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20 great articles and essays by joan didion, on life and death, goodbye to all that, on morality, on self respect, fixed opinions, or the hinge of history, insider baseball, the women's movement, slouching towards bethlehem, the shopping center, the american frontier reinvented, in sable and dark glasses, marrying absurd, the promises martha stewart made—and why we wanted to believe them, 150 great articles and essays.

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On Self-Respect: Joan Didion’s 1961 Essay from the Pages of Vogue

By Joan Didion

Joan Didion , author, journalist, and style icon, died today after a prolonged illness. She was 87 years old. Here, in its original layout, is Didion’s seminal essay “Self-respect: Its Source, Its Power,” which was first published in Vogue in 1961, and which was republished as “On Self-Respect” in the author’s 1968 collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem.​ Didion wrote the essay as the magazine was going to press, to fill the space left after another writer did not produce a piece on the same subject. She wrote it not to a word count or a line count, but to an exact character count.

Image may contain Book Text Page Paper and Newspaper

Once, in a dry season, I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself. Although now, some years later, I marvel that a mind on the outs with itself should have nonetheless made painstaking record of its every tremor, I recall with embarrassing clarity the flavor of those particular ashes. It was a matter of misplaced self-respect.

I had not been elected to Phi Beta Kappa. This failure could scarcely have been more predictable or less ambiguous (I simply did not have the grades), but I was unnerved by it; I had somehow thought myself a kind of academic Raskolnikov, curiously exempt from the cause-effect relationships that hampered others. Although the situation must have had even then the approximate tragic stature of Scott Fitzgerald's failure to become president of the Princeton Triangle Club, the day that I did not make Phi Beta Kappa nevertheless marked the end of something, and innocence may well be the word for it. I lost the conviction that lights would always turn green for me, the pleasant certainty that those rather passive virtues which had won me approval as a child automatically guaranteed me not only Phi Beta Kappa keys but happiness, honour, and the love of a good man (preferably a cross between Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca and one of the Murchisons in a proxy fight); lost a certain touching faith in the totem power of good manners, clean hair, and proven competence on the Stanford-Binet scale. To such doubtful amulets had my self-respect been pinned, and I faced myself that day with the nonplussed wonder of someone who has come across a vampire and found no garlands of garlic at hand.

Although to be driven back upon oneself is an uneasy affair at best, rather like trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials, it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect. Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception. The charms that work on others count for nothing in that devastatingly well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself: no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions. With the desperate agility of a crooked faro dealer who spots Bat Masterson about to cut himself into the game, one shuffles flashily but in vain through one's marked cards—the kindness done for the wrong reason, the apparent triumph which had involved no real effort, the seemingly heroic act into which one had been shamed. The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others—who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation—which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O'Hara, is something that people with courage can do without.

To do without self-respect, on the other hand, is to be an unwilling audience of one to an interminable home movie that documents one's failings, both real and imagined, with fresh footage spliced in for each screening. There’s the glass you broke in anger, there's the hurt on X's face; watch now, this next scene, the night Y came back from Houston, see how you muff this one. To live without self-respect is to lie awake some night, beyond the reach of warm milk, phenobarbital, and the sleeping hand on the coverlet, counting up the sins of commission and omission, the trusts betrayed, the promises subtly broken, the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice or carelessness. However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously un- comfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves.

Joan Didion

Joan Didion

To protest that some fairly improbable people, some people who could not possibly respect themselves, seem to sleep easily enough is to miss the point entirely, as surely as those people miss it who think that self-respect has necessarily to do with not having safety pins in one's underwear. There is a common superstition that "self-respect" is a kind of charm against snakes, something that keeps those who have it locked in some unblighted Eden, out of strange beds, ambivalent conversations, and trouble in general. It does not at all. It has nothing to do with the face of things, but concerns instead a separate peace, a private reconciliation. Although the careless, suicidal Julian English in Appointment in Samarra and the careless, incurably dishonest Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby seem equally improbable candidates for self-respect, Jordan Baker had it, Julian English did not. With that genius for accommodation more often seen in women than in men, Jordan took her own measure, made her own peace, avoided threats to that peace: "I hate careless people," she told Nick Carraway. "It takes two to make an accident."

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Like Jordan Baker, people with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things. If they choose to commit adultery, they do not then go running, in an access of bad conscience, to receive absolution from the wronged parties; nor do they complain unduly of the unfairness, the undeserved embarrassment, of being named corespondent. If they choose to forego their work—say it is screenwriting—in favor of sitting around the Algonquin bar, they do not then wonder bitterly why the Hacketts, and not they, did Anne Frank.

In brief, people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called character, a quality which, although approved in the abstract, sometimes loses ground to other, more instantly negotiable virtues. The measure of its slipping prestige is that one tends to think of it only in connection with homely children and with United States senators who have been defeated, preferably in the primary, for re-election. Nonetheless, character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one's own life—is the source from which self-respect springs.

Self-respect is something that our grandparents, whether or not they had it, knew all about. They had instilled in them, young, a certain discipline, the sense that one lives by doing things one does not particularly want to do, by putting fears and doubts to one side, by weighing immediate comforts against the possibility of larger, even intangible, comforts. It seemed to the nineteenth century admirable, but not remarkable, that Chinese Gordon put on a clean white suit and held Khartoum against the Mahdi; it did not seem unjust that the way to free land in California involved death and difficulty and dirt. In a diary kept during the winter of 1846, an emigrating twelve-year-old named Narcissa Cornwall noted coolly: "Father was busy reading and did not notice that the house was being filled with strange Indians until Mother spoke about it." Even lacking any clue as to what Mother said, one can scarcely fail to be impressed by the entire incident: the father reading, the Indians filing in, the mother choosing the words that would not alarm, the child duly recording the event and noting further that those particular Indians were not, "fortunately for us," hostile. Indians were simply part of the donnée.

In one guise or another, Indians always are. Again, it is a question of recognizing that anything worth having has its price. People who respect themselves are willing to accept the risk that the Indians will be hostile, that the venture will go bankrupt, that the liaison may not turn out to be one in which every day is a holiday because you’re married to me. They are willing to invest something of themselves; they may not play at all, but when they do play, they know the odds.

That kind of self-respect is a discipline, a habit of mind that can never be faked but can be developed, trained, coaxed forth. It was once suggested to me that, as an antidote to crying, I put my head in a paper bag. As it happens, there is a sound physiological reason, something to do with oxygen, for doing exactly that, but the psychological effect alone is incalculable: it is difficult in the extreme to continue fancying oneself Cathy in Wuthering Heights with one's head in a Food Fair bag. There is a similar case for all the small disciplines, unimportant in themselves; imagine maintaining any kind of swoon, commiserative or carnal, in a cold shower.

But those small disciplines are valuable only insofar as they represent larger ones. To say that Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton is not to say that Napoleon might have been saved by a crash program in cricket; to give formal dinners in the rain forest would be pointless did not the candlelight flickering on the liana call forth deeper, stronger disciplines, values instilled long before. It is a kind of ritual, helping us to remember who and what we are. In order to remember it, one must have known it.

To have that sense of one's intrinsic worth which, for better or for worse, constitutes self-respect, is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference. If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out—since our self-image is untenable—their false notions of us. We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gift for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give. Of course we will play Francesca to Paolo, Brett Ashley to Jake, Helen Keller to anyone's Annie Sullivan: no expectation is too misplaced, no rôle too ludicrous. At the mercy of those we can not but hold in contempt, we play rôles doomed to failure before they are begun, each defeat generating fresh despair at the necessity of divining and meeting the next demand made upon us.

It is the phenomenon sometimes called alienation from self. In its advanced stages, we no longer answer the telephone, because someone might want something; that we could say no without drowning in self-reproach is an idea alien to this game. Every encounter demands too much, tears the nerves, drains the will, and the spectre of something as small as an unanswered letter arouses such disproportionate guilt that one's sanity becomes an object of speculation among one's acquaintances. To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.

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Read 12 Masterful Essays by Joan Didion for Free Online, Spanning Her Career From 1965 to 2013

in Literature , Writing | January 14th, 2014 3 Comments

joan didion short essays

Image by David Shankbone, via Wikimedia Commons

In a classic essay of Joan Didion’s, “Goodbye to All That,” the novelist and writer breaks into her narrative—not for the first or last time—to prod her reader. She rhetorically asks and answers: “…was anyone ever so young? I am here to tell you that someone was.” The wry little moment is perfectly indicative of Didion’s unsparingly ironic critical voice. Didion is a consummate critic, from Greek kritēs , “a judge.” But she is always foremost a judge of herself. An account of Didion’s eight years in New York City, where she wrote her first novel while working for Vogue , “Goodbye to All That” frequently shifts point of view as Didion examines the truth of each statement, her prose moving seamlessly from deliberation to commentary, annotation, aside, and aphorism, like the below:

I want to explain to you, and in the process perhaps to myself, why I no longer live in New York. It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city only for the very young.

Anyone who has ever loved and left New York—or any life-altering city—will know the pangs of resignation Didion captures. These economic times and every other produce many such stories. But Didion made something entirely new of familiar sentiments. Although her essay has inspired a sub-genre , and a collection of breakup letters to New York with the same title, the unsentimental precision and compactness of Didion’s prose is all her own.

The essay appears in 1967’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem , a representative text of the literary nonfiction of the sixties alongside the work of John McPhee, Terry Southern, Tom Wolfe, and Hunter S. Thompson. In Didion’s case, the emphasis must be decidedly on the literary —her essays are as skillfully and imaginatively written as her fiction and in close conversation with their authorial forebears. “Goodbye to All That” takes its title from an earlier memoir, poet and critic Robert Graves’ 1929 account of leaving his hometown in England to fight in World War I. Didion’s appropriation of the title shows in part an ironic undercutting of the memoir as a serious piece of writing.

And yet she is perhaps best known for her work in the genre. Published almost fifty years after Slouching Towards Bethlehem , her 2005 memoir The Year of Magical Thinking is, in poet Robert Pinsky’s words , a “traveler’s faithful account” of the stunningly sudden and crushing personal calamities that claimed the lives of her husband and daughter separately. “Though the material is literally terrible,” Pinsky writes, “the writing is exhilarating and what unfolds resembles an adventure narrative: a forced expedition into those ‘cliffs of fall’ identified by Hopkins.” He refers to lines by the gifted Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins that Didion quotes in the book: “O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap / May who ne’er hung there.”

The nearly unimpeachably authoritative ethos of Didion’s voice convinces us that she can fearlessly traverse a wild inner landscape most of us trivialize, “hold cheap,” or cannot fathom. And yet, in a 1978 Paris Review interview , Didion—with that technical sleight of hand that is her casual mastery—called herself “a kind of apprentice plumber of fiction, a Cluny Brown at the writer’s trade.” Here she invokes a kind of archetype of literary modesty (John Locke, for example, called himself an “underlabourer” of knowledge) while also figuring herself as the winsome heroine of a 1946 Ernst Lubitsch comedy about a social climber plumber’s niece played by Jennifer Jones, a character who learns to thumb her nose at power and privilege.

A twist of fate—interviewer Linda Kuehl’s death—meant that Didion wrote her own introduction to the Paris Review interview, a very unusual occurrence that allows her to assume the role of her own interpreter, offering ironic prefatory remarks on her self-understanding. After the introduction, it’s difficult not to read the interview as a self-interrogation. Asked about her characterization of writing as a “hostile act” against readers, Didion says, “Obviously I listen to a reader, but the only reader I hear is me. I am always writing to myself. So very possibly I’m committing an aggressive and hostile act toward myself.”

It’s a curious statement. Didion’s cutting wit and fearless vulnerability take in seemingly all—the expanses of her inner world and political scandals and geopolitical intrigues of the outer, which she has dissected for the better part of half a century. Below, we have assembled a selection of Didion’s best essays online. We begin with one from Vogue :

“On Self Respect” (1961)

Didion’s 1979 essay collection The White Album brought together some of her most trenchant and searching essays about her immersion in the counterculture, and the ideological fault lines of the late sixties and seventies. The title essay begins with a gemlike sentence that became the title of a collection of her first seven volumes of nonfiction : “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Read two essays from that collection below:

“ The Women’s Movement ” (1972)

“ Holy Water ” (1977)

Didion has maintained a vigorous presence at the New York Review of Books since the late seventies, writing primarily on politics. Below are a few of her best known pieces for them:

“ Insider Baseball ” (1988)

“ Eye on the Prize ” (1992)

“ The Teachings of Speaker Gingrich ” (1995)

“ Fixed Opinions, or the Hinge of History ” (2003)

“ Politics in the New Normal America ” (2004)

“ The Case of Theresa Schiavo ” (2005)

“ The Deferential Spirit ” (2013)

“ California Notes ” (2016)

Didion continues to write with as much style and sensitivity as she did in her first collection, her voice refined by a lifetime of experience in self-examination and piercing critical appraisal. She got her start at Vogue in the late fifties, and in 2011, she published an autobiographical essay there that returns to the theme of “yearning for a glamorous, grown up life” that she explored in “Goodbye to All That.” In “ Sable and Dark Glasses ,” Didion’s gaze is steadier, her focus this time not on the naïve young woman tempered and hardened by New York, but on herself as a child “determined to bypass childhood” and emerge as a poised, self-confident 24-year old sophisticate—the perfect New Yorker she never became.

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Josh Jones  is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at  @jdmagness

by Josh Jones | Permalink | Comments (3) |

joan didion short essays

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Comments (3), 3 comments so far.

“In a classic essay of Joan Didion’s, “Goodbye to All That,” the novelist and writer breaks into her narrative—not for the first or last time,..”

Dead link to the essay

It should be “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” with the “s” on Towards.

Most of the Joan Didion Essay links have paywalls.

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Beyond the Books: Joan Didion’s Essays, Profiles and Criticism

The author of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” “The White Album” and “Play It as It Lays” was a prolific writer for The Times.

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Joan Didion in 2005.

By Tina Jordan

Joan Didion, who died on Thursday at 87, is best known for her essay collections — “ Slouching Towards Bethlehem ,” “ The White Album ” and “ After Henry ,” to name a few — though she also wrote blazingly original narrative nonfiction (“ Miami ,” “ The Year of Magical Thinking ,” “ Salvador ”) and novels (“ Play It as It Lays ,” “ A Book of Common Prayer ”). Her work for The New York Times is as eclectic and insightful as you might imagine, ranging from a profile of Joan Baez to a review of John Cheever’s “Falconer.”

‘“Scum,” hissed an old man with a snap-on bow tie.’

Didion’s 1966 profile of Joan Baez and the community opposition to the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence — the folk singer’s school in California’s Carmel Valley — is a classic. “‘Scum,’ hissed an old man with a snap-on bow tie who had identified himself as ‘a veteran of two wars’ and who is a regular at such meetings. ‘ Spaniel .’ He seemed to be referring to the length of Miss Baez’s hair, and was trying to get her attention by tapping with his walking stick, but her eyes did not flicker from the rostrum.”

‘She holds the mind’s other guests in ardent contempt.’

In a 1971 review of Doris Lessing’s novel, “ Briefing for a Descent Into Hell ,” Didion wrote, “To read a great deal of Doris Lessing over a short span of time is to feel that the original hound of heaven has commandeered the attic. She holds the mind’s other guests in ardent contempt. She appears for meals only to dismiss the household’s own preoccupations with writing well as decadent.”

‘Thin raincoats on bitter nights’

Didion’s fiery words lit up this 1972 essay on the women’s movement : “To read the theorists of the women’s movement was to think not of Mary Wollstonecraft but of Margaret Fuller at her most high‐minded, of rushing position papers off to mimeo and drinking tea from paper cups in lieu of eating lunch; of thin raincoats on bitter nights. If the family was the last fortress of capitalism, then let us abolish the family. If the necessity for conventional reproduction of the species seemed unfair to women, then let us transcend, via technology, ‘the very organization of nature,’ the oppression, as Shulamith Firestone saw it, ‘that goes back through recorded history to the animal kingdom itself.’”

A feminist reading list, compiled by Didion, accompanied the essay.

‘Images that shimmer around the edges’

“ Why I Write ” was adapted from a lecture Didion gave at the University of California at Berkeley. In the 1976 essay, she explained, “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. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind? When I talk about pictures in my mind I am talking, quite specifically, about images that shimmer around the edges.”

‘He killed his brother, and who cares ’

Didion’s 1977 review of “ Falconer, ” by John Cheever, was particularly sharp. “I have every expectation that many people will read ‘Falconer’ as another Cheever story about a brainwashed husband who lacked energy for the modern world, so he killed his brother and who cares ,” she wrote. “But let me tell you: It is not, and Cheever cares.”

‘Human voices fade out, trail off, like skywriting.’

In her 1979 review of Norman Mailer’s book about Gary Gilmore, “ The Executioner’s Song ,” Didion wrote, “The very subject of ‘The Executioner’s Song’ is that vast emptiness at the center of the Western experience, a nihilism antithetical not only to literature but to most other forms of human endeavor, a dread so close to zero that human voices fade out, trail off, like skywriting. Beneath what Mailer calls ‘the immense blue of the strong sky of the American West,’ under that immense blue which dominates ‘The Executioner’s Song,’ not too much makes a difference.”

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The essential Joan Didion: An L.A. Times reading list for newcomers and fans alike

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Joan Didion, who died Thursday at 87 , produced decades’ worth of memorable work across genres and subjects: personal essays, reporting and criticism on pop culture, political dispatches from at home and abroad and, near the end of her career, a bestselling memoir and a follow-up. Whether you’re a newcomer looking for a place to start or a reader looking to dive deeper, here’s a guide to Didion’s writing, start to finish:

The White Album by Joan Didion

The ‘personals’

If any subset of her work made Didion’s reputation for “inevitable” sentences, it is the personal essays collected in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” (1968) and “The White Album” (1979). These pieces, starting with “On Self-Respect” in 1961, and originally published in magazines such as Vogue, the American Scholar and the Saturday Evening Post, have come to be appreciated as models of the form, elliptical, poetic, punctuated with the author’s eye for telling detail and lacerating self-awareness. Didion’s essays carefully revealed, and concealed, the correspondent’s inner life: As she once wrote of husband John Gregory Dunne — in a piece he edited — “We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for divorce.”

Didion later described these essays as having been written under “crash circumstances” — “On Self-Respect” was improvised in “two sittings,” she reflected in 2007 , and written “not just to a word count or a line count but a character count” — yet they produced an astonishing number of unforgettable phrases: “I’ve already lost touch with a couple people I used to be” ( “On Keeping a Notebook,” a personal favorite); “That was the year, my twenty-eighth, when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept” ( “Goodbye to All That,” which invented the modern “leaving New York” essay); “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” (“The White Album,” possibly the definitive rendering of the end of the ‘60s).

Joan Didion, masterful essayist, novelist and screenwriter, dies at 87

Didion bridged the world of Hollywood, journalism and literature in a career that arced most brilliantly in the realms of social criticism and memoir.

Dec. 23, 2021

A number of additional magazine pieces from her early career are collected in her final published work , “Let Me Tell You What I Mean ” (2021), and her observations of self and culture from the 1970s are central to her travelogue “South and West” (2017).

"Slouching Towards Bethlehem," by Joan Didion

The counterculture reporting

In and among the “personals” of “Slouching” and “The White Album” are Didion’s cucumber-cool lacerations of the late ‘60s, casting twin gimlet eyes on the delusions of both the rock-ribbed squares and the child revolutionaries. From the gaudy populism of the Getty and the Sacramento Reagans to a requiem for John Wayne, the marriage of bad taste and bad money fills in where the center fails to hold. The title essay of “The White Album” swirls with Jim Morrison, the Manson “family,” Linda Kasabian’s famous dress, Huey P. Newton and all the rest as Didion bravely declines to make sense of it all. The title essay in “Slouching” culminates, likewise, in the senseless final image of a 3-year-old boy, neglected and imperiled in a hippie squat. “On Morality” and “The Women’s Movement” exude the skeptical libertarianism that distanced her from the madness.

To see not just where the nation moved but where Didion did, it’s worth reading the early California pieces, including “Notes from a Native Daughter,” followed by “Where I Was From” (2003), which utterly demolishes California’s disastrous myth of self-reliance step by step, anatomizing its dependence on government largesse from the days of the Gold Rush — the water, the power, the military-industrial muscle. And finally she goes in on herself: the pioneer woman who never was.

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

Throughout her career, Didion was best known for her nonfiction, but her five novels conjure an equally pungent sense of place and time. Her first book, “Run River ” (1963) — inspired, she later wrote, by profound homesickness — is a family melodrama about the descendants of pioneers that draws heavily on Didion’s Sacramento upbringing. Perhaps her most famous novel, “Play It As It Lays” (1970), is set in a very different California: the Hollywood of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, suffused with the anomie of its dissolute heroine, Maria Wyeth. (Her opening monologue famously begins with an ice-cold allusion to Othello: “What makes Iago evil? Some people ask. I never ask.”)

But Didion’s most underrated writing may be found in three novels that reflected her growing interest in — and suspicion of — America’s empire abroad. Set in the fictional Central American nation of Boca Grande, “A Book of Common Prayer” (1977) features both acid satire of corrupt U.S.-backed regimes and a tragic riff on the tale of Patty Hearst, as protagonist Charlotte Douglas searches for her daughter Marin, who is on the lam with a Marxist terrorist organization. Her interest in U.S. interference in the region and the absurdities of the late Cold War reappears in her final work of fiction, “The Last Thing He Wanted ” (1996), about a reporter and a government official who fall in love amid a secret arms-dealing operation reminiscent of Iran-Contra.

Joan Didion, wearing a white shirt, stands in the hallway of her apartment, next to a portrait of her late husband

Entertainment & Arts

Photos: Joan Didion, masterful essayist, novelist and screenwriter, dies at 87

Photos from the life of Joan Didion, who chronicled California, politics and sorrow in ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’ and ‘Year of Magical Thinking.’

It is “Democracy” (1984), though, that gathers these personal and political themes into the most extraordinary whole, tracing a history of violence and exploitation from the colonization of Hawaii through the dawn of the atomic age to produce Didion’s answer to the Vietnam War novel. She even casts herself as narrator: “Democracy,” set in the early 1970s, is told from the perspective of “Joan Didion,” whose focused repetitions and circular logic as she attempts to piece together the tale of a U.S. senator, his wife and her lover presage those of her blockbuster memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking” (2005).

"Salvador," by Joan Didion

The political commentary

Though most Joan Didion primers begin, as this one does, with the personal essays, my introduction to Didion — and one I recommend if you would like to become as obsessed with her writing as I am — came through “Democracy” and the essays in “Political Fictions” (2001). Beginning in the 1980s, when she forged a close working relationship with legendary New York Review of Books editor Robert Silvers, Didion shifted the focus of her reporting away from culture: She relayed searing descriptions of war-torn El Salvador in “Salvador” (1983), captured the the conspiratorial fever surrounding much of U.S.-Cuba politics in “Miami” (1987) and detailed the ways in which Sept. 11 became a jingoistic cudgel in “Fixed Ideas” (2003).

But for their exceedingly thorough and ultimately devastating authority, there may be no better place to go to understand our current political disaster, and the media’s role in it, than Didion’s dispatches from the presidential campaigns of 1988 (“Insider Baseball”) and 1992 (“Eyes on the Prize”), her exasperated reflections on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal (“Clinton Agonistes”) or her poisonously funny takedown of Bob Woodward (“The Deferential Spirit,” 1996), author of books “in which measurable cerebral activity is virtually absent.”

She also applied the technique in the damning “Sentimental Journeys” (collected in 1992’s “After Henry ”), detailing the process by which politicians and the press railroaded the Central Park Five in the hothouse atmosphere of late-’80s New York.

"The Year of Magical Thinking," by Joan Didion

The late memoirs

Despite a career in which she befriended celebrities like Natalie Wood and Tony Richardson — and employed Harrison Ford as a carpenter — Didion reached the height of her prominence with her bestselling memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking, ” published in 2005. While she had experimented with the form two years prior in “Where I Was From,” it was her heartbreakingly lucid dissection of grief that captured the imagination of the broader public, earning her wide acclaim and the National Book Award. “Magical Thinking” recounts a year in Didion’s life in which she grappled with Dunne’s 2003 death from cardiac arrest and daughter Quintana Roo’s serious illness, combining her readings of Sigmund Freud and Emily Post with vivid memories from one of 20th century literature’s most intimate marriages. Her follow-up , “Blue Nights” (2011), which looked back on Quintana’s untimely death in 2005, offered a more caustic vision, searching her relationship with her daughter for moments she wrong-footed herself while revealing her own declining health. In the process she developed a late style all her own — incantatory and poetic but never (God forbid) sentimental.

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Matt Brennan is a Los Angeles Times’ deputy editor for entertainment and arts. Born in the Boston area, educated at USC and an adoptive New Orleanian for nearly 10 years, he returned to Los Angeles in 2019 as the newsroom’s television editor. He previously served as TV editor at Paste Magazine, and his writing has also appeared in Indiewire, Slate, Deadspin and numerous other publications.

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Boris Kachka is the books editor of the Los Angeles Times and the author, most recently, of “Becoming a Producer.”

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joan didion short essays

6 Essays By Joan Didion You Should Know

Joan Didion book cover

Joan Didion is lauded as one of the best literary journalists to emerge from the New Journalism school in the ’60s, among Tom Wolfe , Terry Southern and Hunter S. Thompson, and one of California’s wittiest contemporary writers . Best known for her sharply reported stories that service frequently dystopian and despondent cultural commentary, even Didion’s more journalistic works are in part personal essay. It’s precisely her authorial presence that lends credence, honesty and depth to her work. Her subjectivity makes her observations all the more resonant, and in a way, more accurate too. Here’s a look at some of the California writer’s greatest hits.

View all trips, ‘some dreamers of the golden dream’.

‘This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with the country,’ the essay begins. Making good on her promise, this piece reports a lascivious tale of adultery and murder in San Bernardino County in 1966. In true Didion form, however, atmosphere and place play characters just as important as the perpetrators and, in that way, this piece is about much more than the details of a single crime.

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‘john wayne: a love song’.

Though this essay presents itself as an ode the great American frontiersman of the silver screen, it charts a loss of innocence – personal, though perhaps also cultural – against Wayne’s larger than life persona . ‘In a world we understand early to be characterized by venality and doubt and paralyzing ambiguities, he suggested another world… a place where a man could move free, could make his own code and live by it.’

joan didion short essays

‘On Keeping a Notebook’

Having kept a notebook from the age of five, Didion considers the compulsion to capture our lives. She writes, ‘however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I.” This observation seems especially fitting for a writer who candidly reports through the filter of the self.

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Cover for Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem

‘On Self Respect’

This philosophical musing pays homage to the wrestling with the self that perhaps writers know best. It was first published in Vogue magazine in 1961, where it can be found in its original form . ‘To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves – there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect.’

‘The Santa Ana’

Didion calls upon the eerie desert mythology of the Santa Anas, the wicked winds that brings a tangible unease and tension to Los Angeles whenever they blow through the city. In this essay, LA is not always sunny as it’s so often portrayed. In this strange ode to place, Didion writes, ‘the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The winds shows us how close to the edge we are.’

‘Goodbye to All That’

In one of Didion’s most known essays, she recounts a love affair with New York City that calls upon the city’s deeply arresting aura with delicious turns of phrase: ‘I would stay in New York, I told him, just six months, and I could see the Brooklyn Bridge from my window. As it turned out the bridge was the Triborough, and I stayed eight years.’

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Joan Didion: Why I Write

"i write entirely to find out what i’m thinking, what i’m looking at, what i see and what it means.".

Of course I stole the title for this talk from George Orwell. One reason I stole it was that I like the sound of the words: Why I Write. There you have three short unambiguous words that share a sound, and the sound they share is this:

In many ways, writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind . It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions—with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating—but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.

I stole the title not only because the words sounded right but because they seemed to sum up, in a no-nonsense way, all I have to tell you. Like many writers I have only this one “subject,” this one “area”: the act of writing. I can bring you no reports from any other front. I may have other interests: I am “interested,” for example, in marine biology, but I don’t flatter myself that you would come out to hear me talk about it. I am not a scholar. I am not in the least an intellectual, which is not to say that when I hear the word “intellectual” I reach for my gun, but only to say that I do not think in abstracts. During the years when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley I tried, with a kind of hopeless late-adolescent energy, to buy some temporary visa into the world of ideas, to forge for myself a mind that could deal with the abstract.

In short I tried to think. I failed. My attention veered inexorably back to the specific, to the tangible, to what was generally considered, by everyone I knew then and for that matter have known since, the peripheral. I would try to contemplate the Hegelian dialectic and would find myself concentrating instead on a flowering pear tree outside my window and the particular way the petals fell on my floor. I would try to read linguistic theory and would find myself wondering instead if the lights were on in the Bevatron up the hill. When I say that I was wondering if the lights were on in the Bevatron you might immediately suspect, if you deal in ideas at all, that I was registering the Bevatron as a political symbol, thinking in shorthand about the military-industrial complex and its role in the university community, but you would be wrong. I was only wondering if the lights were on in the Bevatron, and how they looked. A physical fact.

I had trouble graduating from Berkeley, not because of this inability to deal with ideas—I was majoring in English, and I could locate the house-and-garden imagery in The Portrait of a Lady as well as the next person, “imagery” being by definition the kind of specific that got my attention—but simply because I had neglected to take a course in Milton. For reasons which now sound baroque I needed a degree by the end of that summer, and the English department finally agreed, if I would come down from Sacramento every Friday and talk about the cosmology of Paradise Lost , to certify me proficient in Milton. I did this. Some Fridays I took the Greyhound bus, other Fridays I caught the Southern Pacific’s City of San Francisco on the last leg of its transcontinental trip. I can no longer tell you whether Milton put the sun or the earth at the center of his universe in Paradise Lost , the central question of at least one century and a topic about which I wrote ten thousand words that summer, but I can still recall the exact rancidity of the butter in the City of San Francisco’s dining car, and the way the tinted windows on the Greyhound bus cast the oil refineries around Carquinez Strait into a grayed and obscurely sinister light. In short my attention was always on the periphery, on what I could see and taste and touch, on the butter, and the Greyhound bus. During those years I was traveling on what I knew to be a very shaky passport, forged papers: I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was.

Which was a writer.

By which I mean not a “good” writer or a “bad” writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper. Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. 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. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Strait seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the Bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind?

When I talk about pictures in my mind I am talking, quite specifically, about images that shimmer around the edges. There used to be an illustration in every elementary psychology book showing a cat drawn by a patient in varying stages of schizophrenia. This cat had a shimmer around it. You could see the molecular structure breaking down at the very edges of the cat: the cat became the background and the background the cat, everything interacting, exchanging ions. People on hallucinogens describe the same perception of objects. I’m not a schizophrenic, nor do I take hallucinogens, but certain images do shimmer for me. Look hard enough, and you can’t miss the shimmer. It’s there. You can’t think too much about these pictures that shimmer. You just lie low and let them develop. You stay quiet. You don’t talk to many people and you keep your nervous system from shorting out and you try to locate the cat in the shimmer, the grammar in the picture.

Just as I meant “shimmer” literally I mean “grammar” literally. Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed. Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences. The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind. The picture dictates the arrangement. The picture dictates whether this will be a sentence with or without clauses, a sentence that ends hard or a dying-fall sentence, long or short, active or passive. The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture. Nota bene:

It tells you.

You don’t tell it.

Let me show you what I mean by pictures in the mind. I began Play It as It Lays just as I have begun each of my novels, with no notion of “character” or “plot” or even “incident.” I had only two pictures in my mind, more about which later, and a technical intention, which was to write a novel so elliptical and fast that it would be over before you noticed it, a novel so fast that it would scarcely exist on the page at all. About the pictures: the first was of white space. Empty space. This was clearly the picture that dictated the narrative intention of the book—a book in which anything that happened would happen off the page, a “white” book to which the reader would have to bring his or her own bad dreams—and yet this picture told me no “story,” suggested no situation. The second picture did. This second picture was of something actually witnessed. A young woman with long hair and a short white halter dress walks through the casino at the Riviera in Las Vegas at one in the morning. She crosses the casino alone and picks up a house telephone. I watch her because I have heard her paged, and recognize her name: she is a minor actress I see around Los Angeles from time to time, in places like Jax and once in a gynecologist’s office in the Beverly Hills Clinic, but have never met. I know nothing about her. Who is paging her? Why is she here to be paged? How exactly did she come to this? It was precisely this moment in Las Vegas that made Play It as It Lays begin to tell itself to me, but the moment appears in the novel only obliquely, in a chapter which begins:

Maria made a list of things she would never do. She would never: walk through the Sands or Caesar’s alone after midnight. She would never: ball at a party, do S-M unless she wanted to, borrow furs from Abe Lipsey, deal. She would never: carry a Yorkshire in Beverly Hills.

That is the beginning of the chapter and that is also the end of the chapter, which may suggest what I meant by “white space.”

I recall having a number of pictures in my mind when I began the novel I just finished, A Book of Common Prayer . As a matter of fact one of these pictures was of that Bevatron I mentioned, although I would be hard put to tell you a story in which nuclear energy figures. Another was a newspaper photograph of a hijacked 707 burning on the desert in the Middle East. Another was the night view from a room in which I once spent a week with paratyphoid, a hotel room on the Colombian coast. My husband and I seemed to be on the Colombian coast representing the United States of America at a film festival (I recall invoking the name Jack Valenti a lot, as if its reiteration could make me well), and it was a bad place to have fever, not only because my indisposition offended our hosts but because every night in this hotel the generator failed. The lights went out. The elevator stopped. My husband would go to the event of the evening and make excuses for me and I would stay alone in this hotel room, in the dark. I remember standing at the window trying to call Bogotá (the telephone seemed to work on the same principle as the generator) and watching the night wind come up and wondering what I was doing eleven degrees off the equator with a fever of 103. The view from that window definitely figures in A Book of Common Prayer , as does the burning 707, and yet none of these pictures told me the story I needed.

The picture that did, the picture that shimmered and made these other images coalesce, was of the Panama airport at 6 am. I was in this airport only once, on a plane to Bogotá that stopped for an hour to refuel, but the way it looked that morning remained superimposed on everything I saw until the day I finished A Book of Common Prayer . I lived in that airport for several years. I can still feel the hot air when I step off the plane, can see the heat already rising off the tarmac at 6:00 a.m. I can feel the skirt damp and wrinkled on my legs. I can feel the asphalt stick to my sandals. I remember the big tail of a Pan American plane floating motionless down at the end of the tarmac. I remember the sound of a slot machine in the waiting room. I could tell you that I remember a particular woman in the airport, an American woman, a norteamericana , a thin norteamericana about forty who wore a big square emerald in lieu of a wedding ring, but there was no such woman there.

I put this woman in the airport later. I made this woman up, just as I later made up a country to put the airport in, and a family to run the country. This woman in the airport is neither catching a plane nor meeting one. She is ordering tea in the airport coffee shop. In fact she is not simply “ordering” tea but insisting that the water be boiled, in front of her, for twenty minutes. Why is this woman in this airport? Why is she going nowhere, where has she been? Where did she get that big emerald? What derangement, or disassociation, makes her believe that her will to see the water boiled can possibly prevail?

She had been going to one airport or another for four months, one could see it, looking at the visas on her passport. All those airports where Charlotte Douglas’s passport had been stamped would have looked alike. Sometimes the sign on the tower would say “BIENVENIDOS” and sometimes the sign on the tower would say “BIENVENUE,” some places were wet and hot and others were dry and hot, but at each of these airports the pastel concrete walls would rust and stain and the swamp off the runway would be littered with the fuselages of cannibalized Fairchild F-227s and the water would need boiling.

I knew why Charlotte went to the airport even if Victor did not. I knew about airports.

These lines appear about halfway through A Book of Common Prayer , but I wrote them during the second week I worked on the book, long before I had any idea where Charlotte Douglas had been or why she went to airports. Until I wrote these lines I had no character called Victor in mind: the necessity for mentioning a name, and the name Victor, occurred to me as I wrote the sentence. I knew why Charlotte went to the airport sounded incomplete. I knew why Charlotte went to the airport even if Victor did not carried a little more narrative drive. Most important of all, until I wrote these lines I did not know who “I” was, who was telling the story. I had intended until that moment that the “I” be no more than the voice of the author, a nineteenth-century omniscient narrator. But there it was:

“I knew why Charlotte went to the airport even if Victor did not.”

“I knew about airports.”

This “I” was the voice of no author in my house. This “I” was someone who not only knew why Charlotte went to the airport but also knew someone called Victor. Who was Victor? Who was this narrator? Why was this narrator telling me this story? Let me tell you one thing about why writers write: had I known the answer to any of these questions I would never have needed to write a novel.


joan didion short essays

Excerpted from Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion. Copyright © 2021 by Joan Didion. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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80 Free Essays & Articles by Joan Didion

Posted by John | Jul 11, 2017 | Essays , Famous Authors | 0 |

80 Free Essays & Articles by Joan Didion

Joan Didion, born 5th December 1934 is an American author, well known for her amazing writing works and her literary journalism. Her novels and essays explore the disintegration of American morals and cultural chaos, where the overriding theme is individual and social fragmentation. A sense of anxiety or dread permeates much of her work. Her notable and popular books include The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) , Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) , Play It as It Lays (1970) , Democracy (1984) and many more. Her breakthrough came when she won first place in the Prix de Paris essay contest sponsored by Vogue, and was awarded a job as a research assistant at the magazine, having written a story on the San Francisco architect, William Wilson Wurster.

After 7 years at Vogue, she wrote her first fiction novel, Run, River (1963) . 5 years later, after gotten married to John Gregory Dunne, she published her first work of nonfiction, Slouching Towards Bethlehem . It’s basically a collection of magazine pieces about her experiences in California. Spanning over 54 years from the day of her first book till today, Joan Didion has published over 18 books, 5 of them fictions and 13 nonfictions. She has also written 6 screenplays.

Goodbye to All That by Joan Didion

  • Goodbye to All That

by Joan Didion

Didion’s pratices “New Journalism” as her writing style, where writers tend to turn away from “just the facts” and focus more upon the dialogue of the situation and the scenarios that the author may have experienced. This can help to represent the truth and reality through the author’s eyes.

Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem exemplifies much of what New Journalism represents as it explores the cultural values and experiences of American life in the 1960s. Didion includes her personal feelings and memories in this first person narrative, describing the chaos of individuals and the way in which they perceive the world. Here Didion rejects conventional journalism, and instead prefers to create a subjective approach to essays, a style that is her own. – Wikipedia.

“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.” – Joan Didion

Most of the essays listed below are only viewable as online articles. So no downloadable versions in PDF or EPUB. Majority of these essays and articles come from major online magazines such as Vogue, The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker. We have also provided a lits of the main pages where you can find all of Didion’s works within these sites, so feel free to browse based on your reading preference.

18 Free Essays by Joan Didion

  • Marrying Absurd
  • The Santa Ana
  • On Morality
  • On Self Respect
  • Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream
  • In Sable and Dark Glasses
  • On Keeping a Notebook
  • Why I Write
  • Fixed Opinions, or The Hinge of History
  • Insider Baseball
  • The Women’s Movement
  • Joan Didion, The Art of Nonfiction No. 1
  • The Teachings of Speaker Gingrich
  • The Case of Theresa Schiavo

62 Free Essays from Various Online Magazines

  • 2 Essays by Vogue
  • 49 Essays by The New York Review of Books
  • 4 Essays by Genius
  • 7 Essays by The New Yorker

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Joan Didion in her New York City apartment, 73 years young.

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We hope you enjoy reading the marvelous works of Joan Didion as much as we’ve enjoyed compiling them. Don’t forget to leave your comment if we’ve missed out any important information. We’ll also be covering more authors in the future in regards to their essay portfolios, so stay tuned, bookmark our site and don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter to get the latest postings as they’re posted. Happy reading!

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“Syntax and sensibility: Nobody wed them quite like Joan Didion,” says New York Times columnist Frank Bruni , in a profession of love to Joan and her unusually placed prepositional phrases.

Nobody does anything quite like Joan Didion. The way she almost unsentimentally audits death and memory. The way she waves a bony index finger, more knowing than yours. The way she, without judgment, sets the scene of a five-year-old named Susan on LSD in the height of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury hippie culture.

She’s fearless, she’s cool as hell, she’s thisbig and could paper-cut you to death page-by-page with any one of her masterpieces.

Where do you start with her repertoire? She’s done it all: fiction, essays, political commentaries, memoirs, journalistic pieces and just about everything in between. Joan, now 83, has never not been relevant, but she’s in the headlines again these days, as Netflix recently debuted the long-awaited Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold , a documentary-slash-love-letter made by her nephew, Griffin Dunne. (Yes, son of Dominick Dunne, Hollywood legend.)

Have you cozied up and clicked play on The Center Will Not Hold already? Great. Either way, let’s use this occasion to revisit Joan the Great, or Our Mother of Sorrows, as Vanity Fair once begrudgingly called her.

Below are some of Joan’s essential readings, though really, every subject paired with a predicate strung together by Joan is essential. W hether you’re picking up The Year of Magical Thinking for the first time (what’s your address? I’ll send you tissues) or you’re paging through Slouching Towards Bethlehem again , scrounging for the meaning of life for the umpteenth time, happy reading.

The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) Don’t lie down while reading The Year of Magical Thinking , or you’ll choke on your tears.

The title refers to the psychological and anthropological phrase – cross your fingers enough and you’ll avoid the inevitable – though it may as well been called The Year of Joan Didn’t Deserve or The Year You Wouldn’t Wish Upon the Devil , as it tiptoes along the time following the death of Joan’s husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne, which coincided with the hospitalization of her beloved daughter Quintana Roo. The seemingly small scenes make your heart hurt the most. Like when Joan, shortly after John’s death, stares into his closet, remarking that she can’t give his things away – what if John comes back for them? It’s raw, it’s brave, it’s beautiful. It’ll ruin you and wreck you and rebuild you.

The Year of Magical Thinking is a seminal book on grief and bereavement and it’s simply a must read for any thinking, feeling human being. No wonder it won the 2005 National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

“Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”

“I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.”

“We were not having any fun, he had recently begun pointing out. I would take exception (didn’t we do this, didn’t we do that) but I had also known what he meant. He meant doing things not because we were expected to do them or had always done them or should do them but because we wanted to do them. He meant wanting. He meant living.”

On Self-Respect (1961) Joan first proved her astute skills in Vogue , in 1961, with the publishing of On Self-Respect (which you can also find in Slouching Towards Bethlehem ). New to the Vogue staff, Joan was given the opportunity to write the essay after another writer assigned to the piece failed to follow through. The title was already placed as a headline on the cover, so Joan swept in and wrote her first major piece – elegant and critical and thoughtful – not only to an exact word count, to place into the layout, but to an exact character count. She’s been flexing her power, letter by letter, ever since.

Read it in full here .

“Once, in a dry season, I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself.”

“Self-respect is something that our grandparents, whether or not they had it, knew all about. They had instilled in them, young, a certain discipline, the sense that one lives by doing things one does not particularly want to do, by putting fears and doubts to one side, by weighing immediate comforts against the possibility of larger, even intangible, comforts.”

joan didion short essays

Goodbye to All That (1967) Joan set the standard for “New York, I love you, but I must leave you” essays, now floating around every book and blog, with Goodbye to All That in 1967. I could list a dozen essays (I’ll spare you) that trample over the trope, the New York love affair gone wrong arc. Joan did it first. She wrote about her love/hate/love relationship with the city, how it gave her life and then took that life. “It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was.” “ I was in love with New York. I do not mean ‘love’ in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again.”

Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) Perhaps Joan’s most renowned series of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem now acts as a time capsule for a life and time many of us never lived yet sometimes dream about. With a few exceptions, most of the essays are set in California in the ’60s, giving a vivid vibe of life then+there – including mass murders, kidnapped heiresses and the explosion of American counterculture.

That five-year-old named Susan, the one on LSD? You’ll find her in the titular essay, a famous piece about the sex-and-drug-filled Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in the ’60s. Susan is the center of the disturbing passage, as well as the most chilling scene of The Center Will Not Hold . While discussing Goodbye , Joan – then a mother to a young girl herself – is asked what it was like to find the kindergartener high.

After a long pause, waving her arm about, she says simply, with a slight smile, “It was gold.” That’s the audacious Joan, the one who could immerse herself into any culture without judgment and the one who knows a journalistic goldmine when she finds it, the one we know, we love.

The entire book is a classic collection of journalism and includes a few of the essays mentioned above: Goodbye to All That and On Self-Respect . Perhaps my favorite piece though is O n Keeping a Notebook . (At least today it is. Ask again tomorrow.)

“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”

The White Album (1979) If Slouching Towards Bethlehem didn’t earn Joan the title of California’s most prominent voice, her 1979 collection of essays, The White Album , did.  The New York Times review of The White Album , after claiming “California belongs to Joan Didion,” just as Kilimanjaro belongs to Ernest Hemingway and Oxford, Mississippi belongs to William Faulkner, says, “Joan Didion’s California is a place defined not so much by what her unwavering eye observes, but by what her memory cannot let go.”

Her memories are worth a read.  

“ We tell ourselves stories in order to live…We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices.”

“I suppose everything had changed and nothing had.”  

joan didion short essays

Play It As It Lays (1970) Joan writes what she knows best, even when tackling fiction: the American west, angst, despair. This short but not-so-sweet novel tells the story of Maria and captures an intense mood of a teetering woman with just enough words, no more. I won’t give any more away.

“There was silence. Something real was happening: this was, as it were, her life. If she could keep that in mind she would be able to play it through, do the right thing, whatever that meant.”

“Everything goes. I am working very hard at not thinking about how everything goes.”

Blue Nights (2011) Think of Blue Nights as The Year of Magical Thinking, Part II , the companion piece Joan never wanted to write. Before Magical Thinking was even published, Joan’s daughter Quintana Roo died at just 39 years old. Joan refused to amend it though, instead, writing an entire new ode to the new type of grief she felt – a mother’s grief, compounded by a wife’s grief. It touches on themes of parenthood, failure, adoption, and memory, as well as memory’s ultimate uselessness if you don’t appreciate the moment as it’s occurring.

Whatever sense Joan had made out of her life, she lost it alongside losing John and then Quintana, now living a mother’s nightmare. Did she protect Quintana enough? Pay enough attention to her? Did she love her enough?

Whereas Magical Thinking is a sharp and polished masterpiece, Blue Nights feels as if Joan has taken a beating. She has. She’s older now, baffled at the state of her life, too tired to attempt to make sense of the chaos. Yet she’s graceful as ever in her words. Read for yourself.

“This book is called ‘ Blue Nights ’ because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness. Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.”

“Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.”

“In theory mementos serve to bring back the moment. In fact they serve only to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here. How inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here is something else I could never afford to see.”

Additional readings, if you just can’t get enough:

  • Insider Baseball (1988)
  • Eye on the Prize (1992)
  • The Teachings of Speaker Gingrich (1995)
  • Fixed Opinions, or the Hinge of History (2003)
  • Politics in the New Normal America (2004)
  • The Case of Theresa Schiavo (2005)
  • The Deferential Spirit (2013)
  • California Notes (2016)
  • Joan’s packing list from The White Album
  • Joan’s favorite books of all time, delightfully hand-written

Images via Kate Worum .

Megan is a writer, editor, etc.-er who muses about life, design and travel for Domino, Lonny, Hunker and more. Her life rules include, but are not limited to: zipper when merging, tip in cash and contribute to your IRA. Be a pal and subscribe to her newsletter Night Vision  or follow her on Instagram .

BY Megan McCarty - December 4, 2017

Like what you see? Share Wit & Delight with a friend: 

Reading this post convinces me I should read all of Joan Didion’s works! – Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog

Megan, Thank you for a further introduction to the writing of Joan Didion. I recently subscribed to the “Saturday Evening Post” email newsletter, and she is featured in their fiction section along with many other authors of note. I plan to read her books “Democracy” and “Play It As It Lays” for a sample of her fiction. My personal efforts in writing are aimed towards the short story and mostly general fiction. Thank you once again.

David Russell, Michigan

Awesome post really interesting thanks for your work.

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