To be a writer is a lot like that Isaac Newton phrase, "standing on the shoulders of giants." Any progress one makes is largely due to everyone who preceded them. Joan Didion, like Hunter S. Thompson, taught herself to write by retyping the stories of Ernest Hemingway. The movements and shifting placement of the already perfectly chosen word in a sentence were better learned by this level of ingestion. However, she did not make his words her own. Like a surgeon who after years of reading, watching, and even assisting - the process would never be the same again for her again after picking up her own scalpel.
Didion was a fifth-generation Californian. Her family was on the same wagon train as the infamous Donner Party. Her ancestors split from the group and went their own way down the safest path. The rivers of northern California were in her bloodstream. Her own family life as a child defined the range of dynamics within her own. Some say she was perhaps overshadowed as a youth; however, it is far more likely Didion was busy sharpening her skills as the unbiased observer.
One of the famed writers practicing The New Journalism in the tumultuous Sixties, she managed to reveal more about herself and the others around her than all the other writers. Thompson whirled into phantasmagorical worlds that rivaled how false reality had become. Tom Wolfe placed himself in alternate universes to build the dandy mythic character he would become. Norman Mailer bloviated, exaggerated, and found the truth only when fighting tooth-and-nail for it.
Didion gracefully waltzed in and assumed a place to simply inquire, observe and record. In her landmark work "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" she describes herself "I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests." Like an apostate welcomed to the inner circle of social and societal upheaval, her disbelief in the changing mores of those around her made her observational eye uncanny.
Perhaps it was her family life. Her father did his level best to keep his family in the best neighborhood in Sacramento. Young Joan saw a man struggling at times to rise out of the depths of his own depression. Or perhaps it was the precision of her writing. As a young woman, she wrote in the Bridal and Society (like Eudora Welty) sections of newspapers before winning a position via scholarship at Vogue Magazine where a witty undercurrent was demanded through subtle implication.
For all her streams of beautifully rhythmic prose featuring sentences carefully aligned to run along like those rivers of her childhood, she could be amazingly succinct. Didion once wrote about Georgia O'Keeffe - "Style is character." In hindsight, those three words thread a lifetime of O'Keeffe works together.
When Vogue already designed the cover of its 1961 issue to contain a piece entitled "On Self-Respect: Its Source, Its Power," the writer assigned to the task backed out. Didion stepped in and composed one of the defining essays of the late 20th Century. Like Machiavelli's "The Prince" or Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations," Didion carefully interweaves the oversights and overreaching of her own life with the lessons to be learned from actually from living. Her message was no "carpe diem" - style inspirational rah-rah self-recovery and worship. It was coded and complex, like perhaps she just knew the slow release of this philosophy and information would be the best way to undermine all the social constructs that were keeping people in their place.
To write without caring is an oversimplification and a drastic reduction of Didion's overarching message. Didion cared tremendously for the lost youth leaving their homes in the Sixties for an advertised Utopia that was far more sinister. It is easy to get lost in the tales of wreckless abandon and free love surrounding the mythology of Haight-Ashbury in its so-called heyday. "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" covered the season of discontent before the fabled "Summer of Love." Like Mailer, Didion was there but she was not extending her reportage to people bleeding on the streets of Miami and Chicago in '68 or even trying to levitate the Pentagon. Didion found pockets of diffidence and nihilism, those whose disbelief would defuse the power of the movement. Didion cared very much for her protagonists. In the middle of this paisley haze, Didion chose to reveal the truth.
She examined the truth within herself in her novel "Play It As It Lays." she traveled far and wide to find the truth in other political movements in foreign lands. She even faced the truth of mortality in the loss of her only daughter ("Blue Nights") and her husband ("The Year of Magical Thinking.") Didion chose to write about her life with the same selfless dedication to truth, as she did all the others. In the end, Didion rose above "The New Journalism" tag to become one of our most cherished writers.
When she finally got the chance to interview (and Didion always maintained that she was - in her words - "a bad interviewer,") her childhood idol John Wayne, she carefully places the real John Wayne in her dreamworld while showing you that he is truly a normal man with the same issues we all contend with. Here, even though The Duke is fighting off a cold and on his ninth week of filming in Durango, Didion still envisions him as the mythic warrior who promised to build her a place of comfort and certainty. Didion is finally there.
In the end, I tried to find the right pull quote. Actually, I struggled to send her off. As one who writes, Didion has always been there to help smash through the writer's block and replumb the fountain of ideas. Watching her, listening to her, listening to others talk about her - one actually feels how much she cares without having to say it. In grief, she pointed out that it truly had no direction - it was only deep and wide and there to envelope you. However, I consciously chose not to write this out of grief. After all, she has long written about knowing the end was near. Instead, maybe she would prefer to be remembered as the one who through every travail of life - never lost herself.
Mik Davis is the record store manager at T-Bones Records & Cafe in Hattiesburg.