Joan Didion Broke the Mold of a Post-World War II Woman

Joan Didion said in the documentary, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, “I have no idea what turn of a 5-year-old’s mind could have prompted so insistently ironic and exotic a story.”

Didion was talking about the plot of her first entry scribed inside of her Big 5 blue notebook, given by her mother, “with the sensible suggestion I stop whining and learn to amuse myself by writing my thoughts.” The story involves a woman who thinks she’s freezing to death in the arctic night, only to find she’s in the Sahara desert when day breaks. Then, before lunch, she dies of a heat stroke.

As a child, Didion entwined herself into physical and mental extremes, “which has dogged me into adult life,” Didion said.

Joan Didion
Joan Didion

A childhood education interrupted

At six at the start of World War II, Didion’s early education came to a halt. Her father was in the U.S. Army Air Corps, and so the family moved with him to military bases across the county.

“Well, there was no place to live during World War II around army bases or airfields,” Didion explained in an interview for the American Academy of Achievement. “I remember in Fort Lewis (Wa.) my mother going in every single day, to the army housing office, to see if there was a room.”

Didion also remembered the communal tubs in the many hotel rooms at which they stayed.

“My mother would empty an entire bottle of Pine-Sol disinfectant every time she gave us a bath,” Didion said.

Didion explained that her childhood experiences had a significant influence on her.

“It made me perpetually feel like an outsider,” Didion said. “It also very rapidly punctured the idea that I was smarter than other people.

But didn’t get the opportunity for formal education until the fourth grade.

“There were certain things that I missed, like subtraction,” Didion said. “I still have trouble subtracting.”

Joan Didion takes to reading

Instead, Didion read everything she could get her hands on.

“I would go to the library and just take things off of the shelf,” she said. “My mother had to sign a piece of paper saying I could read adult books.”

Didion learned she had a natural inclination for biographies.

“I was crazy about reading them because it told how I could go from the helpless place I was in, to being Katharine Cornell, for say,” Didion said.

“I was crazy about reading.”

Joan Didion

Her favorite author was Ernest Hemmingway.

“Those sentences just knocked me out,” Didion said. She even taught herself to type by rewriting Hemingway’s punctuation and stylistic tone. Over time, his written rhythms got stuck in her head. 

Didion heads to the Big Apple

One snowbound winter at an Army base in Colorado Springs, Colo., while on break during her senior year at the University of California, Berkeley, Didion flipped through Vogue magazine with her mother. Didion’s mom pointed out an announcement for Vogue’s writing competition for senior college students, Prix de Paris. First prize, a job in Paris or New York.

“‘You could win that,’ my mother said. ‘You could win that and live in Paris, or New York, wherever you wanted,” Didion remembered. “But definitely you could win it.’”

Didion entered the competition and won.

So, she picked up her bags and left for the chilly drift of New York.

“It was very thrilling to me, naturally,” Didion said. “When I first saw New York, I was 20. And it was summertime, and the warm air smelled of mildew and some instinct programmed by all the movies I’d ever seen and all the songs I’d ever heard sung and the stories I’d read about New York informed me it would never be quite the same again.” 

It never was. Didion started forming her literary reputation at Vogue and broke through the industry’s norms for a post-World War II woman. Instead of writing articles on makeup and beauty standards, she wrote thoughtful, personal pieces.

After a day’s work at the magazine, Didion came home, cooked dinner, and wrote her first novel, Run, River (Amazon | Bookshop).

“I didn’t have any real clear picture of how to do it (write a novel),” Didion said. “So, I would just do parts of it. And then I would just pin up these parts on the walls of my apartment.”

Joan Didion refines her process

Didion has refined her writing process since.

According to her editor, Shelley Wanger, “Joan’s a complete perfectionist,” Didion’s editor, Shelley Wanger, said. “If she’s thinking about something and feels she’s stuck, she’ll put it in the freezer. That’s not a metaphor. She would put the manuscript in the freezer, in a bag, and then go back to it.”

Didion’s books include the novels Play It as It Lays (Amazon | Bookshop) and A Book of Common Prayer (Amazon | Bookshop) and many essay collections. Her best-known books include Slouching Towards Bethlehem (Amazon | Bookshop), The White Album (Amazon | Bookshop), and The Year of Magical Thinking (Amazon | Bookshop).

President Barack Obama awarded Didion a National Medal of the Arts in 2013, and she received the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2007.

Books by Joan Didion

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