Joan Didion Taught Us How To Embrace Complication

Portrait of American author Joan Didion as she poses outdoors, Berkeley, California, April 1981

Portrait of American author Joan Didion as she poses outdoors, Berkeley, California, April 1981. (Photo credit: Janet Fries/Getty Images)

When Joan Didion died in December 2021, the prolific writer left us with sixteen books, seven films, one play, and several movie scripts she’d doctored. Her legacy, however, lies not in the number of works she gave us but in how she reframed our understanding of what truly good writing excavates and reveals about the world—and, by extension, ourselves. One of Didion’s primary strengths is that she didn’t shy away from complicated emotions or stories. Instead, she interrogated them fully, writing through the most difficult questions and documenting her process, whether they ended up with answers she could find or not. “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,” Didion wrote in her 2021 essay anthology Let Me Tell You What I Mean

As a writer who openly discusses my personal experiences with trauma and grief, people often assume that I define myself by them. Didion was one of the first writers that gave me a blueprint for how to explain what I’m actually doing when I write because I don’t define myself by my grief or my losses at all; I just need the page to help me explore them, to figure out what it is I want to give to others through my writing, and sometimes just what I want to give to myself. 

Didion used most—if not all—of her writing as a way to untangle the societal narratives that irked her—that she couldn’t understand. She pulled at the threads until they unraveled. A detective of sorts, she was dedicated to using the craft of writing to more intimately understand the world, and she documented that navigation in real time. Didion’s use of writing as a tool to find clarity doesn’t mean that she was confused or wishy-washy. She intentionally provided an inside look into the intimate process of knowledge-gathering.

The lens we use in storytelling impacts the reality of its readers, and Didion was committed to getting it right. Her dedication to constantly re-examining her own beliefs is partly why her life and writing resonate so deeply. And her ability to write precisely, without self-consciousness, gave her persona an edge of coolness. Didion was not interested in defining herself by how others were living, and simply wanted to dedicate time to her craft in as many forms as possible. She was cool because she didn’t care about being cool. She cared about living, understanding life, and writing.

In an essay that was formative for me and many others, “Self-Respect: Its Source, Its Power,” which originally appeared in Vogue in 1961, Didion searched for the source of the fountain that self-respect springs from. She evaluated the “doubtful amulets” that her self-respect had been tied to—which is to say, faulty grounds that could not hold. She lamented that her self-respect was once tied to external validation and accolades: getting into a sorority, finding the perfect man, gaining academic approval. “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,” she wrote. Once she had explored her own experiences, she concluded, “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.” Self-respect, she explains, has nothing to do with your actions. Instead, “the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life—is the source from which self-respect springs.”

Didion’s writing is marked with “a boldness” that inspired many, Nicole Froio, a 28-year-old writer and Bitch contributor, says. “Didion doesn’t shy away from complicated feelings by distilling them into safe binaries, she leaned into the strange and contradictory ways she understands the world,” Froio explains. In her view, that boldness is why Didion won the Vogue essay contest when she was 21, marking the beginning of her career. “Her writing said, ‘I have thoughts and they are strange and I deserve to write them and publish them.’ This is something I aspire to believe about my own writing.”

Always a source of wisdom, Didion’s writing continues to inspire young people today. Didion taught Lexi, a 21-year-old writer just getting started in her career, that writing need not be contained to one specific medium or form. “I have recently discovered a love for combining film and writing. A few months prior to Didion’s passing, Lexi stumbled upon The Panic in Needle Park (1971) and loved it, not yet knowing it was written by Didion until she finished watching. “In a way, she taught me that it’s possible to have that crossover and do it well, with writing being turbulent art, rather than being confined to just one medium.” 

Didion also wrote openly about the process of emotionally maturing. Many versions of Joan Didion and I would never be friends. I know this well. When she was younger, she voted on the conservative line and, in many ways, confined herself to a worldview informed by being a white woman from an affluent family in California. But she did not stay that person—because she refused to go through life without growing. And her line from Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), “I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be,” stays with me, too. Didion did something that many people won’t do, which I can only assume comes from that place of self-respect and character she described so well. She documented all of her past selves and her ideas, owning who she once was without shying away from the admission that they might have been wrong or harmful. She freely admitted who she had been and how it was different from who she became. She taught us what it’s like to know yourself so fully that you are able to move towards being someone else.

The cover of “The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion

(Photo credit: Knopf Doubleday)

Through her own portrayal of grief, Didion also paved a path for others to move through it without trying to cover it up or pretend it’s not happening. “Didion shifted the way I perceived my own feelings, my own grief,” explains René Kladzyk, a journalist and musician who performs as Ziemba. Didion’s writing provided René a new way to process pain. “After reading The Year of Magical Thinking, I remember walking through the irrigation canals here in El Paso, a place that reminds me a lot of my Dad who had recently died, and I remember witnessing my own thought processes. I paid more attention to the nuances of those moments of being overcome with grief, and acknowledged them in a way that felt more ready to just sit there with them,” she says. “I think I felt a form of permission to be there, in my grief, through reading her book and observing her approach to sitting with her grief.” 

That newfound ability to sit with loss and grief inspired René to make an album about her father’s death. “I was so hungry to commiserate and see how others had responded to catastrophic events, and it helped me to wrap my head around my own catastrophe. In making my album Unsubtle Magic, I hoped it could be that for someone else.” The album is organized chronologically, tracing back from a year and a day after the initial loss, reconciling the fact of his death. Without Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), René says she might not have seen a way out of the woods. Magical Thinking, she says, was the landmark that got her through and made her understand there is something on the other side of grief. “Reading her book showed me the value of one person sharing their own experience and how that could become a source of healing for a different person with a totally different life experience.” 

Didion taught me that writing could be factual and personal, revealing one’s inner world. “We are not idealized wild things. We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all,” she wrote. Until Didion, I believed that perhaps my own grief had to be kept completely hidden in my work, that my own experiences could not and should not shape the way I write. Similarly to writers like Toni Morrison or Audre Lord who were critical in my understanding of what good writing about hardship was, Didion demonstrated how to talk about difficult things without being taken less seriously. Because of Magical Thinking, I was able to begin writing openly about my experiences with sexual assault, abuse, money and poverty, as well as things that seemed smaller in comparison, like relationship disappointments or friendships ending. Regardless of magnitude, these experiences all carried grief in their own rights. And because of the way Didion wrote, I’ve been much better able to connect all of these experiences to my political views and principles—and understand how my grief has informed and shaped them. Through her writing, she showed that the personal could be carefully revealed in order to shape a story so that it convinces readers of what you want them to understand.

Didion’s dedication to constantly re-examining her own beliefs is partly why her life and writing resonate so deeply.

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She did this using her experience with white womanhood when, in one of her most notable works, “Sentimental Journeys,” she wrote about the Central Park Jogger for The New York Review in 1991. Unlike many other journalists covering the case at the time, Didion didn’t write directly about the trial of the Black teenagers who were framed for raping and killing a white woman. (At the time of publishing, Didion was one of the few public figures who openly speculated that they were being framed, which would later be revealed to be true.) Instead, Didion wrote about how the media wrote about it. In her piece, Didion laid bare the disingenuous narrative perpetuated around devastating social events that affect the collective—that white women like Trisha Meili could represent the tenacity of the American dream and the resilience to survive horrible experiences. She investigated how those narratives purposely distract from the systemic issues that journalism and writing should actually be focused on. Most of Didion’s work, as her life wore on and she continued to write, shared the similar quality of being consumed with changing perception: She had the rare persuasive power to make people think differently about how they thought.

Mina Hamedi, a writer and literary agent who works under Lynn Nesbit (Didion’s agent from Janklow and Nesbit), says the author shaped so much of her own writing and worldview, even before she knew and collaborated with her. “I write about my family and the family company my grandfather founded over 75 years ago. It would be so easy for my writing to be elegiac or glorifying; for me to bend to the loyalty I was taught to show family and where I came from, but Joan Didion changed that for me,” says Mina. Didion showed her the importance of being intentional about what she shares. “What I choose to stay silent about says more than what I reveal; what I say quietly can alter time and events more than what I scream aloud.” 

When she feels she’s run out of things to write about, Mina says that she often returns to Didion’s 1975 commencement address at University of California, Riverside, which perfectly encapsulate what Didion wanted to leave behind: 

“I’ve had to struggle all my life against my own misapprehensions, my own false ideas, my own distorted perceptions. I’ve had to work very hard, make myself unhappy, give up ideas that made me comfortable, trying to apprehend social reality. I’ve spent my entire adult life, it seems to me, in a state of profound culture shock. I wish I were unique in this, but I’m not. You may not be afflicted with my misapprehensions, and I may not be afflicted with yours, but none of this starts ‘tabula rasa.’ We all distort what we see. We all have to struggle to see what’s really going on.”As such, Didion’s writing never stopped pushing for us to have these realizations, too. Her writing constantly invites and, perhaps more accurately, encourages us to be daring—enough to revisit the scene of what we thought we understood perfectly, to revise how we tell the story. To continue becoming.

Having worked with Didion through her assistant for the last four years, Mina says that she listened to stories of “a wonderfully funny and taciturn woman, whose tiny self couldn’t contain her thoughts or her awareness.” Upon her death, she wondered if Didion had written everything she had wanted to write and if there were things she still had left to teach us. Still, the immensity of what Didion had already taught her, and so many of us, can hardly be contained in so few words. “We can bend worlds with words, and it is such a precious gift. It is a privilege to write, to share, to believe that our stories are part of a greater collective,” says Mina. “I think in our darkest moments as people, words are what survive, what keep us moving.”

 

by Elly Belle
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Elly Belle is a writer and digital media strategist who lives and works in Brooklyn. They’re passionate about advocacy, culture, media, and bringing stories about restorative justice and healing to the spotlight. Their words can be found in Teen Vogue, Thrillist, InStyle, Playboy, Publisher’s Weekly, BUST magazine, and other outlets. Follow them on Twitter @literelly.