Writer Joan Didion, whose ‘electric anxiety’ inspired a generation, has died aged 87

Author Joan Didion sits in front of a photo of herself holding her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, and another photo from her daughter’s wedding. Didion wrote about her daughter’s death at 39 in Blue Nights.

Kathy Willens/AP

American novelist, journalist and essayist Joan Didion died Thursday at her New York home at the age of 87 from complications from Parkinson’s disease, according to Knopf publicist Paul Bogaards. The bestselling writer began portraying his home state of California for magazines in the 1960s and expanded his topics over the decades into nonfiction, fiction and film.

Didion spoke about the act of writing more artfully than almost anyone else. “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what’s on my mind,” she said.

The writing itself was a path to understanding and clarification. His definition of a writer was “a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper”. She said this in a 1976 speech at her alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley. By then, Didion had published Advance to Bethlehem, a collection of reports on life in the chaos of 1960s America. She had also published two novels: Play it as it is, which could have been subtitled “Lost in Las Vegas and Most Other Places”, and Run the river, his first novel. Here is an excerpt from it:

“One had the impression that to close one’s eyes on a town in the Valley was to risk reopening them a moment later on dry fields, the sun whitening the last traces of habitation, a flowered straw hat, a neon advertisement that had flashed the moment before. from a wall that is no longer visible: More yield from every acre with seeds from Northrup-King.

“It was a great comfort to see the cities come and go through the tinted window of the Greyhound bus. The heat emptied the distinctions of things – marriage and divorce and new curtains and bank discoveries, all the same – and Lily couldn’t imagine right now any concern strong enough to withstand the summer.”

This excerpt, dating from 1963, is the essence of Didion’s writing style: concise, polished, elegant and piercing. Review John Leonard noted his sentences sounded like “icepick laser beams”.

Novelist and non-fiction writer Francine Prose says it’s a style – and a voice – that Didion pioneered in the 1960s. “It’s hard to remember how important it was to see evidence of real female intelligence on the page,” says Prose. “She put a certain kind of voice – western, feminine, anxious – on the page that wasn’t there before.”

Writing with “electric anxiety”

Prose has a list of all the places and topics covered by Didion during his life as a writer. It includes California, New York, Hawaii, El Salvador, Las Vegas, Miami, John Wayne, Patty Hearst, Vietnam, Central Park Jogger, Black Panthers, Presidential Elections, Newt Gingrich, Doris Lessing, Feminism, hippies, movies, books and journalism.

Didion, pictured here in 1979, defined a writer as "a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper."

Didion, pictured here in 1979, defined a writer as ‘a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper’.


But there is also death. She wrote about her husband’s death in 2003 in The Year of Magical Thinking, and when their daughter, Quintana, died two years later, Didion struggled with this topic in blue nights. Behind all these subjects and places, there was the writer’s firm, shrewd, gloomy and anxious voice.

“It’s just throbbing with anxiety,” Prose says. “Every sentence has a kind of electric anxiety to it and that’s part of what drives you to be so observant. I mean, you just wait for something to blow up and then it doesn’t and you keep reading .”

Meanwhile, Didion continued to write with his nervous pen. That in itself was an act of bravery.

“Everything makes her anxious,” Prose says. “And yet she goes to [El] salvador; she goes to Miami; she goes to Las Vegas; she travels all over California; she visits the panthers; she visits the hippies. It’s anxiety and it’s transcending anxiety at the same time, which pretty much describes what it takes for each of us to get through the day.”

Didion acknowledged that the physical and psychological landscapes she described were desolate. “I’m more drawn to the underside of the tapestry,” she said. “I tend to always look for the bad side, the dark side. I mean, since I was a kid.”

She once said, “We tell each other stories for a living,” and the ones she told were dark truths. “I’m a rather slow learner and came late to the apprehension that there was a void at the center of the experience.”

Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, pictured here in California in 1977, wrote screenplays together before moving to New York in the 80s.

Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, pictured here in California in 1977, wrote screenplays together before moving to New York in the 80s.


An unlikely member of the Hollywood establishment

Before moving to New York in the 1980s, Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, spent years in Los Angeles. There, they wrote screenplays together: Panic in Needle Park, Barbra Streisand’s remake of A star is born, Up close and personal with Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer.

As screenwriters, novelists and journalists, Didion and Dunne were part of the Hollywood establishment. But Prose says you never feel the Southern California movie star in Didion’s writing — especially not in her personal essays.

“You To do feel that neurotic presence,” she says. “The person who struggles to meet the deadline; the person suffering from migraine; the person who can barely get out of bed in the morning; he for whom writing is a kind of torment; the person for whom the California light alone is almost too much to bear.”

It all sounds so down, but until recent years Didion denied any personal frailty assumed by his readers. In real life, she was short, thin, pale, and didn’t look Californian. But in 1977, she said her physical size was deceptive: “I’m very healthy. I eat a lot. I don’t cry a lot.”

And she wrote many. In her fiction, she relied on images that she said came to mind. Then Didion the writer had to figure out what was going on inside them. “If you lay low enough and stay quiet enough,” she said, “and if you don’t talk to a lot of people and keep your central nervous system from shorting out, those images come to you. And then you try to figure out what they mean.”

A generation of journalists was influenced by these explorations, and a generation of readers of fiction and memoirs were attracted and enlightened. Didion, chronicler of cultural truths and fictions, intensely observed her world. She brought clarity.

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