the glamour – carrying in its consonants the images of houses shuttering, gardens darkening, grass-lined rivers slipping through the shadows.

— Opening lines of Blue Nights.

The documentary also explores Didion’s discomfort on reporting on young children being exposed to negligence and drugs while being away from her daughter. “It was gold,” Didion says when asked about her experience of seeing a five-year-old child on LSD. “You live for moments like that if you’re doing a piece. Good or bad.”

Didion visited El Salvador during the height of its civil war in 1982 and wrote a book-length essay about America’s involvement in the country’s affairs. In the documentary, she describes the visit as “terrifying”, adding, “It was the most dangerous place I ever hope to be.”

Of course I stole the title for this talk, from George Orwell. One reason I stole it was that I like the sound of the words: Why I Write. There you have three short unambiguous words that share a sound, and the sound they share is this:

In many ways, writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions—with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating—but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.

— Opening Lines of Why I Write' from 'Let Me Tell You What I Mean.

The latter part of Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold focuses on the author’s own struggle with grief when her husband and her daughter died in quick succession. In her book The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion writes, “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We know that someone close to us could die. We might expect to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect to be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy – cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes.”

This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with the country. The San Bernardino Valley lies only an hour east of Los Angeles by the San Bernardino Freeway but is in certain ways an alien place: not the coastal California of the subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves. October is the bad month for the wind, the month when breathing is difficult and the hills blaze up spontaneously. There has been no rain since April. Every voice seems a scream. It is the season of suicide and divorce and prickly dread, wherever the wind blows.

— Opening lines of Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays.

Didion was awarded the National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal during a ceremony at the White House by former United States President Barack Obama in 2013.

My great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Elizabeth Scott was born in 1766, grew up on the Virginia and Carolina frontiers, at age sixteen married an eighteen-year-old veteran of the Revolution and the Cherokee expeditions named Benjamin Hardin IV, moved with him into Tennessee and Kentucky and died on still another frontier, the Oil Trough Bottom on the south bank of the White River in what is now Arkansas but was then Missouri Territory. Elizabeth Scott Hardin was remembered to have hidden in a cave with her children (there were said to have been eleven, only eight of which got recorded) during Indian fighting, and to have been so strong a swimmer that she could ford a river in flood with an infant in her arms. Either in her defense or for reasons of his own, her husband was said to have killed, not counting English soldiers or Cherokees, ten men. This may be true or it may be, in a local oral tradition inclined to stories that turn on decisive gestures, embroidery. I have it on the word of a cousin who researched the matter that the husband, our great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, “appears in the standard printed histories of Arkansas as ‘Old Colonel Ben Hardin, the hero of so many Indian wars.’”

— Opening lines of Where I Was From.

Also read:

Finally! In her new book of essays, Joan Didion tells us how she became a writer