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The Power of Joan Didion

Immediately after reading my first Joan Didion book, I decided that she was my favorite author. After reading more and learning about her as a person, this sentiment still holds true. Known for her large, black sunglasses and petite frame, Didion is a captivating individual. She is one of the most iconic authors of American writing, as she is able to capture the tribulations of a country in a journalistic way that is still emotionally charged. 

Didion was born in Sacramento in 1934 and attended Berkeley. While in school, she studied English and focused on her writing. Prior to graduation, she won the first-place prize in the Prix de Paris essay contest, which gave her the opportunity to work at Vogue as a writer. This move to New York opened her to a wider world of people and opportunities, as she began to learn about journalistic writing. While living there, she also met her husband, John Gregory Dunne, who was also a writer. As she discussed in several of her writings, she fled from New York after feeling mentally drained by the city. 

In 2017, her nephew worked with her to create a Netflix documentary that went into great detail about her works. The documentary is called “The Center Will Not Hold” and gives her perspective on some of her most iconic works. This documentary is especially unique because she gives so little information concerning her personal life while being interviewed. Similarly, I recently saw an article from early 2021, where she continued to portray this reclusive and straightforward personality. 

new journalism

The style of writing that Joan Didion is most known for is new journalism. This style tells facts through the use of narrative storytelling and literary techniques. After working at Vogue, Didion has remained a journalist her whole life. Slouching Towards Bethlehem was published in 1968 and was her first effort at nonfiction writing. This collection of essays focuses on life in California and the United States in the 1960s. After this work, Didion became a voice and icon of California. 

Didion was one of the first people to expose the dark side of the free, hippy movement at the time. She spent a lot of time writing about San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, which was once the heart of the hippie community, and the vibe of the area. Didion was also one of the first mainstream writers to write against the arrests of the Central Park Five in her 1991 work. 

Her book The White Album is another essay book from 1979, which touches on similar themes found in her previous work. “The White Album” is about the rise and fall of the 1960s in America. I find her nonfiction works to be so incredible even if you are not interested in this genre, as she manages to incorporate so much humanity and emotion into her essays. 

Writing on Grief

Two of Didion’s most well-known books center around the losses of her husband and daughter. Her 2005 book The Year of Magical Thinking is in reference to the death of her husband and the subsequent sickness of her daughter. This is now regarded as a necessary read for anyone in mourning. In 2011, she then published Blue Nights, which focuses on her feelings after her daughter eventually succumbed to her poor health. She also touches on the concept of aging and parenthood throughout this work. 

Didion was able to lay out these feelings of grief in a way that she never saw before. In the Netflix documentary, she discusses her reluctancy to write about these events. However, she ultimately decided that it would be helpful for both herself and other people to make her story public. 

My Favorite Joan Didion Book

Although I appreciate everything that Joan Didion has written, I have a special place in my heart for Play It as It Lays. This is probably my favorite book of all time, and it was the first work by Joan Didion I ever read. Play It as It Lays was published in 1970 and even had a film adaptation later on. This is a fiction work from Didion, which focuses on a young woman who is going through a total upheaval of her life. Although the book is extremely depressing at some points, it still aims to spread a hopeful message. Didion uses the main character’s story to show that we, as people, must be able to take what we are given and keep living. 

I haven’t managed to read all of Joan Didion’s work, but she still manages to be such a strong force in all my writing. Her writing style is evocative and strong, while still being very sensitive. If you haven’t had the chance to read any of Didion’s works, I would recommend starting with The White Album, as it features shorter essays that are easier to get through. 

Minna is an English major at the University of Florida. She is a features writer for Her Campus UFL.
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