Tag Archives: Joan Didion


Shhhh.  This blog is still on holiday, but I have to thank those of you who gathered up to send me this.

God knows I love fountain pens, and if you could feel this one — this one! — in your hand and see the ink on the page …. pure writerly pleasure, that’s what it is.  My scribbles don’t look so scribbly.  Y’all are spoiling me.


I’ve always felt my real teachers are other writers (all of you included), and I spent Friday and Satruday with a couple of favorites:  Joan Didion and Mary Karr.

Since I just read Didion’s BLUE NIGHTS, I watched her latest Charlie Rose interview.  I also fired up her clip with Charlie from 15 years ago, in 1996.  Watching the 2 back-to-back taught me much … and broke my heart.  If you’re feeling your inner student, you can find her master class here, along with a montage of other Writers On Writing.

If you’re working on a memoir and feeling sassy, or even if you just need to shore up your courage (and who doesn’t?), here’s the Mary Karr interview.

The two lines I needed to hear most today?

1.  After saying she threw away the first 2,000 pages (two thousand!) of her last memoir, LIT, the interviewer asked her why.  Her simple answer:  It was boring!

2.  Her advice to newer writers:  Never show your work to anyone unit you think it’s finished.

And now … I’m off to work toward FTF.


* Comments for this post have been turned off.  Enjoy the rest of 2011.

Joan’s Voice

I read Joan Didion’s latest book in one day, pretty much in one sitting.  Once I started there was no way to stop.  Very much like THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING in form, the rhythms and repetitions in this new release will make you feel like you’ve fallen into a gently swirling eddy.  An interesting analogy considering she’s writing about grief and loss.

I’ve always been bothered by critics who dislike her voice, her stance as an outsider looking in on her experience.  They complain there’s not enough of her in the story, that she’s too remote and cold and distant; that, for an essayist, she doesn’t give nearly enough.  I would argue this slight remoteness of voice is what draws me into the narrative.  It’s magnetic.  I believe her.  I trust her.  I’m invested in what she has to say because I feel the friction in her voice.  In her last 2 books, for example, she’s writing about her grief and emotions and failings and pains without falling into a soupy mush of sentimentality.  And at the same time I can feel her resistance to revealing so much about herself.  This tension is what makes it work.

Many a memoir writer could take a lesson from Joan Didion.

What did I like most about BLUE NIGHTS?  It’s rumination on guilt-infused grief.  Many reviewers have focused on the constant repetition and the narrative shift: that the story opens with Quintana at its center, but ends with Joan’s contemplation of her own aging.  I see something completely different.  This is, simply, a story of mothers and daughters.  It opens with Joan’s focus on her maternal guilt; her worry that she was never a good enough mother, that somehow, in putting her career first, she left Quintana too often alone and uncared for.  It ends with Quintana’s guilt that she, in her early death, will leave her frail and aging mother alone and uncared for.  And time runs out before either of them has the chance to get it right.

I’ve read as much press as I can find on BLUE NIGHTS.  Here are the only 2 not to miss:


From The Washington Post

Nathan Heller’s article in The New York Times Magazine.  Heller doesn’t merely review the book, choosing instead to discuss the paradoxes in Joan’s writing style.  “To readers who admire her work, she is a journalist of rare candor and style, a writer who unflinchingly peels back the smooth surface of public narrative and the skin of her own psyche, opening both to scrutiny and giving magazine writing a lambent glamour in the process. In the eyes of less enthusiastic readers, she’s a histrionic prose artist, striking poses of stylish despair in precious, incantatory sentences and drawing ominous conclusions from a Ouija board of ironic detail.” 

And NPR’s Fresh Air interview with Joan Didion.  I encourage you to listen.  Listen to this voice for yourself.  You won’t be disappointed.

(If you don’t have time for either, there’s a very good short interview here, at The Washington Post.)

In Didion Land

I first read THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING in 2006.  I read it in two days.  I think I read it in two days.  I don’t know if this is true, but that’s the way I remember it.  Two days.

Since then I’ve listened to it on audio no less than 5 times.  If you follow this blog, you know this is not unusual and you won’t be surprised to learn that I’m listening to it yet again.  Every time I hear it, I appreciate something new.  Last time around it was the circular motion of the narrative, how she makes you feel like you’re spinning around in the memory vortex with her, and how the constant repetition of these lines keeps you in her grasp:

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

You’re safe.  I’m here.

I tell you that I shall not live two days, Gawain said.

Why do you always have to be right.  Why do you always have to have the last word.  For once in your life just let it go.

This time I’m focused on the simplicity — the seeming simplicity — of her sentences.  In her 2006 interview for The Paris Review, Ms. Didion talked about how she admired Hemingway from an early age (11 or 12):  “There was just something magical to me in the arrangement of those sentences.  Because they were so simple — or rather they appeared to be so simple, but they weren’t.”

Amen.  I’m off to walk my dogs around the neighborhood and listen (learn) some more.

Joan Didion and The Year of Magical Thinking

Now that I’ve read The Year of Magical Thinking once, and listened to it on audio twice, I have a respect for the writing and story that I missed the first time around.  Not that I didn’t already respect Joan Didion’s writing.  Hey, she’s Joan Didion.  But the first time I read this book it struck the wrong cord — it seemed like so much “we were somebody” talk and name dropping, e.g.:  when John and I spent that month in Honolulu and swam in the grotto, the summer we ate at Morton’s every evening and had shrimp quesadilla, the jacket John wore on the set of “Up Close and Personal,” the house in Malibu where I floated flowers with candles in the pool before a dinner party, oh our last trip to Paris, etc…  In focusing on these things I didn’t so much miss the point, but was absolutely distracted from what the book was about.

Which brings me to the device of repetition.

I have a thing about repetition.  I would often rather watch a movie I’ve seen 50 times than something new, something untested.  (Ask my poor husband this.  If he hears the theme of The Godfather playing on TV, he knows he’ll be stuck with it for the rest of the day.)  I would rather watch re-runs of TV series like All in the Family, or The Sopranos, or ER than give a new show a chance.  And I read books (certain books) over and over again.  I re-read (or re-listen to) to books for a number of reasons.  Sometimes just because I love the story, but more often because I think of the book like a math problem:  I’m trying to figure out how the writer makes this WORK, therefore making structure, repetition, and cadence into a complex set of equations that churns out the right answer in the end.  Didion even describes her husband John doing the same thing with Sophie’s Choice, re-reading that book one summer just to see how it Styron made it work.

What I appreciated about The Year of Magical Thinking these last couple of times around was how Didion tells her story in a circular motion, wrapping around and around again to key phrases that encapsulate the overall themes of memory and recall.  And in that circling manages to say something new about grief.

Today I keep thinking about one line, returned to often in the book:  Gawain said, I tell you, I will not live two more days. Like a musical crescendo, this one sentence encompasses more and more power as the story circles on.  Brilliant, I tell you.

Joan Didion, you are truly brilliant.