Joan Didion, the eminent journalist, author and anthropologist of contemporary American politics and culture, died at her home in Manhattan over the Christmas period at 87 years of age.
One of my favourite authors, Joan Didion was a singularly clear, precise voice across a multitude of subjects for more than 60 years. She was also one of the people who inspired me to be a writer.
A standout female figure in the very male New Journalism movement alongside Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote and Gay Talese, Didion cast her precise, coolly-detached eye over both society and her own life in writing that was collected in books including Slouching Towards Bethlehem, her sharp-eyed journey through the promise and dissolution of California’s 60s counterculture, and The White Album, which began in her economic, astute style with, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I used this quote often in my doctorate studies as it seems to capture the very essence of who we are.
From an early age I wanted to create my own stories and was constantly scribbling ideas on the back of old inventory paper that Dad brought home from his job at the local council. High school English and literature classes fueled my desire to write and although I enjoyed my creative writing classes with the sharp-minded Elizabeth Jolley at university, I found myself being drawn towards the study of journalism and politics. I imagined myself as a younger version of Joan Didion, writing pithy articles that would attract thoughtful readers frequenting cafes and libraries. Of course, I never came close but went on to have a moderately successful career as a journalist. After a succession of different career choices that involved business suits and brief cases, I ended up back where I started as a child, once again scribbling ideas on pieces of paper, and trying to make words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into stories.
I write about people because the journalist in me wants to know every intricacy about a person and find the answer to five key questions that fire my curiosity – who, what, why, when and how. Thus, when I ask a person to let me into their lives, I try to enter with respect, compassion, honesty, and fairness. These values are central to me and who I am as a person. Joan Didion seemed to share similar values.
If you haven’t read her classic The Year of Magical Thinking about the grief of losing her husband, I recommend you add it to your reading list.