For those not already acquainted, Joan Didion is an essayist, journalist and purveyor of stories drawn mostly from her own life. Her appeal lies in the ease at which she unravels the universal truths about the things we often can’t make sense of ourselves.
Her stream of literary nonfiction is natural and intensely human, but for someone so widely admired, writing was a real struggle for her.
And so, for those familiar with the difficult and at times, paralysing art of writing, here are three useful reminders from Joan Didion to all of us:
1. Get comfortable with the idea of imposing yourself on others.
“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 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.” —”Why I Write,” The New York Times Magazine, 1976
2. Write for yourself as the reader
“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.” The Paris Review, 1978
3. Live recklessly; take pride in your work
‘I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t believe that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it.’ Commencement address at the University of California, Riverside, 1975
Luckily for us, Joan Didion’s essays are widely available online. Thirteen of her most recognised can be found via our favourite online resource, Open Culture.