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Read 12 Masterful Essays by Joan Didion for Free Online, Spanning Her Career From 1965 to 2013

in Literature , Writing | January 14th, 2014 3 Comments

joan didion famous essays

Image by David Shankbone, via Wikimedia Commons

In a classic essay of Joan Didion’s, “Goodbye to All That,” the novelist and writer breaks into her narrative—not for the first or last time—to prod her reader. She rhetorically asks and answers: “…was anyone ever so young? I am here to tell you that someone was.” The wry little moment is perfectly indicative of Didion’s unsparingly ironic critical voice. Didion is a consummate critic, from Greek kritēs , “a judge.” But she is always foremost a judge of herself. An account of Didion’s eight years in New York City, where she wrote her first novel while working for Vogue , “Goodbye to All That” frequently shifts point of view as Didion examines the truth of each statement, her prose moving seamlessly from deliberation to commentary, annotation, aside, and aphorism, like the below:

I want to explain to you, and in the process perhaps to myself, why I no longer live in New York. It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city only for the very young.

Anyone who has ever loved and left New York—or any life-altering city—will know the pangs of resignation Didion captures. These economic times and every other produce many such stories. But Didion made something entirely new of familiar sentiments. Although her essay has inspired a sub-genre , and a collection of breakup letters to New York with the same title, the unsentimental precision and compactness of Didion’s prose is all her own.

The essay appears in 1967’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem , a representative text of the literary nonfiction of the sixties alongside the work of John McPhee, Terry Southern, Tom Wolfe, and Hunter S. Thompson. In Didion’s case, the emphasis must be decidedly on the literary —her essays are as skillfully and imaginatively written as her fiction and in close conversation with their authorial forebears. “Goodbye to All That” takes its title from an earlier memoir, poet and critic Robert Graves’ 1929 account of leaving his hometown in England to fight in World War I. Didion’s appropriation of the title shows in part an ironic undercutting of the memoir as a serious piece of writing.

And yet she is perhaps best known for her work in the genre. Published almost fifty years after Slouching Towards Bethlehem , her 2005 memoir The Year of Magical Thinking is, in poet Robert Pinsky’s words , a “traveler’s faithful account” of the stunningly sudden and crushing personal calamities that claimed the lives of her husband and daughter separately. “Though the material is literally terrible,” Pinsky writes, “the writing is exhilarating and what unfolds resembles an adventure narrative: a forced expedition into those ‘cliffs of fall’ identified by Hopkins.” He refers to lines by the gifted Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins that Didion quotes in the book: “O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap / May who ne’er hung there.”

The nearly unimpeachably authoritative ethos of Didion’s voice convinces us that she can fearlessly traverse a wild inner landscape most of us trivialize, “hold cheap,” or cannot fathom. And yet, in a 1978 Paris Review interview , Didion—with that technical sleight of hand that is her casual mastery—called herself “a kind of apprentice plumber of fiction, a Cluny Brown at the writer’s trade.” Here she invokes a kind of archetype of literary modesty (John Locke, for example, called himself an “underlabourer” of knowledge) while also figuring herself as the winsome heroine of a 1946 Ernst Lubitsch comedy about a social climber plumber’s niece played by Jennifer Jones, a character who learns to thumb her nose at power and privilege.

A twist of fate—interviewer Linda Kuehl’s death—meant that Didion wrote her own introduction to the Paris Review interview, a very unusual occurrence that allows her to assume the role of her own interpreter, offering ironic prefatory remarks on her self-understanding. After the introduction, it’s difficult not to read the interview as a self-interrogation. Asked about her characterization of writing as a “hostile act” against readers, Didion says, “Obviously I listen to a reader, but the only reader I hear is me. I am always writing to myself. So very possibly I’m committing an aggressive and hostile act toward myself.”

It’s a curious statement. Didion’s cutting wit and fearless vulnerability take in seemingly all—the expanses of her inner world and political scandals and geopolitical intrigues of the outer, which she has dissected for the better part of half a century. Below, we have assembled a selection of Didion’s best essays online. We begin with one from Vogue :

“On Self Respect” (1961)

Didion’s 1979 essay collection The White Album brought together some of her most trenchant and searching essays about her immersion in the counterculture, and the ideological fault lines of the late sixties and seventies. The title essay begins with a gemlike sentence that became the title of a collection of her first seven volumes of nonfiction : “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Read two essays from that collection below:

“ The Women’s Movement ” (1972)

“ Holy Water ” (1977)

Didion has maintained a vigorous presence at the New York Review of Books since the late seventies, writing primarily on politics. Below are a few of her best known pieces for them:

“ Insider Baseball ” (1988)

“ Eye on the Prize ” (1992)

“ The Teachings of Speaker Gingrich ” (1995)

“ Fixed Opinions, or the Hinge of History ” (2003)

“ Politics in the New Normal America ” (2004)

“ The Case of Theresa Schiavo ” (2005)

“ The Deferential Spirit ” (2013)

“ California Notes ” (2016)

Didion continues to write with as much style and sensitivity as she did in her first collection, her voice refined by a lifetime of experience in self-examination and piercing critical appraisal. She got her start at Vogue in the late fifties, and in 2011, she published an autobiographical essay there that returns to the theme of “yearning for a glamorous, grown up life” that she explored in “Goodbye to All That.” In “ Sable and Dark Glasses ,” Didion’s gaze is steadier, her focus this time not on the naïve young woman tempered and hardened by New York, but on herself as a child “determined to bypass childhood” and emerge as a poised, self-confident 24-year old sophisticate—the perfect New Yorker she never became.

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Josh Jones  is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at  @jdmagness

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joan didion famous essays

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“In a classic essay of Joan Didion’s, “Goodbye to All That,” the novelist and writer breaks into her narrative—not for the first or last time,..”

Dead link to the essay

It should be “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” with the “s” on Towards.

Most of the Joan Didion Essay links have paywalls.

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15 great essays by joan didion, on life and death, goodbye to all that, marrying absurd, the santa ana, on morality, on self respect, some dreamers of the golden dream, in sable and dark glasses, on keeping a notebook, why i write, fixed opinions, or the hinge of history, insider baseball, the women's movement.

joan didion famous essays

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Joan Didion’s best books, from essays to fiction

joan didion famous essays

Joan Didion opens up to Katie Couric about 'Year of Magical Thinking' in 2005 interview

On Thursday, it was announced that prolific writer Joan Didion had died at the age of 87.

An executive at her publisher, Knopf, confirmed the author's death to TODAY in an email and said that Didion passed away at her home in Manhattan from Parkinson's disease.

Here, we round up seven necessary reads by the late author, who was best known for work on mourning and essays and magazine contributions that captured the American experience.

Here are the best books by Joan Didion:

'the year of magical thinking' (2005).

Dunne, Didion, & Daughter

Probably her best known work, this gutting work of non-fiction profiles Didion's experience grieving her husband John Gregory Dunne while caring for comatose daughter Quintana Roo Dunne.

"The Year of Magical Thinking" quickly became an iconic representation of mourning, capturing the sorrow and ennui of that period. It won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Awards, and was later adapted into a play starring Vanessa Redgrave.

'Blue Nights' (2011)

joan didion famous essays

A continuation of what is started in "The Year of Magical Thinking," this poignant 2011 work of non-fiction features personal and heartbreaking memories of Quintana, who passed away at the age of 39, not long after Didion's husband died.

"It is a searing inquiry into loss and a melancholy meditation on mortality and time,” wrote book critic Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times.

'Slouching Towards Bethlehem' (1968)

joan didion famous essays

Didion's first collection of nonfiction writing is revered as an essential portrait of America — particularly California — in the 1960s.

It focuses on her experience growing up in the Sunshine state, icons of that time John Wayne and Howard Hughes, and the essence of Haight-Ashbury, a neighborhood in San Francisco that became the heart of the counterculture movement.

'The White Album' (1979) 

joan didion famous essays

A reflective collection of essays, "The White Album" explores several of the same topics Didion touched on in "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," this time focusing on the history and politics of California in the late 1960s and early '70s. Its matter-of-fact and intimate stories give the reader a feeling of what California and the atmosphere was like during that time period.

'Play it as it Lays' (1970)

joan didion famous essays

Set during a time before Roe vs. Wade, this terrifying and at times disturbing novel profiles a struggling actress living in Los Angeles whose life begins to unravel after she has a back-alley abortion.

"(Didion) writes with a razor, carving her characters out of her perceptions with strokes so swift and economical that each scene ends almost before the reader is aware of it, and yet the characters go on bleeding afterward," wrote book critic John Leonard for the New York times.

'Miami' (1987)

Joan Didion Speaks At The College Of Marin

A great example of Didion's journalistic work, "Miami" paints a portrait of life for Cuban exiles in the south Florida city.

Didion writes a stunning and passionate page-turner set against the backdrop of Miami’s decline caused by economic and political changes with the refugee immigration from Cuba after Fidel Castro’s rise to power.

Alexander Kacala is a reporter and editor at TODAY Digital and NBC OUT. He loves writing about pop culture, trending topics, LGBTQ issues, style and all things drag. His favorite celebrity profiles include Cher — who said their interview was one of the most interesting of her career — as well as Kylie Minogue, Candice Bergen, Patti Smith and RuPaul. He is based in New York City and his favorite film is “Pretty Woman.”

10 essays that will get you hooked on Joan Didion

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I first read Joan Didion when I was an editorial assistant at a big publishing house in Manhattan. Blue Valentine was the movie everyone in the bullpen was discussing, and I YouTubed Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams to see how their chemistry translated off-screen. Fortuitously, I came across a Nightline segment where Michelle discussed Heath Ledger’s death, and how she read Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking to help cope with his passing. “It didn’t seem unlikely to me that he could walk through a door or could appear from behind a bush,” she said in the interview. “It was a year of very magical thinking.”

I hadn’t yet known The Year of Magical Thinking was a memoir about the grief Didion endured after losing her husband, novelist John Gregory Dunne, nor did I know it had won her the 2005 National Book Award for Nonfiction. All I knew was the term “magical thinking” intrigued me; that in the midst of pain we believe the impossible is possible. I went to the Borders (RIP) by Madison Square Garden that night, and devoured the book in one sitting. Thus began my new life as a Didion fanboy.

I’m often asked why I love Joan Didion so much. My response is simple: I don’t read her essays, they read me. When I picture her in my mind, I see a bespectacled mercenary driving through an apocalyptic landscape in a white corvette, not in search of bounty, but of answers.

In celebration of her  upcoming documentary, We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live , and the Didion biography The Last Love Song  out later this month, we’ve compiled a list of the best nonfiction works to get into the work of Didion. Below are the top ten essays that have made us cry, think, and, above all else, believe.

“In The Realm of the Fisher King” ( After Henry )

After Henry , originally published in 1992, is perhaps Didion’s most unsung collection. In it she shatters illusions constructed by the American media in the 80s, while simultaneously chronicling the political atmosphere across the nation. “The Realm of the Fisher King” gives a raw and personal look at the Regan years through the lens of Peggy Noonan, Regan’s speechwriter, and First Lady Nancy Regan.

What makes this essay interesting isn’t just that she compares the Regans to actors on set, but rather the inside look at their everyday life. For example, President Regan kept photos of families who wrote to him in his desk drawer and Mrs. Regan was shocked they had to pay for their own meals. This is a must read for historical buffs.

“On Self-Respect” ( Slouching Towards Bethlehem )

Without a doubt, this is one of Didion’s most celebrated works and with good reason. In it she defines the parameters of self-respect, and preaches the importance of character. “People with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things.”

I first read this essay during a dark period in my life, when I thought none of my actions had consequences. Man, was I ever wrong. The price I paid was heavy, and when I decided to shape up, I kept a copy of the above quote in my wallet to remind myself never again to compromise my integrity.

Want a kick-ass Easter egg? Did you know the essay first appeared in the pages of Vogue back in 1961? Yup, Didion worked there after she won a competition in college. This essay is so legendary, it can be viewed on in its original format. Check it out!

Miami (Miami)

Okay, I’m cheating a little here. Technically this next selection on our list is a book, not an essay. But hear me out. Miami began to change when many Cubans sought asylum in the Sunshine State back in the early 60s. Spanish-speaking households, quinceaneras, and salsa may all be common aspects of Miami’s culture today, but in the 1980s they weren’t. Miami is Didion’s analysis of the significant transformation Miami underwent.

As a Cuban-American myself, I struggled with some of Didion’s opinions in this book. In particular, she has a unique perspective about the Cuban exodus and its ramifications on Miami’s African-American community. It’s a tough read, but worth it.

“John Wayne: A Love Song” ( Slouching Towards Bethlehem )

This is my favorite Joan Didion essay because she describes her loss of innocence. In this essay she describes the first time she saw John Wayne in the summer of 1943, when she was eight years old and watching a film called War of the Wildcats . This is an essay about coming to terms with your idol’s mortality. She, like many others, did not believe John Wayne could fall ill and die. And when it happened, it called into question everything she believed.

“The Women’s Movement” ( The White Album )

Forty plus years later, this essay still inspires much debate. Joan Didion writing about the women’s movement may seem like pure fan service today, but in 1972 this was actually a contentious essay. Written in the early years of Second Wave feminism, “The Women’s Movement” quotes legendary feminist Shulamith Firestone (author of The Dialect of sex ), takes a look at the transfiguration of women from gender to a “class”, and offers Didion’s insight on Marxism.

Much like Miami , Didion will surprise you with her point of view. It also kicks off with one of her best metaphors: “To make an omelette you need not only those broken eggs but someone “oppressed” to beat them.”

“A Girl of the Golden West” ( After Henry )

Fitting in with the overarching theme of After Henry , Didion is relentless in her quest to deconstruct media figures in order to render them human. “A Girl of the Golden West” is a close examination of Patty Hearst, and takes a look at her kidnapping and subsequent induction into the urban guerrilla group, the Symbionese Liberation Army. Didion tries to rectify the images of Hearst that were shown to the American public: of Hearst in her first communion dress and then as an adult in an FBI wanted flyer.

It’s hard to deny that Didion wasn’t dazzled by early Hollywood. The title of this essay is inspired by the 1938 movie of the same name in which the main heroine, Mary Robbins, falls in love with a bandit.

“The White Album” ( The White Album )

The titular essay of the 1979 collection is a lyrical odyssey through the stormy waters of Didion’s life in the 60s. It begins with her meeting Jim Morrison during a recording session for The Doors. As Didion writes, “The curious aspect of Morrison’s arrival was this: no one acknowledged it.” She eventually dives into her personal life, specifically about her brief institutionalization at a mental hospital as well as her fears regarding the Manson Family murders (she knew Sharon Tate).

What Didion does so masterfully in this essay is capture the paranoia of that time. If you haven’t read this essay, I suggest you do so ASAP. It’s not only a literary triumph, but also a gritty glimpse into a dystopian America.

 “On Keeping a Notebook” ( Slouching Towards Bethlehem )

This one almost fell off the list had my amazing editor (shout out Gina) not reminded me of it. This is basically a mantra all writers should read. As the title suggests, Didion examines the reasons why she keeps a notebook. Her reasons are less about documenting, and more about discovering how she feels about certain subjects.

“Our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I.’”

“After Life” ( The Year of Magical Thinking )

Didion’s most heartbreaking work to date. “After Life” is the first five chapters of The Year of M agical Thinking , and appeared in the New York Times on September 2005, a month before the landmark memoir was published. Warning, have a box of tissues by your side. Didion takes no prisoners in documenting the shock of losing her husband: ““Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”

The book was adapted into a Broadway play starring Vanessa Redgrave as Joan Didion. However the story was revised to include the death of Didion’s daughter, Quintana, which happened during her book tour for The Year of Magical Thinking . Didion would later write about Quintana’s death in her last memoir, Blue Nights .

“Goodbye to All That” ( Slouching Towards Bethlehem )

As if any Didion fan needs an introduction to this one. This, ladies and gentlemen, is most people’s gateway to Didion. In “Goodbye to All That” she writes about her love affair with New York City and how it came to an end. The story first appeared appeared in The Saturday Evening Post , and would later be anthologized in her 1968 essay collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem . Just to refresh your memory on how awesome this essay is:

“I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was.”

This essay is extra special because the incomparable Diane Keaton narrates the audiobook for Slouching Towards Bethlehem , and does an amazing job in bringing this epic narrative to life (as if you had any doubt that she would).

[Image via iStock]

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On Self-Respect: Joan Didion’s 1961 Essay from the Pages of Vogue

By Joan Didion

Joan Didion , author, journalist, and style icon, died today after a prolonged illness. She was 87 years old. Here, in its original layout, is Didion’s seminal essay “Self-respect: Its Source, Its Power,” which was first published in Vogue in 1961, and which was republished as “On Self-Respect” in the author’s 1968 collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem.​ Didion wrote the essay as the magazine was going to press, to fill the space left after another writer did not produce a piece on the same subject. She wrote it not to a word count or a line count, but to an exact character count.

Image may contain Book Text Page Paper and Newspaper

Once, in a dry season, I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself. Although now, some years later, I marvel that a mind on the outs with itself should have nonetheless made painstaking record of its every tremor, I recall with embarrassing clarity the flavor of those particular ashes. It was a matter of misplaced self-respect.

I had not been elected to Phi Beta Kappa. This failure could scarcely have been more predictable or less ambiguous (I simply did not have the grades), but I was unnerved by it; I had somehow thought myself a kind of academic Raskolnikov, curiously exempt from the cause-effect relationships that hampered others. Although the situation must have had even then the approximate tragic stature of Scott Fitzgerald's failure to become president of the Princeton Triangle Club, the day that I did not make Phi Beta Kappa nevertheless marked the end of something, and innocence may well be the word for it. I lost the conviction that lights would always turn green for me, the pleasant certainty that those rather passive virtues which had won me approval as a child automatically guaranteed me not only Phi Beta Kappa keys but happiness, honour, and the love of a good man (preferably a cross between Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca and one of the Murchisons in a proxy fight); lost a certain touching faith in the totem power of good manners, clean hair, and proven competence on the Stanford-Binet scale. To such doubtful amulets had my self-respect been pinned, and I faced myself that day with the nonplussed wonder of someone who has come across a vampire and found no garlands of garlic at hand.

Although to be driven back upon oneself is an uneasy affair at best, rather like trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials, it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect. Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception. The charms that work on others count for nothing in that devastatingly well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself: no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions. With the desperate agility of a crooked faro dealer who spots Bat Masterson about to cut himself into the game, one shuffles flashily but in vain through one's marked cards—the kindness done for the wrong reason, the apparent triumph which had involved no real effort, the seemingly heroic act into which one had been shamed. The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others—who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation—which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O'Hara, is something that people with courage can do without.

To do without self-respect, on the other hand, is to be an unwilling audience of one to an interminable home movie that documents one's failings, both real and imagined, with fresh footage spliced in for each screening. There’s the glass you broke in anger, there's the hurt on X's face; watch now, this next scene, the night Y came back from Houston, see how you muff this one. To live without self-respect is to lie awake some night, beyond the reach of warm milk, phenobarbital, and the sleeping hand on the coverlet, counting up the sins of commission and omission, the trusts betrayed, the promises subtly broken, the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice or carelessness. However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously un- comfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves.

Joan Didion

Joan Didion

To protest that some fairly improbable people, some people who could not possibly respect themselves, seem to sleep easily enough is to miss the point entirely, as surely as those people miss it who think that self-respect has necessarily to do with not having safety pins in one's underwear. There is a common superstition that "self-respect" is a kind of charm against snakes, something that keeps those who have it locked in some unblighted Eden, out of strange beds, ambivalent conversations, and trouble in general. It does not at all. It has nothing to do with the face of things, but concerns instead a separate peace, a private reconciliation. Although the careless, suicidal Julian English in Appointment in Samarra and the careless, incurably dishonest Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby seem equally improbable candidates for self-respect, Jordan Baker had it, Julian English did not. With that genius for accommodation more often seen in women than in men, Jordan took her own measure, made her own peace, avoided threats to that peace: "I hate careless people," she told Nick Carraway. "It takes two to make an accident."

Image may contain: Audrey Hepburn, Halle Berry, Human, Person, Lucy Liu, Fashion, Premiere, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Red Carpet

By Kerry McDermott

joan didion famous essays

By Emma Specter

Like Jordan Baker, people with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things. If they choose to commit adultery, they do not then go running, in an access of bad conscience, to receive absolution from the wronged parties; nor do they complain unduly of the unfairness, the undeserved embarrassment, of being named corespondent. If they choose to forego their work—say it is screenwriting—in favor of sitting around the Algonquin bar, they do not then wonder bitterly why the Hacketts, and not they, did Anne Frank.

In brief, 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 other, more instantly negotiable virtues. The measure of its slipping prestige is that one tends to think of it only in connection with homely children and with United States senators who have been defeated, preferably in the primary, for re-election. Nonetheless, character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one's own life—is the source from which self-respect springs.

Self-respect is something that our grandparents, whether or not they had it, knew all about. They had instilled in them, young, a certain discipline, the sense that one lives by doing things one does not particularly want to do, by putting fears and doubts to one side, by weighing immediate comforts against the possibility of larger, even intangible, comforts. It seemed to the nineteenth century admirable, but not remarkable, that Chinese Gordon put on a clean white suit and held Khartoum against the Mahdi; it did not seem unjust that the way to free land in California involved death and difficulty and dirt. In a diary kept during the winter of 1846, an emigrating twelve-year-old named Narcissa Cornwall noted coolly: "Father was busy reading and did not notice that the house was being filled with strange Indians until Mother spoke about it." Even lacking any clue as to what Mother said, one can scarcely fail to be impressed by the entire incident: the father reading, the Indians filing in, the mother choosing the words that would not alarm, the child duly recording the event and noting further that those particular Indians were not, "fortunately for us," hostile. Indians were simply part of the donnée.

In one guise or another, Indians always are. Again, it is a question of recognizing that anything worth having has its price. People who respect themselves are willing to accept the risk that the Indians will be hostile, that the venture will go bankrupt, that the liaison may not turn out to be one in which every day is a holiday because you’re married to me. They are willing to invest something of themselves; they may not play at all, but when they do play, they know the odds.

That kind of self-respect is a discipline, a habit of mind that can never be faked but can be developed, trained, coaxed forth. It was once suggested to me that, as an antidote to crying, I put my head in a paper bag. As it happens, there is a sound physiological reason, something to do with oxygen, for doing exactly that, but the psychological effect alone is incalculable: it is difficult in the extreme to continue fancying oneself Cathy in Wuthering Heights with one's head in a Food Fair bag. There is a similar case for all the small disciplines, unimportant in themselves; imagine maintaining any kind of swoon, commiserative or carnal, in a cold shower.

But those small disciplines are valuable only insofar as they represent larger ones. To say that Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton is not to say that Napoleon might have been saved by a crash program in cricket; to give formal dinners in the rain forest would be pointless did not the candlelight flickering on the liana call forth deeper, stronger disciplines, values instilled long before. It is a kind of ritual, helping us to remember who and what we are. In order to remember it, one must have known it.

To have that sense of one's intrinsic worth which, for better or for worse, constitutes self-respect, is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference. If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out—since our self-image is untenable—their false notions of us. We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gift for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give. Of course we will play Francesca to Paolo, Brett Ashley to Jake, Helen Keller to anyone's Annie Sullivan: no expectation is too misplaced, no rôle too ludicrous. At the mercy of those we can not but hold in contempt, we play rôles doomed to failure before they are begun, each defeat generating fresh despair at the necessity of divining and meeting the next demand made upon us.

It is the phenomenon sometimes called alienation from self. In its advanced stages, we no longer answer the telephone, because someone might want something; that we could say no without drowning in self-reproach is an idea alien to this game. Every encounter demands too much, tears the nerves, drains the will, and the spectre of something as small as an unanswered letter arouses such disproportionate guilt that one's sanity becomes an object of speculation among one's acquaintances. To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.


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The Best of the Best

A Guide to Joan Didion’s Books

Ms. Didion was a prolific writer of stylish essays, novels, screenplays and memoirs. Here is an overview of some of her works, as reviewed in The Times.

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Joan Didion was an avid cultural observer whose writing blended aloof glamour and vulnerability.

By Tina Jordan

‘ Slouching Towards Bethlehem ’ (1968)

Didion’s “first collection of nonfiction writing, ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem,’ brings together some of the finest magazine pieces published by anyone in this country in recent years,” wrote our critic, Dan Wakefield.

‘ Play It as It Lays ’ (1970)

John Leonard wrote of Didion and this novel, “She writes with a razor, carving her characters out of her perceptions with strokes so swift and economical that each scene ends almost before the reader is aware of it, and yet the characters go on bleeding afterward.”

‘ A Book of Common Prayer ’ (1977)

“Like her narrator, she has been an articulate witness to the most stubborn and intractable truths of our time, a memorable voice, partly eulogistic, partly despairing; always in control.” — Joyce Carol Oates

‘ The White Album ’ (1979)

“All of the essays — even the slightest — manifest not only her intelligence, but an instinct for details that continue to emit pulsations in the reader’s memory and a style that is spare, subtly musical in its phrasing and exact. Add to these her highly vulnerable sense of herself, and the result is a voice like no other in contemporary journalism.” — Robert Towers

‘ Salvador ’ (1983)

“It is difficult to deny that everything she writes grows out of close observation of the social and political landscape of El Salvador. And it is quite impossible to deny the artistic brilliance of her reportage.” — Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

‘ Miami ’ (1987)

“A new novel by Joan Didion is something of an event. Since her first one, ‘Run River,’ she has gathered a quiet following with her nonfiction pieces that were collected under the title ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’ and published to critical enthusiasm in 1968. It was interesting to wonder what sort of fiction Didion’s beautiful writerly skills would now make of her clear-eyed and anguished perception of our time.” — Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

‘ After Henry ’ (1992)

Didion’s “intelligence is as honed as ever; her voice has its familiar ring, and her vision is ice-water clear.” — Hendrik Hertzberg

‘ Political Fictions ’ (2001)

“But to ‘Political Fictions,’ besides her black conceit, her sonar ear, her radar eye and her ice pick/laser beam/night-scope sniper prose, she brings Tiger Ops assets of temperament.” — John Leonard

‘ Where I Was From ’ (2003)

“This new book of Didion’s is full of second thoughts: about the Sacramento Valley of her childhood and, finally, the whole history of California.” It is the work of “someone who is even now, arguably, a great American writer.” — Thomas Mallon

‘ The Year of Magical Thinking ’ (2005)

“Her manner is deadpan funny, slicing away banality with an air that is ruthless yet meticulous. She uses few adjectives. The unshowy, nearly flat surface of her writing is rippled by patterns of repetition: an understatement that, like Hemingway’s, attains its own kind of drama. Repetition and observation narrate emotion by demonstrating it, so that restraint itself becomes poetic, even operatic.” — Robert Pinsky

‘ Blue Nights ’ (2011)

“Didion’s heartbreaking new book, ‘Blue Nights,’ is at once a loving portrait of Quintana and a mother’s conflicted effort to grapple with her grief through words: The medium the author has used throughout her life to try to make sense of the senseless. It is a searing inquiry into loss and a melancholy meditation on mortality and time.” — Michiko Kakutani


We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not..

From the essay “On Keeping a Notebook” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Joan Didion Portrait by Jerry Bauer

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Photo: Jerry Bauer



About joan didion.

Joan Didion was a journalist, novelist, memoirist, essayist, and screenwriter who wrote some of the sharpest and most evocative analyses of culture, politics, literature, family, and loss. She won the National Book Award in 2005 for The Year of Magical Thinking .


The new york public library acquires the papers of joan didion and john gregory dunne.



   biography & memoir  .

Joan Didion Blue Nights book cover with a portrait of Joan Didion and her infant daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne.


Joan Didion Let Me Tell You What I Mean book cover with a portrait of Joan Didion.


Joan Didion Run River book cover with a photo of tree branches reflected in water


Joan Didion Salvador book cover with a portrait of Joan Didion


Let me tell you what i mean.

With a foreword by Hilton Als, these pieces from 1968 to 2000, never before gathered together, offer an illuminating glimpse into the mind and process of a legendary figure. They showcase Joan Didion’s incisive reporting, her empathetic gaze, and her role as “an articulate witness to the most stubborn and intractable truths of our time” ( The New York Times Book Review ).

Joan Didion Let Me Tell You What I Mean book cover


joan didion famous essays

JANUARY 27, 2023

New york public library acquires joan didion’s papers.

The joint archive of Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, includes manuscripts, photographs, letters, dinner party guest lists and other personal items.



A celebration of the life of joan didion.

On September 21, 2022, the Cathedral Church of Saint John Divine hosted a celebration of Joan Didion’s life and work.

joan didion famous essays

Joan Didion’s Estate Is Heading to Auction

By Jessica Ritz


joan didion famous essays

Joan Didion Talks to Hari Kunzru About Loss, Blue Nights, and Giving Up the Yellow Corvette

By Hari Kunzru


joan didion famous essays

Joan Didion and the Opposite of Magical Thinking

By Zadie Smith


joan didion famous essays

Joan Didion’s Magic Trick

By Caitlin Flanagan


joan didion famous essays

Our Lady of Deadpan

By Darryl Pinckney


joan didion famous essays

Remembering Essayist Joan Didion, a Keen Observer of American Culture

By Terry Gross


joan didion famous essays

Didion’s Prophetic Eye on America

By Michiko Kakutani

joan didion famous essays

Joan Didion and the Voice of America

By Hilton Als

joan didion famous essays

The Radical Transparency of Joan Didion

By Frank Bruni


The center will not hold.

Joan Didion reflects on her remarkable career and personal struggles in this intimate documentary directed by her nephew, Griffin Dunne.


Remembering joan didion.

“She captured moments in American culture with penetrating clarity and style,” says PBS News Hour’s Jeffrey Brown in this remembrance of the life and work of Joan Didion.

Gathered here are some of the files, photographs, manuscripts, notes, book jackets, and other items connected to Joan Didion’s life and legacy. We’re making this remarkable body of work accessible to everyone and will be adding stories and galleries as new items become available.

Portrait of Joan Didion by John Bryson

Joan Didion in 1981.

Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion review – elegant essays spanning four decades

Rejection letters, California dreams and clear reflections on writing in a collection that explores self-doubt

I n the first essay of this new volume of previously uncollected pieces, Joan Didion makes a case against newspapers. Too often, she argues, their reporting style rests on “a quite factitious ‘ objectivity’”, which “lends the entire venture a mendacity” by failing to make explicit the writer’s own particular set of influences and biases. Didion praises instead magazines that cultivate a personal voice, and which aim to impart character and atmosphere rather than straightforward information: “They assume that the reader is a friend, that he is disturbed about something, and that he will understand if they talk to him straight; this assumption of a shared language and a common ethic lends their reports a considerable cogency of style.” Often, she concludes, the real story is “the story not in the newspaper”.

This could be read as a slanted manifesto for Didion’s own style. Across her 60-year career, from her landmark essay collections Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979), through her formally innovative novels, to her devastating 2005 memoir The Year of Magical Thinking , Didion has established a way of narration that focuses not so much on events as on subtexts, atmospheres and perceptions. She is usually present in her essays as a voice rather than a character, observer rather than participant – though the boundaries regularly blur. Yet even when she’s not saying directly what she’s feeling, it’s there in the architecture of every cool, clear sentence, in the sounds, gestures and images on which she chooses to focus her attention.

At university, Didion writes here in mock self-deprecation, “I would try to contemplate the Hegelian dialectic and would find myself concentrating instead on a flowering pear tree outside my window and the particular way the petals fell on my floor”. Half of the 12 essays in this collection were written for the Saturday Evening Post in the late 1960s, while the latest is from 2000; in them we see Didion exploring the possibility of that attention to detail, working out who exactly the “I” in her writing is, and what it is she’s seeing.

Didion’s essay collections have always included overtly personal moments – “We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for divorce,” she writes in “In the Islands” from The White Book , adding: “I tell you this not as aimless revelation but because I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind.” This new collection contains several pieces of relatively straight autobiography: a funny essay describing the pain of her rejection from Stanford and subsequent summer spent “in sullen but mild rebellion” (“On Being Unchosen by the College of One’s Choice”); “Telling Stories”, which describes how out of place the 19-year-old Didion felt in the writers’ workshop she took for a semester in 1954, attempting to remain inconspicuous by shrinking into her raincoat while others regaled the group with experiences that seemed far more redolent of the “writer’s life” – international, glamorous, drug-induced – than anything Didion had known growing up in Sacramento. (She went on to take a job composing advertising copy for Vogue, which she credits with teaching her to write.) The same essay includes a ream of rejection letters for an early short story widely condemned as too depressing: “I’m sorry,” wrote a representative of Good Housekeeping magazine, “we are seldom inclined to give our readers this bad a time.”

But the pieces most revealing of Didion’s self are those that discuss the act of writing itself. In “Why I Write” (1976) Didion directly confronts the question of the first person – of what it means for a writer to assume an identity on the page and a relationship with an invisible reader. “In many ways,” she observes, “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 .” In another essay, on Hemingway’s style, she parses precisely how the very grammar of his sentences reveal “a certain way of looking at the world”: Didion too has a specific way of looking that binds together all her work, whether she’s watching Nancy Reagan pretend to pick flowers for a photoshoot, attending a meeting of Gamblers Anonymous or a reunion of airforce veterans in a Las Vegas hospitality suite, or parsing the mission statement of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia LLC. Didion writes of “needing room in which to play with what I did not understand”. Her pieces often feel ambiguous, even ambivalent, and her detachment can at times be bemusing: the reader is left wondering where her stake is grounded in the stories she tells. Yet her particular skill lies in asking questions too far-reaching to be contained on the page, that reverberate far beyond the essay, as her images lodge themselves in the reader’s conscience.

The collection – expansively introduced by Hilton Als – touches on many of the themes that run through Didion’s work: the power of illusion, which she learned about at Vogue and later in Hollywood; the unspoken dynamics of makeshift, often precarious communities; the dangerous thrill of pursuing dreams. Recalling San Simeon, the castle on a hill in California which she would glimpse from the highway as a child, she reflects on the impact of knowing that just beyond reach lay this opulent paradise of shimmering turrets and battlements. “San Simeon,” she writes, “was an imaginative idea that affected me, shaped my own imagination in the way that all children are shaped by the actual and emotional geography of the place in which they grow up, by the stories they are told and the stories they invent.” There’s an echo here of Didion’s most famous line: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” In that essay – “The White Album” – Didion describes a period between 1966 and 1971 when she “I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself”. Let Me Tell You What I Mean , its chapters largely rooted in this discombobulating period, is a valuable addition to the literature of self-doubt and self-awareness, an elegant untangling of what and why we remember and forget.

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80 Free Essays & Articles by Joan Didion

Posted by John | Jul 11, 2017 | Essays , Famous Authors | 0 |

80 Free Essays & Articles by Joan Didion

Joan Didion, born 5th December 1934 is an American author, well known for her amazing writing works and her literary journalism. Her novels and essays explore the disintegration of American morals and cultural chaos, where the overriding theme is individual and social fragmentation. A sense of anxiety or dread permeates much of her work. Her notable and popular books include The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) , Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) , Play It as It Lays (1970) , Democracy (1984) and many more. Her breakthrough came when she won first place in the Prix de Paris essay contest sponsored by Vogue, and was awarded a job as a research assistant at the magazine, having written a story on the San Francisco architect, William Wilson Wurster.

After 7 years at Vogue, she wrote her first fiction novel, Run, River (1963) . 5 years later, after gotten married to John Gregory Dunne, she published her first work of nonfiction, Slouching Towards Bethlehem . It’s basically a collection of magazine pieces about her experiences in California. Spanning over 54 years from the day of her first book till today, Joan Didion has published over 18 books, 5 of them fictions and 13 nonfictions. She has also written 6 screenplays.

Goodbye to All That by Joan Didion

by Joan Didion

Didion’s pratices “New Journalism” as her writing style, where writers tend to turn away from “just the facts” and focus more upon the dialogue of the situation and the scenarios that the author may have experienced. This can help to represent the truth and reality through the author’s eyes.

Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem exemplifies much of what New Journalism represents as it explores the cultural values and experiences of American life in the 1960s. Didion includes her personal feelings and memories in this first person narrative, describing the chaos of individuals and the way in which they perceive the world. Here Didion rejects conventional journalism, and instead prefers to create a subjective approach to essays, a style that is her own. – Wikipedia.

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” – Joan Didion

Most of the essays listed below are only viewable as online articles. So no downloadable versions in PDF or EPUB. Majority of these essays and articles come from major online magazines such as Vogue, The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker. We have also provided a lits of the main pages where you can find all of Didion’s works within these sites, so feel free to browse based on your reading preference.

18 Free Essays by Joan Didion

62 Free Essays from Various Online Magazines

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Joan Didion in her New York City apartment, 73 years young.

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We hope you enjoy reading the marvelous works of Joan Didion as much as we’ve enjoyed compiling them. Don’t forget to leave your comment if we’ve missed out any important information. We’ll also be covering more authors in the future in regards to their essay portfolios, so stay tuned, bookmark our site and don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter to get the latest postings as they’re posted. Happy reading!

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Joan Didion

Joan Didion , (born December 5, 1934, Sacramento , California , U.S.—died December 23, 2021, New York , New York), American novelist and essayist known for her lucid prose style and incisive depictions of social unrest and psychological fragmentation.

Didion graduated from the University of California , Berkeley, in 1956 and then worked for Vogue magazine from 1956 to 1963, first as a copywriter and later as an editor. During this period she wrote her first novel , Run River (1963), which examines the disintegration of a California family. While in New York City , she met and married writer John Gregory Dunne , with whom she returned to California in 1964. A collection of magazine columns published as Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) established Didion’s reputation as an essayist and confirmed her preoccupation with the forces of disorder. In a second collection, The White Album (1979), Didion continued her analysis of the turbulent 1960s. The inner decay of the Establishment is a major theme of the essays constituting the volume After Henry (1992; also published as Sentimental Journeys ).

Stack of books, pile of books, literature, reading. Hompepage blog 2009, arts and entertainment, history and society.

Other works by Didion included the short novels Play It as It Lays (1970), A Book of Common Prayer (1977), Democracy (1984), and The Last Thing He Wanted (1996; film 2020 ) and the essays Salvador (1983), Miami (1987), and Where I Was From (2003). Essays on U.S. politics, including the presidential election of 2000 , were collected in Political Fictions (2001). Didion also wrote screenplays with her husband, including Panic in Needle Park (1971), Play It as It Lays (1972; an adaptation of her novel), A Star Is Born (1976; with others), True Confessions (1981), and Up Close and Personal (1996).

Explore writer Joan Didion's life and legacy

Following Dunne’s death in 2003, she wrote The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), in which she recounted their marriage and mourned his loss. The memoir won a National Book Award , and Didion adapted it for the stage in 2007. She again visited tragedy and loss in Blue Nights (2011), a memoir in which she attempted to come to terms with the death of her daughter. South and West (2017) contains two unpublished excerpts from her notebooks, with the main piece describing a road trip Didion took through the American South in 1970. Let Me Tell You What I Mean (2021) is a collection of previously released essays. Didion was honoured with the National Humanities Medal in 2013. Her life and career were the focus of the documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold (2017).

Op-Ed: I thought Joan Didion’s essay would ruin my life. But something else happened

A police officer looks at the charred Volkswagen Beetle in which Gordon E. Miller was found dead, in San Bernardino.

Many people have been influenced by Joan Didion’s writing. But few of us can tell you what it was like to be the subject of one of her essays.

One of her most famous, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” which appeared in her book, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” is about my family. It is, in particular, about my mother, Lucille Miller, who was convicted of killing my father in one of the most infamous murder trials in California history.

To be the subject of a famous author’s work is both thrilling and devastating. Over the years, I have cycled through many emotions before coming to a kind of peace about my family’s strange connection to this iconic writer.

At the time of my father’s death, we lived in Alta Loma, a new subdivision of San Bernardino County. My father was a well-established dentist who hated his career and wanted to be a physician. My mother was an upwardly striving housewife who was deeply unhappy in her marriage and in love with the husband of one of her best friends.

One night in October 1964, as we three children slept, my mother and father drove in our black VW bug to the store for milk. On the way home, as my father slept in the passenger seat, the car caught fire and he burned to death.

My mother, who maintained her innocence until the day she died, was found guilty of setting the fire and murdering him. I was 14 . My brother Guy was 10, and our little brother Ron was 8.

Didion’s essay is not sympathetic, but it helped make her famous. And rightfully so; she was able, by focusing on my mother, to rip apart the tissue of lies that California newcomers tell themselves about how life will be better, different, happier here.

“Here,” wrote Didion, “is the last stop for all those who come from somewhere else, for all those who drifted away from the cold and the past and the old ways. Here is where they are trying to find a new life style, trying to find it in the only places they know to look: the movies and the newspapers. The case of Lucille Marie Maxwell Miller is a tabloid monument to that new life style.”

My mother hated Didion’s essay and taught her children to hate it too. She believed it was Didion’s revenge on her for turning down an interview request. Whether it was or not, I think my mother made a huge mistake refusing to talk to Didion.

Didion would probably have found my mother to be a sympathetic character. Yes, she was vain, but she was small like Didion. At the time of her trial, she weighed less than a hundred pounds, even though she was pregnant with our little sister, Kimi, to whom she gave birth at St. Joseph’s Hospital in San Bernardino. She had petitioned Gov. Edmund G. Brown to have her baby away from the prison so Kimi would not have to bear that stigma.

At the time she was convicted, I believed deeply in my mother’s innocence. As Didion wrote about me: “‘She didn’t do it,’” Debbie Miller cried, jumping up from the spectators’ section. ‘She didn’t do it.’”

Now I’m not so sure. I think I need my mother to be guilty because she suffered so much, and no innocent person should pay such a price. I believe her infidelities doomed her. She was also stoic during her trial, hardly seeming like a grieving pregnant widow. The lines of her mouth turned down, making her look cold.

My mother spent seven years in prison and was paroled in 1972. If she wasn’t a criminal before she went to prison, prison turned her into one. Using her children to supply contraband, she ran the entire illicit alcohol supply in the prison and was never caught. She tried but failed to ever make a legitimate income once she was released. She died of breast cancer, broken and estranged from her children in 1986.

I struggled with addiction, got sober and became an English teacher in an all-girls school in Los Angeles. For years, I had been ashamed of Didion’s essay. I thought it was cruel, portraying us as a more upscale Joad family, only from Oregon instead of the Dust Bowl, having moved to California to find a nonexistent Golden Dream.

I remember one day in the early 1990s hearing a colleague musing about “Some Dreamers,” weighing the merits of teaching it to his seniors in conjunction with “The Great Gatsby,” both stories about strivers run amok.

I was horrified. I had never talked about that essay, not in high school, not in college, with one exception, my best friend Jill Bickett, chairman of our English Department to whom I immediately ran with this information. I feared some student might ask if the “Debbie” in the essay was related to me. One excited student might pass on the news to her parents, who would then call the school demanding to know if one of their teachers had been hired without revealing her sullied and infamous past. I would be called in, excuses would be made; the school couldn’t be embarrassed this way. I certainly understood, didn’t I?

I knew that essay would one day ruin my life and now it was happening. The situation worked itself out. I don’t remember how. I just remember I was assured the essay wouldn’t be taught.

Then a few weeks later, I sat on my pink couch at home in Venice looking through my books on writing for a good descriptive essay describing a place that reflected the author’s feelings. I found myself once more reading Didion’s essay, and then I read it again.

It had caused me to keep silent about my past, interfere in my colleague’s curriculum decisions out of fear of what could happen to me. I saw that Didion’s descriptions of us, where we lived, and my mother were in fact spot on. I was an adult. My mother was dead. Didion was a genius. I was free to have my own opinions. It was then that I saw what Didion saw. I knew my mother hadn’t fooled her. We were a modern day Joad family. My burdens were lifted.

I decided to write to Didion. I wanted her to know what had become of us. My baby sister, Kimi, died of lung cancer at the age of 25 in March 1991. Guy is a dentist. Ron is a high school English teacher.

My letter began, “Dear Joan Didion, I am anxious, angry, and jealous as my fragile self-esteem evaporates. I just can’t seem to avoid ‘Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream.’ It helped to make you famous, but it’s my life.”

I anxiously awaited her reply. Her letter arrived a month later in November 1991. It began, “Dear Debra Miller, I’ve begun this letter so many times, because there’s no real way to tell you how moved I was (am) by your letter.” Then her letter moves away from me and talks about the weird relationship between an author and her subject. She continues, “as a writer I tend to compartmentalize the people and events I’ve written about — the writer goes in, tries to understand the story, as if the act of writing it down completed the situation, became the truth. I guess I think writers need to do this, have to do this to maintain the nerve to write anything at all. But of course it’s an illusion.”

“I’m glad you wrote to me, ”she concluded. “Thank you –”

Six years later I met Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne at the Directors Guild in Beverly Hills. My husband’s daughter, Robin Abcarian, The Times columnist, was to interview Didion onstage about her latest novel, “The Last Thing He Wanted.” Robin cautioned me that Didion was famously shy and that I shouldn’t expect more than a hello, nice to meet you.

But that’s not what happened. When Robin introduced me to her backstage, she threw her arms around me, called her husband over to meet me, then tucked her arm in mine and escorted me into the auditorium and sat me down beside her. When an excerpt of the essay was read, focusing on the moment my father burned to death, she grabbed my arm and gave it a hug. Years of mortification melted away.

Sometime after that, I gave my colleagues permission to use the essay in their classes. I also gave them permission to tell their students that Ms. Miller was “Debbie,” the 15-year-old who cried out for her mother when the judge read the guilty verdict. I told my story to each junior English class, inviting students to ask me anything they wanted. It was intimidating to them, but it was rewarding for me.

Today, I’m proud to be the subject of a Joan Didion essay, and inspired by her, I’m working on my own memoir.

When people find out who I am they’re often shocked and then fascinated. I know they think that Debbie must have ended up a drug-addicted hooker on Sunset Boulevard. But that’s not what happened; I like seeing how the contradiction between what should have been and what is registers on their faces.

When I heard that Didion had died, the loss felt so personal to me. I called my brother Ron to talk about what she had meant in our lives. If not for her essay, I would not be the woman I am today — a woman to tell her own story, who survived and flourished rather than succumb to the darkness that consumed my mother and beckoned me.

Debra Miller is a retired high school teacher in Los Angeles.

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What Joan Didion Saw

By Nathan Heller

Joan Didion.

When Joan Didion died, on Thursday, at eighty-seven, she left behind sixteen books, seven films, one play, and an impulse to make sense of what remained. It was tempting to note that, like her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, whose passing shaped “ The Year of Magical Thinking ” (2005), she died during the Christmas holiday. It was easy to see, as she did in her daughter’s lethal illness that same season, larger gears at work. Didion was a pattern-seeker—a writer with an uncanny ability to scan a text, a folder of clippings, or an entire society and, like a genius eying figures, find the markers pointing out how the whole worked. Through her efforts, the craft of journalism changed. She helped expand the landscape of what matters on the page.

Though Didion spent half her life in New York (first as a junior editor at Vogue , then, in a later stint, as a short-statured lioness of letters), much of her best-known work was done in California, where she’d grown up in mid-century Sacramento. Her ominous, valley-flat style channelled the Pacific terrain, with its beauty and severity and restless turns. “This is the country in which a belief in the literal interpretation of Genesis has slipped imperceptibly into a belief in the literal interpretation of Double Indemnity , the country of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life’s promise comes down to a waltz-length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberly or a Sherry or a Debbi and a Tijuana divorce and a return to hairdressers’ school,” she wrote in “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” the essay that opened her first collection, “ Slouching Towards Bethlehem ” (1968). That book announced her subject—the long, crazed shadow of the frontier mentality—and her style, which carried across five novels and several screenplays, not least “A Star Is Born” (1976), which she co-wrote with Dunne. Today, readers know what’s meant by “Didionesque.”

Like most strong stylists, though, Didion worked up her craft as a sensitive reader of other masters. She had been an English student, at Berkeley, in the nineteen-fifties, a high point for the New Criticism and its close reading, and the approach became part of her lifelong methodology, applied equally to language she encountered as a reporter and to literary work. In a New Yorker essay about Hemingway , her early influence, she performed an unmatched reading of the beginning of “ A Farewell to Arms ,” noting how the sudden, pattern-breaking absence of a “the” before the third appearance of “leaves” casts “exactly what it was meant to cast, a chill, a premonition.” It was characteristic of Didion to work this way, in the danger zone between sensibility and objectivity: to be receptive to a passing feeling, a change in cast, and then to bear down, with unsparing rigor, in the work of understanding why.

What she came to understand was the vastest change that American society had seen in fifty years. Like many writers, Didion was on the spot in the late sixties, as the social fabric, the ideal of common institutions and of a shared society, came apart. Unlike many, she saw the long-term stakes of this rupture at a moment when most observers were fretting over whether to don love beads or to follow draft cards. Didion reported on the hippies—they’re the subject of the title essay of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” which created a technique, later germane to her fiction, of telling a story through jagged juxtapositions that she called “flash cuts”—but recognized that what she saw in the Haight-Ashbury was less about them than about an “atomization” of communication and connection across America. It was a curiously durable insight for the period; it remains vivid and pressing today.

Didion often gets identified, along with Norman Mailer , Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe , and other snappy dressers, as part of the New Journalism, by which people usually mean long narrative reporting imprinted with a writer’s style and point of view. But her goal, in the best work, was never sensibility or affect. Early on, and again at the end of her life, Didion was known for her first-person writing, and subjective perception was always at the heart of her impulses as a reporter and as an essayist. (“Something about a situation will bother me, so I will write a piece to find out what it is that bothers me,” she once explained, in an interview with Hilton Als.)

Subjectivity was paramount, yet her thinking, as it developed in the pages of The New York Review of Books , was basically systemic: in “ Miami ” (1987), about the Cold War dialogue between the U.S. and the atomized powers of Latin America; in “ Sentimental Journeys ” (1991), about the Central Park jogger case, and the mythologies that eroded New York’s civil and economic structure; in “ Where I Was From ” (2003), about the governmental policies supporting California’s frontier image of itself. Her target was what she called sentimentality: the prefabricated story lines, or fairy tales, that spread within a culture and that cause society to rip apart. Didion started out a Goldwater Republican and ended up one of her cohort’s keenest champions of the social pact. She came to see that the way stories were told—an individualized project—had deep stakes for the societal whole.

Famous styles often make fossils of their practitioners. Didion’s work will last because it was the product of a restless mind. “In retrospect, we know how to write when we begin,” she once said. “What we learn from doing it is what writing was for .” How to put together a paragraph, whether to add a “the” or not: by the time you’re thirty, the sound of your best writing is already in your mind’s ear, and the hardest part is listening. What to do with those sentences, how to turn the craft of storytelling away from shared delusion, is the effort of a life. Many—most—writers never make it the full distance. Didion did. Her work was her own answer to the question of what writing and living are for. It ought to be ours, too.

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The essays collected in “Let Me Tell You What I Mean” did not make it into the “Collected Essays” of 2018. Still, second-best Didion is worth anyone’s while. Bring on the B-sides!

Review: New collection of old Joan Didion essays enchants and provokes as always

Adam Parker

Adam Parker

LET ME TELL YOU WHAT I MEAN . By Joan Didion. Knopf. 149 pages. $23.

Joan Didion, who is now 86, has not written a completely new book since “Blue Nights” in 2011. The essays collected in “Let Me Tell You What I Mean” did not make it into the “Collected Essays” of 2018. Still, second-best Didion is worth anyone’s while. Bring on the B-sides!

During the years when Didion was publishing these outtakes, she was also publishing her major early work, “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” as well as “The White Album.” Whatever her subject, Didion swings freely, as she always did and does. The only difference in the early pieces collected here is that she had no reputation yet to live up to or lose.

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A few things everyone should know by now about Joan Didion: First, she’s a native Californian, a child of the frontier. Her relatives were part of the Donner Party, but they broke away before the cannibalism. In her essays, she tells us about a non-progressive frontier. Things are not getting better. Instead, she spotlights a trail of unfinished business and broken promises. Society as she sees it is in a state of breakdown, best expressed in a fragmentary narrative.

Didion gives readers chunks of information and parts of stories but she does not pull the pieces together. As a young woman she wrote in “The White Album,” “I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself.” She leaves it to us readers to make a whole, if we can, out of these fragments. The through line is ours to discover, not hers to impose.

Half of the 12 pieces collected in “Let Me Tell You What I Mean” first saw print in the “Saturday Evening Post,” where Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne shared a column (“Points West”) from 1964 to 1969. It might seem a strange publishing gig for Didion, given her early reputation for reporting on 1960s counterculture and dramatizing it in unforgettable scenes. What’s clear in these pieces is that she has a gift for straddling party lines and fitting in where you least expect to see her.

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The first essay is “Alicia and the Underground Press.” She begins by admitting that she’s never read anything she needs to know in the underground press. One underground paper is much like another and none has much utility by Didion’s lights. But here’s the nub of her admiration: “It is the genius of these papers that they talk directly to their readers. They assume that the reader is a friend, that he is disturbed about something, and that he will understand if they talk to him straight.” Underground papers “are strident and brash, but they do not irritate.”

Whatever her subject matter, Didion’s crisp, take-no-prisoners voice is unmistakable. We always know that an “I” is speaking to us. The 1968 essay “A Trip to Xanadu” takes on Didion’s home-state mythology, specifically William Randolph Hearst’s California castle, San Simeon. Didion remembers as a child being told to watch for it from the highway and catching a glimpse of its “Moorish towers and battlements, shimmering in the sun or floating fantastically just above the coastal fog.”

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Thinking of it now, she considers the “frontier accessibility” of the Hearsts and their "every man a king" promises. The Hearst castle is now owned by the state of California and hosts as many as four million visitors a year (this in 1968), and Didion finds the magic dimmed. Being physically available, it is “no longer available to the imagination.”

“Why I Write” is the most famous — and quoted — of the pieces collected in “Let Me Tell You What I Mean.” It is also the most confessional and self-critical. Writing is, Didion says, “an aggressive, even a hostile act. ... It is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, the imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.” The writer is always saying “I, I, I.” How bracing and strange it is to find that the young Didion, whose collage-like style leaves so much space for the reader’s imagination, should question her right to impose.

In his excellent introductory essay, Hilton Als calls Didion a “carver of words in the granite of the specific.” She is the girl who studied the famous first paragraph of Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” when she was 12 or 13, hoping that one day she might herself arrange 126 words into four equally thrilling sentences. That girl grew up to write, “Grammar is a piano I play by ear.”

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Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.

Adam Parker has covered many beats and topics for The Post and Courier, including race and history, religion, and the arts. He is the author of "Outside Agitator: The Civil Rights Struggle of Cleveland Sellers Jr.," published by Hub City Press.

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Joan Didion, famed American essayist and novelist, has died

Portrait of American author Joan Didion as she sits in a chair in front of a bookshelf, Berkeley, California, April 1981. (Photo by Janet Fries/Getty Images)

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