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In honor of Joan Didion: Prolific author, journalist, truth-teller, and American icon

Joan Didion, acclaimed writer revered for her captivating prose and era-specific essays, both outlined and shaped a nation. Amy Leona Havin says goodbye to a personal hero.

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I never really understood why those around me had such strong reactions to the passings of well-known writers, musicians, painters, and actors— and then Joan Didion died. According to her publisher at Knopf, the author, whose career helped pave the way for women in writing, passed away of complications from Parkinson’s Disease in her Manhattan home this morning, Thursday, December 23, less than three weeks after her 87th birthday. She died of the same disease that killed my matriarchal grandmother, and I am left with a sorrow that looms around my shoulders, clutching me in quiet melancholy.

Joan Didion with her Stingray Corvette, photographed by Julian Wasser, courtesy of Danziger Gallery

Joan Didion was born on December 5, 1934 in Sacramento, California, to a homemaker mother and Army Air Corps father. A biological descendant of members of the Donner Party who split with the group to take a safer route, Didion is also the transcendental descendant of California itself, growing to become one of the state’s defining scribes and chroniclers. She famously argued that people are formed by the landscape in which they grow up, a concept I wholeheartedly agree with. “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image,” wrote Didion, both critically and fondly calling her home state of California “a hologram that dematerializes as I drive through it.” 

Didion wrote her first story at the age of five, when her mother suggested that instead of complaining, she release her thoughts by writing them on paper. The story consisted of a woman character with a fear of freezing to death who ends up, instead, burning alive. From there, perhaps hardwired for brilliance, Didion spent her youth dissecting the writings of Hemingway by typing them on her typewriter, influencing her own work by looking for rhythms and trends within his stories.

Upon graduating from the University of California, Berkeley in 1956 with an undergraduate degree in English literature, Didion won a writing contest hosted by Vogue magazine, for whom she would move to New York to work until 1963. That year her first novel, Run, River was published. Three years later, Didion and her husband, novelist and Time magazine writer John Gregory Dunne, relocated to Los Angeles and adopted a daughter, Quintana Roo. In 1968, Didion’s internationally acclaimed collection of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, was released, followed by The White Album in 1979, in which she penned her famous words, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” After the sudden death of Dunne in 2003, Didion wrote one of her most famous works on grief and the condition of mourning, The Year of Magical Thinking, followed by Blue Nights after the death of her daughter just two years later. She continued to write essays for The Saturday Evening Post, New York Review of Books, The New York Times, and other major publications, going on to win the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2005. One of her last books, South and West, chronicling notes and letters during a road trip through America during the 1970s, was published in 2017; most recently, a collection of Didion’s essays from 1968-2000 titled Let Me Tell You What I Mean arrived from Knopf earlier this year.

Joan Didion in her California home with daughter Quintana Roo, courtesy of Danziger Gallery

Didion, the writer who adamantly rejected yet was equally gripped with myth, lacking the patience for its contemporary consumerist motives, became a myth in her own right. A diminutive woman whose prolific and colossal imprint on the American consciousness gave the impression that she was larger than life, she preferred entropy, transparency, and disillusionment to the typical buck-up pabulum facade of American life.

She was often referred to as disenchanted, yet Didion was anything but jaded. Intellectually turned on and fired up by the patchwork landscape of America’s people and places, she wrote about what she saw: hardworking mothers, psychiatric patients, and struggling cowboys; misguided youths toking for a better tomorrow, housewives drawn to homicide by abusive husbands, and hippies meditating hand in hand for world peace; forgotten elders, cross-country truck drivers, and the restless children coming of age in a harsh and fraying country — and she did so with the vibrancy of a writer inspired. She was not disenchanted, but impassioned by the vibrancy of those naturally flawed individuals who make up our eclectic American society, generation to generation. Eager to bring to light the reality of each defining era, she trod headlong into the imperative moment, giving us gory and distinguished first-hand accounts of the ‘60s Haight-Ashbury scene, America’s early 1980s involvement in El Salvador, daughters whose fathers were dying of AIDS, agricultural towns dissolving into ash and drought amid crooked government policies, and even the coming age of the internet, which propelled pop-culture icons into exponentially increasing fame. Though she not only outlined but also detailed and deconstructed them all, her voice remained an honest and steady standard amid the otherwise increasingly hysterical narrative of America’s trajectory.

‘I’m not sure that I have a social conscience,” said Didion in 1977. “It’s more an insistence that people tell the truth.”

Joan Didion in her California home, photographed by Julian Wasser, courtesy of Danziger Gallery

“Nobody writes better English prose than Joan Didion,” literary critic John Leonard once said. “Try to rearrange one of her sentences, and you’ve realized that the sentence was inevitable.” This inevitability in Didion’s work is perhaps derived from an experiential compulsion to enter deep into the worlds she writes about, making her perceived reality even more real through direct understanding and exposure. When she was ten years old, Didion longed to write a story about a woman who commits suicide by walking into the Pacific Ocean. In an attempt to research the feeling herself, she walked from the California sand into the water and nearly drowned.

In a 2017 film documentary about the writer, The Center Will Not Hold, Didion tells director Griffin Dunne, “I don’t know what falling in love means. … it’s not part of my world.” 

While I do believe she meant it, I maintain a sincere belief that Didion did fall in love before our very eyes, repeatedly, reserving the notion of her admiration for the landscape, for the truth, and for California; the love that so compellingly solidified my devotion to her forthright words and representations.

I consider Joan Didion to be not only my favorite writer, but also a sort of friend or confidant. She was aloof and neurotic, and yet she exuded the very essence of cool. Always donning a long, straight t-shirt dress with cigarette in hand, single-handedly redefining the writer’s portrait by displaying the ornamented aspects of her personality in photographs featuring her coveted yellow Stingray Corvette and posing nonchalantly amid slanted chairs and sofas. Didion is, in a way, both my teacher and my tether toward all that I consider golden — the golden sacredness of the written language, the golden qualities of truth and the desire to tell it, and the golden beacon that is California; the place where I grew up and continue to consider my home. Joan is my connection to these places — Joan, who unfolded for me the beauty and the pureness of simplicity. Joan, who poured a fog over even the brightest of days like thick milk from its pitcher, somehow distilling only the greatest purity from the process. 

Joan taught me that we must write what happened in the way that it happened. Didion does and always has done her best to tell the truth about the way of things, and without her, the world of literature would not exist the way it does today. I, too, believe that I would not exist the way that I do now if not for the influence of her writing. A piece of her guides me like a compass, and a piece of me belongs in her words — and California, all with its impossibly grand and mundane richness and pleasures and atrocities— belongs to Joan Didion.

Film slide negatives of Joan Didion with her Stingray Corvette, photographed by Julian Wasser, courtesy of Danziger Gallery

“I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package,” said Joan. “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 live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.”

Amy Leona Havin is a writer, choreographer, and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington, and is the Artistic Director of Portland-based multi-media dance company The Holding Project. Her works can be read in Humana Obscura, San Diego Poetry Annual, The Dust Magazine, The Chronicle, Mountain Bluebird Magazine, and others, and she has been shortlisted for the Bridport International Writing Competition Prize in Poetry. Havin’s artistic process is rooted in classical and somatic movement practices, non-fiction writing, and honoring the landscape of the natural world.

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