I remember when my girlfriend recommended reading Joan Didion. We had been talking about her work and how Didion was her favorite author, by a longshot. When I learned more about her stories and experiences through the revolutionary times of the 1960s and 70s, I was immediately hooked. Didion and her nephew Griffin Dunne beautifully depict her life in the 2017 film Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, but just watching her recollections is not enough. Joan Didion will be forever remembered for her books, and her amazing ability in fiction, non-fiction, memoir, and playwriting.
After she passed away at the end of December 2021, just before New Years, I felt obliged to pick up another one of her books and continue to read and learn. Through the new year, I read one of her last non-fiction books, Blue Nights (2011), a somber piece on grieving with the death of her only daughter, Qunitana. Didion’s dark times are contrasted with the blue sky and summer nights in New York City, the calming night sky that cools the warm weather. Much of the book reflects on her daughter’s life and death, an undoubtedly important moment to examine in the wake of the author’s own death. In her final days, Didion lived in Manhattan, observing the blue nights of the summer, at the age of 87.
Didion grew up in Sacramento, California, in a historic family that can date their heritage back to the first Americans traveling on the western frontier. It was there she began her writing career, first documenting stories and dreams in her journals. She stayed in California for college, fostering her journalistic experience and developing her own style at UC Berkeley. She entered an essay contest at school and won, landing her a job as a research assistant for Vogue Magazine in New York. She left her life in California for the first time, but not the last. California would become a theme for many of Didion’s works, including her first book, Run River (1963), which she wrote while working for Vogue. She was aided in the editing process by friend John Gregory Dunne, who would become a prominent writer in his own right, and Didion’s husband.
Didion and Dunne later moved back to California into their famous Malibu house, and her writing would become something amazingly unique and uplifting in the journalism and female writing environment. Arguably Didion’s two most famous non-fiction pieces, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979) were curated and written during this time. In both are a collection of essays about Didion’s life and experiences in the 1960s and 70s, a revolutionary time for American culture. As she lives among hippies, revolutionaries, addicts, musicians, and politicians, Didion records every aspect, every observation, into beautiful portrayals of a world only she is witnessing. Through it all, the reader sees the people around her, but also her perspective on her own troubles. Didion once said it was “a privilege to be depressed,” meaning only people fortunate enough can explore their mental health. Her ability to show these thoughts and emotions despite also living through such radical times demonstrates her talents as a writer and storyteller.
“The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one,” said Didion in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. “Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.”
Didion was a writer in her own league because of her ability to record what she saw and, as a woman, to express her own beliefs in her writing. In Slouching, Didion explains how when she was young, she dreamed one day that John Wayne would build her a house and carry her away into the sunset. As she grew older, she realized she would never have, nor need, that “John Wayne.” In fact, she spends a chapter explaining how mundane John Wayne’s life was in reality, and the irony of his idolization. She continues her range of essays in talking about her time in San Francisco, and among the growing hippie movement. She recounts the rallies, the outcry, but most of all, the freedom. In one experience, she entered a house and witnessed a toddler playing on the floor, high on acid. In that moment Didion understood both the liberating and harming side of drug usage. All in all, Didion was witnessing a change in Hollywood and characters like John Wayne, among young people, and lifestyles.
In a similar fashion, Didion’s The White Album served as a transitioning time in her life. Didion writes about a vacation in Hawaii she took with Dunne. It seemed as though their marriage was withering away, and the vacation was meant to be a way for them to settle their differences. Instead, Didion writes, the trip was a reflection of the revolutionary times of the past, as she felt those times with Dunne were in the past as well.
In the next chapter of her career, Didion moved to New York, and continued writing novels, memoirs, and screenplays. The book Play It As It Lays (1970) was adapted into a screenplay, aided by Didion’s expertise. She continued to write as her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, grew up and became an independent adult. Unfortunately, following recent years of success, tragedy struck. In 2003, Quintana had been struggling with drug issues, and went to the hospital one afternoon. It was while she was hospitalized that John Gregory Dunne went into cardiac arrest at their home, and died later that night. It was after this chain of traumatic events that Didion wrote The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), her thoughtful memoir about her husband and their life together. Just as the book was reaching its finishing touches, Quintana Roo fatefully passed as well. Didion, alone now in her home, at an age in need of constant assistance, did not know what else to do. So, she continued to write.
In Blue Nights, Didion reflects on this last chapter of her life. She has the works, the accolades, the fulfillment, and the experiences, but neither her husband nor daughter to relish in it with. She remembers the memories she made with her only daughter: “When we talk about mortality, we talk about our children…the fear is not for what is lost…the fear is what is still to be lost.”
Didion will forever be remembered by lovers of her work, including myself, who will continue to explore all facets of her life story. No other writer can match her impact on feminist writing, political writing, and women authorship. She will be remembered for her unique style, famous lines, ability to write both fiction and nonfiction, and ability to keep a great journal. Didion’s writing will stand the test of time.
Anthony Bonavita is the commentary co-editor a sophomore in the SFS studying Culture and Politics.