Hanging Out With Joan Didion: What I Learned About Writing From an American Master

Sara Davidson on the Ten Lessons She Learned

I arranged to meet Joan Didion in 1971 after reading Slouching Toward Bethlehem. I found her essays hypnotic, in a voice I’d never heard, expressing ideas I knew were true but couldn’t have articulated. I was reporting for several magazines and asked a colleague who’d met her to introduce us. He gave me her number and when I was in LA, I took a deep breath, dialed it, and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, picked up the phone. I asked for Joan Didion.

“Who’s calling?”

I told him my name, and said I wanted to tell her how much I liked her work. Then, realizing he was also a writer, I stammered, “I… I mean… I like your writing also…”

“Just a minute,” he said. Joan picked up the phone and her first words were: “Would you like to come to dinner?”

Although she’s shy and can be reticent with strangers, we had much in common: we’d grown up in California, gone to Berkeley, joined a sorority and quit, majored in English and studied with Mark Schorer but in different decades—she in the 1950s, I in the 60s.

She’s probably the most imitated writer since Hemingway, and her voice, like his, is catchy but can’t be imitated without the attempt being obvious.

We talked and laughed until the early hours, and in the many dinners and visits that followed, over more than four decades, we spoke about babies, cooking, humorous or shocking news, and always, we spoke about writing.

She’s probably the most imitated writer since Hemingway, and her voice, like his, is catchy but can’t be imitated without the attempt being obvious. I’ve interviewed her many times for publications over the years, though, and found that the habits and practices she described could be helpful in developing and sharpening one’s own writing.

1.
First Person Singular

The most radical aspect of her voice when she started writing for magazines in the 1960s was that she, Joan, spoke to you, the reader, as if grabbing you by the lapels. This was at a time when, at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, where I was studying, it was drummed into us that we must never use the word “I.” We must be “objective.” The closest a journalist could come to expressing a personal impression was to refer to oneself as “this reporter.”

The title of the latest book of Didion’s early work is: Let Me Tell You What I Mean. That could have been the mission statement of New Journalism. When Didion wrote, in her first column for Life, that she was in Hawaii “in lieu of filing for divorce,” she explained, “I tell you this not as aimless revelation but because I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind.” Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson not only wrote “I” but created characters, even caricatures, of themselves: Wolfe in the white suit, Hunter as “Raoul Duke,” diving headfirst into danger and drugs.

It’s possible, of course, to guide the reader to seeing and feeling what you see and feel without using the word “I.” Lillian Ross did this brilliantly in in her articles. But I was drawn to using the first person before I’d heard of Didion. When I tried it in a piece for Harper’s in 1970, it felt awkward and transgressive, but reading Didion made that voice more confident.

2.
Keep a schedule, and avoid outside influence
.

Wherever she lived, Didion created a small writing room with no view, where she went every morning as if punching a time clock. “I don’t want to go in there at all,” she told me. “It’s low dread every morning. The dread goes away after you’ve been in there an hour. I keep saying “in there” as if it’s some kind of chamber. There’s almost a psychic wall. I mean you don’t want to go through that door, but once you’re in there, you’re there and it’s hard to go out.”

Wherever she lived, Didion created a small writing room with no view, where she went every morning as if punching a time clock.

When she was working on a novel, she didn’t read other novels. “If it’s good it will depress me because mine isn’t as good. If it’s bad it will depress me because mine’s just as bad. I don’t want anybody else’s speech rhythms in my dream,” she said.

I once told her I’d been enthralled by the cadences of Ragtime, by E.L. Doctorow. She shook her head. “I never read it. I opened the first page and saw it had a very strong rhythm, so I just put it away like a snake.”

3.
Details, Rhythm, and Repetitions

Didion often uses a detail that has stuck with her from a certain moment, which may seem extraneous but which she uses for a purpose. A hallmark of her work is that she repeats those details, almost like a phrase that recurs in a symphony. In “Pretty Nancy,” an essay from 1968, where she spends a day with Nancy Reagan in her Sacramento home, she repeats the phrase, “the rented house on 45th Street.” The Reagans had refused to live in the Victorian-style Governor’s Mansion, which Nancy asserted was a fire trap, and preferred “the rented house,” an enlarged version of a California tract home.

When I once asked Didion why she repeats such phrases, she said, “I do it to remind the reader to make certain connections. Technically it’s almost a chant. You could read it as an attempt to cast a spell.” Reading “Pretty Nancy” again, I heard the “rented house” as a symbol of impermanence, like a stage set.

I could understand the power she found in detail. In 1969, I spent time with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in a Toronto hotel, covering their “bed-in-for peace” for the Boston Globe. I followed them when they got out of bed to visit the US immigration office, and stood behind them on an escalator. As we glided upward, I heard John singing to himself: “Standing on the dock in Southampton, trying to get to Holland or France.” I can’t remember anything he said about peace, but that detail has stayed with me for more than 50 years: hearing the famous voice singing the song he’d just released that was circling in his mind as he prepared to meet immigration officers.

4.
Control the Information you give the reader.

Don’t dump it all out at once, as I’m often tempted to do. In The Year of Magical Thinking, she goes over and over the night she and her husband left their daughter, Quintana, in the hospital, unconscious, swollen, with tubes going every which way. They took a taxi home, Joan fixed dinner, they sat down to eat, and when she looked up, John was slumped over the table, having a massive heart attack that would kill him.

She adds more detail each time she revisits that night, but it isn’t until the last ten pages of the book that she tells us what John said in the taxi: “I don’t think I’m up for this.” (her italics) She answered, “You don’t get a choice.” What may have been the trigger for his fatal attack—that he couldn’t bear watching their only daughter die—is withheld until late in the book, at which point all the chips fall into place. She concludes: “I have wondered since if he did [have a choice].”

5.
Words and Commas

Didion famously said that when she was young, she learned to write by typing Hemingway’s stories. “I learned a lot about how a short sentence worked in a paragraph, how a long sentence worked. Where the commas worked.”

In an article, “Last Words,” arguing against the publication of Hemingway’s unfinished work, she quoted the first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms. Then wrote, “That paragraph, which was published in 1929, bears examination: four deceptively simple sentences, 126 words, the arrangement of which remains as mysterious and thrilling to me now as it did when I first read them… Only one of the words has three syllables. Twenty-two have two. The other 103 have one. Twenty-four of the words are ‘the,’ fifteen are ‘and.’ There are four commas.”

Now people are counting her words. I did that with the last paragraph of The Year of Magical Thinking. The paragraph has ten deceptively simple sentences, 137 words. Only two of the words have three syllables. 16 have two. The other 119 have one. 16 of the words are “the,” one is “and.” There are five commas.

Both writers used a preponderance of single-syllable words, which underscored for me the power of those drum-like single beats. Both writers were sparing with commas, but Didion did not adopt Hemingway’s repetitions of “and… and… and…” to string clauses together.

6.
Collage Technique

In 1974, I was assigned by The New York Times Magazine to write about the kidnaping of Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army in Berkeley, California. I spent weeks poking around the Bay Area, but when the deadline approached, Patty was still at large and had joined her kidnapers in robbing the Hibernia bank, wielding a sawed-off M-1 carbine. No one knew what had actually happened, the story was still developing, and I told Didion I was struggling with how the hell to structure it. She advised me to write scenes on index cards—interviews I’d done and events I’d witnessed. “Then spread them on the floor and see how you can fit them together, with space breaks in between. Like arranging a patchwork quilt.” She’d done this with numerous pieces, including the iconic essay, “Slouching Toward Bethlehem.” Doubtful at first, I tried it and found it worked.

7.
Titles and First Lines

She’s often had the title of a book before knowing much about what would be in it. In 1977, I was visiting her in Malibu one Saturday when she was cleaning out her office, preparing to start two new books. One was Fairytales, she said, a nonfiction work about California, and the other was Angel Visits, a novel set in Hawaii.

John Dunne wandered into the room, wearing a blue bathrobe. “Do you have any coke?” he asked her. She went to get him a Coca Cola. “Joan never writes about a place that’s not hot,” he said. “The day she writes about a Boston winter will be the day it’s all over.”

He asked her if she’d told me the first line of Angel Visits. She shook her head. He said the line from memory: “I have never seen Madame Bovary in the flesh but imagine my mother dancing.”

I smiled. “Is there a comma after ‘flesh?’”

Didion said, “Yes.”

Dunne said, “The first line, if you get it right, immediately sets the tone of the book.”

Didion said, “It might change.”

I thought she meant the first line might change.

“I may take the comma out.”

The next morning, she told me on the phone, “There shouldn’t be a comma.”

Neither title ever appeared on a book.

Neither did she employ the first line about her mother and Madame Bovary. She said later that Angel Visits was a “very light novel, all surface, all conversations and memories…” She would work on it, then put it away to write something else, then go back to it with dread. She came to love it and its characters, she said, “but I never had a good time with it, never felt it take off and take me with it.” She jumped ship, but used the same characters in a different novel, Democracy, where she had one of the characters talk about “my mother dancing.”

8.
How to Steal a Quote

It’s a matter of principle to attribute the source when using someone else’s words. But what happens when you remember the words or phrase but can’t remember who said it? There was a time when I searched the internet for the person who’d written the phrase I wanted to use, describing someone’s eyes, but came up empty. Didion suggested a work-around, circling her finger in the air as she spoke. “You could write, ‘He had eyes that someone once described as….’ and use the quote.”

9.
Selling Out Your Subject

One of her most quoted lines is, “Writers are always selling someone out.” Her husband said she’d spent 30 years explaining what she meant. “No one sees oneself as others do,” he said, “and if you truly write how you see an individual, that person may be disturbed.”

I take it also to mean that in the process of interviewing people at length, you develop a relationship that makes them feel you’re a friend, they can trust you, they relax and begin to tell you things they should not reveal for print. Knowing that, and doing your job to convey the truth as you see it, you will sell them out.

10.
Narrative Curve

Didion takes care in creating what she calls the narrative curve—the pace, the tension that builds and builds and keeps the reader gripped. Her intention is for you to read her work “in one sitting.” She asked if I’d ever started reading a novel that seemed wonderfully written, but then, “maybe you have to go to lunch or something and you get to page seventy and never pick it up again. You’re not moved to keep turning pages. That’s the narrative curve—you’ve got to allow, around page seventy or eighty, to give it enough thrust to send it out like a rocket.”

When writing an article, she told an interviewer, “The last sentence is another adventure. It should open the piece up. It should make you go back and start reading from page one.”

I don’t know if she meant that literally, or if she ever went back to the beginning after reading a final sentence, but I can’t help thinking that the intensity, the specificity, and the fierce originality of Didion’s work are what have made her voice inimitable.

Sara Davidson
Sara Davidson
Sara Davidson is The New York Times best-selling author of Loose Change, Leap! and Joan: Forty Years of Love, Loss and Friendship with Joan Didion.





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