"The arrangement of words matters": reflecting on the life and writing of Joan Didion

Joan Didion began writing at just five years old when her mother gave her a big five tablet notebook “with the sensible suggestion that I stop whining and learn to amuse myself by writing down my thoughts.” The very first thing Didion ever wrote in that notebook was a short story in which a woman believes herself to be freezing to death in the arctic night only to find, when day breaks, that she has stumbled onto the Sahara desert where she will die of the heat before noon. “I have no idea what turn of a five year old’s mind could have prompted so insistently ironic and exotic a story” Didion said in the Netflix documentary ‘The Centre Will Not Hold’ - directed and produced by her nephew Griffin Dunne. Clearly, Didion was born a writer, and a writer with a taste for the extreme.

Chaos was at the centre of Didion’s writing from the very beginning. With a critical eye she examined the conflict and chaos that surrounded her in 1960s America - the politics, the music, the unrest. In The White Album Didion writes of  buying dresses and cooking dinner for Linda Kasabian - the witness to the  prosecution of Charles Manson and a member of the Manson family. She wrote of the murders of Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski, which happened just down the road from where she lived, in what was later referred to as a “senseless killing neighbourhood.” Didion threw herself into the centre of external chaos. She wrote what she saw. Her subject matter was messy, but she portrayed it through her writing with complete control. Few writers have such craft, such precision as Didion.

In her early work as a photo caption writer for Vogue during the 1960s, Joan Didion was instructed by her editor to write a five hundred word caption and then to cut it down to fifty words. This is the process by which Didion learnt to write. Or rather, the process by which she learnt the skill and precision she is so often praised for. Scrupulously writing and re-writing captions, Didion learn the importance of words . Which to include and which to leave out. Didion’s prose is distinctive. It flows. This was always important to Didion, who taught herself to type by writing out the stories of Ernest Hemingway, his rhythm becoming ingrained in her and very much shaping her own literary style. “The arrangement of words matters” she wrote in her 1976 essay Why I Write. “The arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind. The picture dictates the arrangement. The picture dictates wether this will be a sentence with or without clauses, a sentence that ends hard or a dying-fall sentence, long, short, active or passive.” Didion was a writer who concerned herself with control . She wrote to control the narrative. To ensure she was never misunderstood.

Not only was Didion known as a literary icon, she was also widely considered a style icon. Although clearly a perfectionist in her writing, in her everyday life she possessed a sense of effortless elegance which drew the eyes of women in the 1960s and onward. In The White Album, Didion shared her now infamous packing list which, along with the essentials, included cigarettes, bourbon, a mohair throw, her typewriter, two legal pads and pens, files and her house keys. Her packing list has now become somewhat synonymous with her status as a style icon and at the age of eighty Didion modelled in a Celine advertising campaign. Unlike most writers, Didion was cool. She threw parties, which Janis Joplin attended. She observed, at these parties, the Rock n Roll culture of the 1960s - just another example of the chaos she was drawn to. She saw it all through  a critical eye.

Later on in her career, Didion turned that critical eye to herself. She began examining the chaos within her own life, perhaps most notably so in her memoirs (a term Didion despised) The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. Both these books. written in the year following the death of both her husband John Gregory Dunne and daughter Quintana Roo, seemed to stand out from the rest of her work. Although all of her novels and essays are widely regarded as outstanding, there is something universally human about her memoirs which seemed to resonate with readers all around. 

The Year of Magical Thinking is widely regarded as a literary masterpiece, drawing on grief from a non-religious perspective. For many, Didion’s writing in the 2005 memoir - which later became a play on Broadway - was a guiding light through loss. And for those who had not lost, it completely altered their perception of grief. Didion acknowledged the perception of grief from the viewpoint of the inexperienced, and then, with great care and vulnerability, revealed its reality. “In the version of grief we imagine” Didion writes, “the model will be ‘healing.’ A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place…We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaningless itself.”

Didion was described by Martin Amis as “the poet of the Great Californian emptiness…she has an almost embarrassingly sharp ear and unblinking eye.” These were the qualities that made her one of the greatest writers of her generation. Her critical observations of not only American Politics in her journalistic work, but of everyday life and of herself in her novels and essay collections are what has led her to leave a lasting impact. Joan Didion has taught so much to her readers. She was a writer but, first and foremost, she was an observer. She wrote what she saw. What she saw - grief, death, love and conflict - rang true to all those who read her work.