An ode to the woman who noticed: Joan Didion
The patron saint of cool has left the building.
Master wordsmith, chronicler of culture and unwitting icon Joan Didion passed away on December 23 at age 87. Her decades-long career introduced some of the finest essays, memoirs, novels and plays to the catalog of American writing. Before I attempt to summarize the magnitude that was Joan Didion’s work and life, I have something to confess. I bought my first Joan Didion book to look “cool.” I’d spotted “The White Album” on the bookshelves of the “it” lit girls and felt I too needed to experience the writing of Didion in order to ascend. But what I found on my quest for coolness was something so much deeper. I discovered embarrassingly quickly that Didion’s work was sacred — almost divine in its ability to make you feel as if you were reading the words as thoughts directly from Didion’s brain.
Her writing style, canonized as a love child of journalism and storytelling, is like no other (present tense remaining). Her ability to entwine lush visuals with technical skills is one of her most impressive feats. She approached sentences with a level of intentionality so fierce you can almost immediately tell when a sentence is hers. She was able to write about her hometown of Sacramento, the feminist movement and packing lists all with the same level of precision and care. She valued words and, in turn, her assembly was thrilling to read. The irony is that today, Didion is widely accepted as a sentimental thinker when the majority of her life was spent pushing against the conventions put on female writers in America. She was calculated and controlled — never sentimental. Don’t let the Instagram tributes convince you otherwise.
Throughout her career, she received critical acclaim, such as the National Book Award for “The Year of Magical Thinking.” However, technique aside, the real magic of her writing was the way she noticed. She noticed the way grief lingered on plane rides and between cigarette drags. She noticed the way the world moved differently with every passing birthday. She noticed how there is nothing like spring in New York City (on the Upper East Side to be exact). She noticed how excruciating migraines were and then made it acceptable to write five-page essays on them. She noticed it all and invited us to join in. Her recipe was intimacy, a hint of irony and never, ever, bullshit. And in her 45 years of active writing, she had the recipe mastered.
In one of her most quoted pieces, from her 1975 University of California, Riverside commencement speech, she says:
“I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live it. To look at it. To try and get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment.”
Forever brilliant, honest and painstakingly cool, Joan Didion will remain a name on the bookshelves of history. And being Joan Didion, she probably would’ve hated this article.
To anyone reading who has maybe never read Joan Didion’s work and feels like a hack discovering her only after her death; Joan herself would probably do a wry little laugh and shake her head at you. To make the task less daunting, here is a guide to her collected works to get you started. Happy (or sad) reading.
Alex Mowrey is an Online Writer at Rowdy Magazine. She's a big fan of rice krispies treats, Ikea, and complex female characters! You can reach her by email (maybe) at firstname.lastname@example.org or through Instagram (definitely) @a.mow.