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An Ode to Joan Didion and Her Words

Happy Birthday, Joan

12.05.16

Joan Didion’s words inspire physicality. When I read them I put a hand to my chest and press. Or furrow my brow and shake my head. Either way I have to move, to use my body as a kind of tangible, squirmy respite to all the feelings. The void feels too palpable otherwise, the truth too tragic, existential chaos the only reasonable answer. Reading Joan Didion is to experience myself and the world in a new way. Who could sit still at such a precipice?

But to assume everyone has the same reaction to her writing is to underestimate her. Her style leaves too much room for interpretation. She doesn’t grab you by the collar, she just kind of floats along the wall on the other side of the room, appearing unbothered by whether or not you’re looking while also knowing that you are. She creates space and lets you fill it.

Not everyone will like all of Joan Didion’s writing. Not because it’s not all exquisite or worthy of analysis, but because she doesn’t try nor want to speak to everyone. She doesn’t hold your hand, water herself down, over-explain. “One of the great pleasures of reading her is watching the way she takes her own point of view as a given,” wrote Sasha Weiss in a Times Sunday Book Review.

The distance Didion leaves between herself and reader can sometimes feel cold. “It’s an approach that owes much to Hemingway, her great influence,” Rachel Donadio wrote in another Times Sunday Book Review, “…who famously said a writer can convey more by keeping much of his material below the surface, just as ‘the dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.'”

And no once can deny the staggering beauty with which she does it. Didion does more than make the mundane appear essential, she proves it. It’s devastating. I feel honored to share some of my days on this planet with a woman like her, and lucky I get to see it through her eyes. Today she turns 82. Above, some of my favorite things she said.

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Photo by by © Ted Streshinsky/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images.

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  • sin_plomo

    Thanks for this Haley! Love Joan Didion!

  • I am currently writing a research paper on the performativity of JD. Many of her old manuscripts, letters, etc, sit here on campus in the Bancroft Library. Sometimes when I’m stressed, I look out at the Bay from the campanile and imagine her, a little English lit major here, too, once doing the same thing. Thanks for everything, Joan Didion, I mean ‘Joan Didion.’ <3

    • Krista Anna Lewis

      Um please send me pics of the manuscripts?!?!?!

    • fishermanne

      I also did my Masters of English research paper on JD! She is such an inspiring woman. Good luck with your work, I hope it brings you as much enjoyment as mine did.

  • Thank you for featuring an author in your pop culture segment. Your blog makes me happy. Great job guys !

  • Love Joan so much. Blue Nights tore my heart into pieces. Slouching Toward Bethlehem and The White Album are some of my all time favourites.
    Can’t wait for the excerpts from more of her notebooks.

  • Spencer Glassman

    Which book of hers should I read first? I want to experience this!

  • Such an incredible woman! Thank you for featuring her, she deserves this and more.