Opinion | Migraines, Marriage, Mourning: Joan Didion Showed Us How to Bare All – The New York Times

Opinion | Migraines, Marriage, Mourning: Joan Didion Showed Us How to Bare All – The New York Times

That essay appears in “The White Album,” a collection that was published in 1979. Another collection, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” was published in 1968, and in the preface to it, she delineated characteristics that made her ill suited for journalism. She was “bad at interviewing people,” she wrote. She didn’t like making telephone calls.

“My only advantage as a reporter,” she continued, “is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: Writers are always selling somebody out.”

She gave her readers notice of that and, in other essays, of her disinclination to find patterns where she was supposed to and of her estrangement from the idealism and protests of the very decade that she was most famous for covering. “If I could believe that going to a barricade would affect man’s fate in the slightest I would go to that barricade, and quite often I wish that I could, but it would be less than honest to say that I expect to happen upon such a happy ending,” she wrote in the essay “On the Morning After the Sixties,” which appears in “The White Album.” She was saying that she was an imperfect witness. Which, of course, made her a perfect one.

Just hours before I got the news that Didion had died, I had typed her name into my laptop. I was constructing the syllabus for a course in first-person writing that I’ll be teaching at Duke University this spring, so I was compiling material for my students to read. Two of Didion’s essays from “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” — “Goodbye to All That” and “On Self-Respect” — were my first and second items on that list.

That’s because they’re gorgeous, with phrases and flourishes that represent the highest level of prose. It’s because they demonstrate the manner in which a writer can universalize the personal, wringing a collective moral from an individual experience.

But it’s also because of how she pokes fun — and even gapes — at herself, encouraging readers not so much to follow her lead as to marvel at how lost she can get. It’s a cunning invitation. Didion grasped something essential about not just journalism but life: The most trustworthy and likable guides are the ones who occasionally ask others for directions.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/24/opinion/joan-didion-writers.html