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She told stories in order to live: The legacy of Joan Didion

Joan Didion’s death closes the chapter on a life lived in proximity to death and pathos. For the literary world, it means the loss of a powerful voice that comes by occasionally.

December 25, 2021 / 11:57 AM IST
Joan Didion is considered one of the pioneering exponents of New Journalism, a form of journalism that makes use of narrative and fictive techniques while displaying a personal voice.

Joan Didion is considered one of the pioneering exponents of New Journalism, a form of journalism that makes use of narrative and fictive techniques while displaying a personal voice.

In 2019, I was on the subway in New York City reading a book I had just bought at the Strands Book Store. ‘It seems interesting,' remarked a commuter seated beside me. I had noticed her peeking into the book once in a while. ‘Who’s the author?’  Joan Didion, I replied. ‘Who?’ She’s from your city, I explained further. Still blank, the commuter got up at her station and would have most likely forgotten all about Didion by the time she exited the train.

On Thursday, Didion died of complications from Parkinson's disease. She was 87. It now made sense to me why my frantic messages to her on Facebook that year, begging for a chance to meet her, went unanswered. I am delusional and this explanation is what I will stand by. I keep replaying the thought in my head: Joan Didion is dead! It seems as though my grief counsellor is dead.

Personally, that book I was reading on the subway, The Year of Magical Thinking (2004), was a lifeline thrown to me by a New York psychiatrist friend who recommended it in my journey of grief. Nobody wrote grief like Didion and it defined another form of writing that Didion aced with her distinctive style. Her husband of 40 years, John Gregory Dunne, had suddenly died at their NYC apartment in December 2003 at the age of 71. She wrote of her trauma fusing the prose with journalistic observations, detaching the personal in an embodied manner even though everything she wrote was about John and her. Didion had written its first three sentences a day or two after the death but it took her a year to complete the book.

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

I could imagine her staring at those words endlessly through her dark sunglasses which she wore even indoors. But those very words reeled me into the book instantly. I had been there. Everything I read in-between those covers was everything I had experienced. ‘I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead. Let them be photographs on the table.’

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The next memoir Didion wrote was on the grief she experienced on losing her only (adopted) daughter Quintana Roo Dunne who died at the age of 39 just two years after John. This time it took her longer to write and Blue Nights appeared in 2011. The two books are seminal works on grief writing but that’s just one aspect of Didion’s prose.

She got recognition for her personal and empathetic dispatches from California in the '60s when others were merely reporting about the American culture. This is why she is considered one of the pioneering exponents of New Journalism, a form of journalism that makes use of narrative and fictive techniques while displaying a personal voice. She wrote about the decay in the hippie culture that was then considered exotic. Her interview of a 5-year-old girl who was high on LSD given to her by the mother is still an incisive piece of writing, which was her Haight-Ashbury essay. Didion described the moment to her nephew Griffin Dunne in the Netflix documentary The Centre will not Hold (2017). “Well, it was appalling. I wanted to call an ambulance. I wanted to call the police. I wanted to help. I wanted to weep. I wanted to get the hell out of there and get home to my own two-year-old daughter, and protect her from the present and the future.” And then after a brief pause, she said, “Let me tell you, it was gold. You live for moments like that, if you’re doing a piece. Good or bad.”

Not many are actually aware of her contributions in the field of writing. If someone asks me where to begin reading Didion, I would recommend her Californian dispatches if that person is aspiring to be a journalist.

If they want to read a book that makes them go inwards, I would probably recommend any or all of Didion’s novels, right from her first one, Run, River (1963) which was about the unravelling of a Sacramento family, or Play it as it Lays (1970), an inner monologue of a 31-year-old woman recovering from a mental breakdown in a psychiatric hospital. The latter went on to feature in Time magazine’s 100 best English language novels from 1923 to 2003.

For some stylistic reads, any of her collection of essays would suffice, right from her very first collection of nonfiction essays, Slouching towards Bethlehem (1968), which again, is the textbook for New Journalism reportage.

If you were a student of screenplay writing, I would ask you to watch all the movies whose screenplays Didion and her husband co-wrote when they lived in California. Play it as it Lays was her first book that made it as a movie but some of the screenplays they wrote were part of Hollywood projects like Up, Close and Personal featuring Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer.

But if you are a student of writing, wanting to write simply because you want to tell your story, look no further than White Album (1979) where she wrote: We tell ourselves stories in order to live...We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. 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. This was an essay that she had written as part of her assignments in Vogue, her first and the only job she ever did, when she cast doubt on the guilt of the ‘Central Park Five’ who are now exonerated.

As I got drawn into the world of Didion, I recognized her towering stature amongst writers. Even the most egoistical of them will admit her superiority in the literary world.

She was said to tolerate no fools. In the last stages of her life, Didion hardly wrote, refused biography projects and documentaries. A few exceptions were her appearance in a Celine advertisement in 2015 and her nephew’s documentary The Centre will not Hold.

Early this year, Didion did a Time interview, giving pithy one-sentence answers. The magazine carried the interview intact, and I read it out loud to my sons. When asked what it meant to be called the voice of her generation, she said, ‘I don’t have the slightest idea.’ Asked if she feared death, she mulled, ‘No, well, yes of course.’ But of all things she looked forward to in 2021, she replied it was an Easter party, if it can be given.

I hope that Didion will have finally have a party with John and Quintana. And if there is one sentence I could write about Didion, it would be a quote from her. You have to pick the places you don’t walk away from. (A Book of Common Prayers, 1977). Didion’s prose is my place.
Jayanthi Madhukar is a Bengaluru-based freelance journalist.
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