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When Learned About Writing From An American Master Goes Wrong

I reported for several magazines and asked a colleague who met her to introduce us. He gave me her number and when I was in LA, I took a deep breath, called him, and her husband, John Gregory Dan, picked up the phone. I was looking for Joan Didion.

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“Who’s calling?”

I let him know my name and said I needed to tell her the amount I enjoyed her work. Then, at that point, understanding that he was likewise an author, I stammered, “I … I mean … I like your composing as well …”

“One minute,” he said. Joan got the telephone and her first words were, “Would you like to come to supper?”

Although she is shy and knows how to be restrained with strangers, we had a lot in common: we grew up in California, went to Berkeley, joined the sisterhood and quit, graduated in English and studied with Mark Shorer, but in different decades – she in the 1950s, I 60s.

She is probably the writer who imitates Hemingway the most, and her voice, like his, is attractive, but it cannot be imitated without the attempt being obvious.

We talked and laughed until the early hours, and at the numerous dinners and visits that followed, over more than four decades, we talked about babies, cooking, funny or shocking news, and we always talked about writing.

She is probably the writer who imitates Hemingway the most, and her voice, like his, is attractive, but it cannot be imitated without the attempt being obvious. 

However, over the years I have interviewed her many times for publications and discovered that the habits and practices she described can be helpful in developing and sharpening my own writing.


The first person singular

The most extreme part of her voice when she began composing for magazines during the 1960s was that she, Joan, tended to you, the peruser, as though snatching you by the lapels. That was at a time when we were told at the College of Journalism in Colombia, where I studied, that we should never use the word “I”. We have to be “objective”. The closest that a journalist could express his personal impression was to call himself “this reporter”.

The title of the latest book in Didion’s early work is: Let me tell you what I think. That could have been the mission of New Journalism. 

When Didion wrote, in her first Life column, that she was in Hawaii “instead of filing for divorce,” she explained, “I’m not telling you this as a pointless revelation, but because I want you to know, as you read me, exactly who I am alone and where I am and what is on my mind. ” 

Tom Wolf and Hunter Thompson not only wrote “I”, but they also created characters, even caricatures: Wolf in a white suit, Hunter as “Duke Raul”, who plunged his head into danger and drugs.

It is possible, of course, to get the reader to see and feel what you see and feel without using the word “I”. Lillian Ross did a great job in her articles. But I was attracted to the use of the first person before I heard about Didion. When I tried it in a piece for Harper’s in 1970, I was uncomfortable and transgressive, but reading Didion made that voice safer.

Keep a schedule and avoid outside influences.

Wherever she lived, Didion created a small writing room without a view, which she went to every morning as if to strike a clock. “I don’t want to go there at all,” she told me. “Every morning there is a little fear. The fear disappears after you’ve been there for an hour. I keep saying “there” as if it’s a room. There is almost a psychic wall. I don’t think you want to go through that door, but once you get in there, you’re there and it’s hard to get out.

Wherever she lived, Didion created a small writing room without a view, which she went to every morning as if to strike a clock.

When she was working on the novel, she did not read other novels. “In case it’s acceptable, it will push down me since mine isn’t all that great. In case it’s terrible, it will push down me since mine is comparably awful. I don’t need others’ rhythms of discourse in my fantasy, “she said.

I once told her I was thrilled with Ragtime’s cadences, E.L. Doctors. She shook her head. “I never read it. I opened the first page and saw that it had a very strong rhythm, so I just put it away like a snake. ”


Details, rhythm and repetitions

Didion often uses a detail that has stuck to her from a certain moment, which may seem strange, but which she uses for a purpose. The characteristic of her work is that she repeats those details, almost like a phrase that is repeated in a symphony. In “Delightful Nancy”, an article from 1968, where she goes through a day with Nancy Reagan at her home in Sacramento, she rehashes the expression “leased house on 45th Street”. The Reagans refused to live in the governor’s Victorian-style mansion, which Nancy claimed was a fire trap, and preferred a “rented house,” an enlarged version of a California house.

At the point when I once asked Didion for what valid reason he rehashes such expressions, she said: “I do it to remind the peruser to make specific associations. In fact, it’s practically singing. You can read it as an attempt to throw spells. “Reading” Beautiful Nancy “again, I heard” rented house “as a symbol of impermanence, as a stage scene.

I could comprehend the force she found exhaustively. In 1969, I invested energy with John Lennon and Yoko Ono at an inn in Toronto, covering their “bed in harmony” for the Boston Globe. 

I followed them as they got out of bed to visit the U.S. Immigration Office, and stood behind them on the escalator. 

As we slid up, I heard John sing to himself, “He’s standing on the dock in Southampton, trying to get to the Netherlands or France.” I can’t remember anything he said about peace, but that detail stayed with me more than 50 years old: I heard a famous voice singing a song he had just published, which was circulating in his mind as he prepared to meet with immigration officials.


Control the information you give to the reader.

Don’t throw everything away at once, as I am often tempted. In the Year of Magical Thinking, she continues through the night when she and her husband left their daughter Quintana in the hospital, unconscious, swollen, with pipes going in all directions. They took a taxi home, Joan prepared dinner, they sat down to eat, and when she looked up, John fell across the table, he had a big heart attack that would have killed him.

She adds more details every time she comes back that night, but only in the last ten pages of the book does she tell us what John said in the taxi: “I don’t think I’m for this. (her italics) She replied: “You have no choice. 

What might have been the trigger for his deadly assault – that he was unable to bear to watch their main girl kick the bucket – isn’t told as far as possible in the book, so, all things considered, every one of the chips become alright. She closes: “From that point forward, I have contemplated whether he [had a choice].”

Words and commas

Didion broadly said that when she was youthful she figured out how to compose by composing Hemingway’s accounts. “I took in a ton regarding how a short sentence functions in a passage, how a long sentence works. Where the indents worked. “

In the article “Last Words”, which opposed the publication of Hemingway’s unfinished work, she quoted the first paragraph of A Farwell to Arms. 

He then wrote: “That paragraph, which was published in 1929, is subject to examination: four deceptively simple sentences, 126 words, the layout of which remains mysterious and exciting to me even now, as when I first read them … Just one of the words has three syllables. Twenty-two has two. The other 103 have one. 

Twenty-four words are “the”, fifteen are “and”. There are four commas. “

Now people are counting her words. I did that with the last paragraph of the Year of Magical Thinking. The passage has ten deceptively simple sentences, 137 words. Only two words have three syllables. 16 has two. There are another 119. 16 words are “the”, one is “and”. It has five commas.

Collage Technique

In 1974, I was commissioned by the New York Times to write about the abduction of Patty Hearst by the Symbion Liberation Army in Berkeley, California. I spent weeks rummaging through the bay, but when the deadline approached, Petty was still at large and joined her captors in the robbery of the Hibernia Bank, holding a cut M-1 carbine in her hands. 

No one knew what actually happened, the story was still unfolding, and I told Didion to struggle with how to structure it. She advised me to write scenes on index cards – the interviews I gave and the events I attended. 

“Then spread them out on the floor and see how you can connect them, with an empty space in between. It’s like tidying up a patchwork quilt. ” She did so with a number of works, including an iconic essay, “Slouching Tower Bethlehem.” 

At first, I doubted it, I tried it and found it worked.

Titles and first lines

She often had the title of the book before she knew much about what would be in it.In 1977, I visited her in Malibu one Saturday when she was cleaning her office, planning to begin two new books. One was Fairy Tales, she said, a marketing expert work about California, and the different was Angel Visits, an original set in Hawaii.

John Dan entered the room, dressed in a blue bathrobe. “Do you have Coke?” he asked her. She went to get him Coca Cola. “Joan never expounds on a spot that isn’t hot,” he said. “The day she expounds on the Boston winter will be the day when all that will be finished.

He asked her if she had told me the first line of angel visits. She shook her head. He said the verse from memory: “I have never seen Madame Bovary in her body, but imagine my mother dancing.

He smiled at her. “Is there a comma after ‘meat’?”

Didion said, “Yes.”

Dan said: “The primary line, in the event that you see accurately, promptly establishes the vibe of the book.

Didion said: “It could change.

I thought she thought the front row might change.

“I can drop a comma.”

The next morning, she told me on the phone: “It shouldn’t be a comma.

No title ever appeared in the book.

She did not use the first line about her mother and Mrs. Bovary either. Later, she said that Angel’s Visits was a “very light novel, all surfaces, all conversations and memories …” She would work on it, and then she would put it off to write something else, and then she would return to it with horror. 

She also liked his characters, she said, “but I never had a good time with him, I never felt that it took off and took me with her. She jumped off the ship, but used the same characters in another novel, Democracy, where one of the characters talked about “my mother dancing”.


How to steal an offer

It is a matter of principle to attribute the source when someone else’s words are used. But what happens when you remember a word or phrase, but you can’t remember who said it? 

There was a time when I searched the internet for a person who wrote a phrase I wanted to use, describing someone’s eyes, but it turned out to be empty. 

Didion suggested a solution, circling her finger in the air as she spoke. “You could write, ‘He had eyes that someone once described as….’ And use a quote.”

Sale of your theme

One of her most quoted sentences is: “Writers always sell someone. Her husband said she spent 30 years explaining what she thought. “No one sees themselves as others,” he said, “and if you really write how you see an individual, that person may be upset.

I also understand that this means that in the process of long-term interviewing, people develop a relationship in which they feel that you are a friend, they can trust you, relax and start telling you things that they should not reveal to the press. 

Knowing that and doing your job to convey the truth the way you see it, you will sell them.

Narrative Curve

Didion takes care of creating what she calls the narrative curve – the tempo, the tension that builds and builds and keeps the reader trapped. 

Her intention is to read her work “in one breath”. She asked if I had ever started reading a novel that looked wonderfully written, but then, “maybe you have to go to lunch or something and get to page seventy and never pick it up again. 

You are not moved to keep turning the pages. It’s a narrative curve – you have to allow, about seventy or eighty pages, to give it enough thrust to send it like a rocket. “

When she was writing the article, she told the interviewer: “The last sentence is another adventure. He should open the piece. That should make you go back and start reading from the first page. ”

Recommended1 Simily SnapPublished in Classic Literature, Coming of Age, Contemporary Fiction, Culture and Current Events, Fiction, Flash Fiction, Happy Read, Historical Fiction, Humor, Non-Fiction, Opinion Piece, Personal Narrative, Self-Help, True Story