The luminous Joan Didion, whose sage words on writing we have filched from before for Writer’s Desk posts and most likely will continue to do so in the future, is no longer with us. Absconded from this mortal coil at the age of 87, Didion is now (as the comic Greg Proops might say) swirling in the heavens with all the other greats.
Didion wrote it all: Novels, screenplays, apocalyptic “whither America?” essays, meditations on mortality, and Saturday Evening Post columns about the hurly burly of life in the mid-late 20th century. She did it for all the best reasons: to explain something about life as she knew it (especially in California), to tell good stories, and to find some way of paying for the old mansion and nice cars that didn’t involve working a 9 to 5.
In 1976, Didion published the now iconic “Why I Write” essay in the New York Times. It’s deadpan witty and trenchant all the way through. but even decades later, one part that continues to stand out is her description of barely graduating from Berkeley with a degree in English because she had forgotten to take a class on Milton. So she took the Greyhound down from Sacramento every week so she could talk Milton until the English department greybeards deemed her sufficiently well-versed:
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.
No knock on Paradise Lost, or what can be learned from deep study of any of the greats, but ultimately Didion is right. Better to be able to describe what you can see and taste and touch. Pay attention to that and you can be a writer.