Joan Didion’s radical curiosity

In the spring of 1967 Joan Didion was gathering material for an essay on the hippie movement. In Haight-Ashbury, a neighbourhood in San Francisco, a man named Otto promised to show her something that would “blow your mind”. He took her inside a house and pointed to a young child crouched on the floor; she was concentrating on comic books and licking her lips, which were slicked with white lipstick. “Five years old,” Otto said, “on acid.” Ms Didion described the jarring experience in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”, the title article in her first collection of journalism, published in 1968. “Let me tell you, it was gold,” she later said of the girl. “You live for moments like that, if you’re doing a piece. Good or bad.”

Ms Didion, who died on December 23rd, was not much interested in the grandiose narratives of politicians and celebrities that were often reported in the media. She found the peripheral stories, the tales of middle-class women, of travellers or runaway children, to be more indicative of the state of America. Her guiding force as a journalist was her curiosity; she sought to explain the world to herself as much as anyone else. In an essay of 1976, “Why I Write”, she declared: “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.”

Born in Sacramento—a place she scathingly described as the “Midwest of California”—Ms Didion studied English at the University of California, Berkeley. In her senior year of college she won an essay contest for Vogue and moved to New York to be a copywriter and, later, editor at the magazine. While working there, she wrote her first novel, “Run River” (1963); it told a harrowing story of murder, marriage and misery and explored the history of her home state.

Two more books about women in crisis followed, “Play It as It Lays” (1970) and “A Book of Common Prayer” (1977). By then Ms Didion had honed her distinct style across mediums: limpid (Ernest Hemingway was her greatest literary influence) and pacey yet also melodic. She combined troubling subject matter with sentences that were pleasurable to read without compromising the potency of her observations on class and gender.

In the 1970s she began writing for the New York Review of Books. The editor at the time, Robert Silvers, encouraged her to write about American politics. Politics was always present in the background of her work, but she hadn’t been interested in covering it for its own sake. Of domestic government at the time, she said: “It seemed to exist only to maintain itself…it didn’t seem to have any relationship with the people who hung around gas stations.” Ms Didion forged those links herself. Along with colleagues in the school of New Journalism, she championed an essay form that used the quotidian to illuminate vast subjects of politics and history. It remains popular today.

She was also a pioneer in injecting a distinctly personal voice into her journalism. In the early 2000s, after the deaths of her husband and daughter in quick succession, her writing became more introspective. Ms Didion wrote “The Year of Magical Thinking” (2005) and “Blue Nights” (2011), books that originated the modern grief memoir. She wrote candidly about the pain many knew intimately but few spoke about.

Her work chronicled, instructed and comforted, but she saw it as having a simple message. In 1975 Ms Didion gave the commencement address at the University of California, Riverside. She told the students: “I’m not telling you to make the world better…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 in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture…To make your own work and take pride in it.”

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