When Joan Didion was little, she wanted to be an actress. One day when she was upset about something, her mother told her to write down her feelings. When she was 15, as a way of figuring out how his sentences worked, Joan went to her room and typed stories by Ernest Hemingway. By doing so, she also taught herself how to type. Later, she would describe his sentences as perfect; “smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes.”
Joan was shy and bookish, and thought that acting might help her with social anxiety. Suffering from nosebleeds, she spent a summer on her front porch in Sacramento reading Eugene O’Neill plays. “Being left alone and leaving others alone,” she said, “[was]regarded by members of my family as the highest form of human endeavor.” In 1956 she graduated from Berkeley with an English degree. She’d just won an essay contest sponsored by Vogue. She skipped the prize of a trip to Paris and went straight to New York to work as a research assistant for the magazine.
Joan said it was at Vogue where she learned how to construct perfect sentences. She wrote captions and commercial copy, then became an associate feature editor. At night, over several years, she worked on scenes for a novel. When she finished a scene, she’d pin it to a long strip of pages on the wall of her apartment. Later she could pick one, pull it off the wall and rewrite it. When she had 150 pages, Joan showed them to 12 publishers, all of whom passed. “The thirteenth…gave me an advance, and with that thousand dollars or whatever it was I took a two-month leave of absence and wrote the last half of the book. That’s why the last half is better than the first half.”
Joan realized that being an actress and being a writer were essentially the same impulse: a kind of make-believe, but as a writer, she could do it all alone. She was struck when a friend who was an actress came to dinner. The other guests were writers. “It suddenly occurred to me that she was the only person in the room who couldn’t plan what she was going to do,” said Joan. “She had to wait for someone to ask her, which is a strange way to live.”
PS: “I start a book and I want to make it perfect, want it to turn every color, want it to be the world. Ten pages in, I’ve already blown it, limited it, made it less, marred it. That’s very discouraging. I hate the book at that point. After a while I arrive at an accommodation: Well, it’s not the ideal, it’s not the perfect object I wanted to make, but maybe — if I go ahead and finish it anyway — I can get it right next time. Maybe I can have another chance.” (Joan Didion (1934 – 2021))
Esoterica: “Toward the beginning of a novel I’ll write a lot of sections that lead me nowhere. So I’ll abandon them, pin them on a board with the idea of picking them up later,” said Joan. Her process remained similar throughout her writing life: novels, screenplays, new journalism, essays, memoirs. She began her workday by retyping pages written the day before, with notes made the previous evening, with a drink, for an hour before dinner. “I can’t do it late in the afternoon because I’m too close to it.” she said. “Also, the drink helps. It removes me from the pages.” She spent the hour taking things out and putting other things in. Retyping the pages helped her to get into the rhythm of work, to prime the pump for the day’s ideas to flow. It continued, perhaps, as a kind of muscle memory from her early days with Hemingway – making the motions of being a writer in order to become one – or reminding her of who she already was. During these periods, Joan rejected a social life. “I don’t like to go out or have anybody to dinner, because then I lose the hour,” she said. “If I don’t have the hour, and start the next day with just some bad pages and nowhere to go, I’m in low spirits.” Lastly, at least when she was still raising her daughter, when nearing the end of a book, Joan would return to her parents’ house in Sacramento. She wanted to sleep in the same room with her story and characters. “Somehow the book doesn’t leave you when you’re asleep right next to it,” she said. “In Sacramento nobody cares if I appear or not. I can just get up and start typing.” Joan Didion passed away from complications of Parkinson’s Disease in her home in Manhattan on December 23, 2021. She was 87.
Joan Didion’s 1978 seminal interview on the mechanics of writing, The Art of Fiction, for The Paris Review, is here.
“There’s a point when you go with what you’ve got. Or you don’t go.” (Joan Didion)
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“Novels are like paintings, specifically watercolors. Every stroke you put down you have to go with. Of course you can rewrite, but the original strokes are still there in the texture of the thing.” (Joan Didion)
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We live in a fractured world. Wars, famine and power games are forcing people to abandon their homes and their way of life in hopes of finding peace. For lack of education or specialized skills, the poor are not accepted into our northern communities. They stay in the camps on the borders of turmoil, separated from local community. Animals are caught in the crossfire. Even the trees and the rocks suffer the agony of imbalance. This chaos is evident in my work. In between the rivulets of paint and the textural accidents I choose colours and forms to suggest a landscape where beauty continues to reign. We can still change the tide and build a new world harmony. Certainly, contemporary will focuses on gold instead of beauty. Yet, beauty is essential to the wellbeing of the planet. She is essential to the survival of humanity.