Literary wanderings: The inimitable style of Joan Didion

A multicolored image of Joan Didion holding a cigarette.
(Sasha Matthews • The Student Life)

My introduction to Joan Didion came early in college, reading her essays in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” over morning coffee during an ill-fated camping trip on Catalina Island. From that point on I was captivated — or rather, freshly curious.

Didion: the master of the cool and the sharply observed. Her arresting aura is probably best captured in that classic photo of her standing in her living room, one arm resting across her body, the other balancing a cigarette between her fingers. Love her or hate her — and her style is divisive — all journalists writing in today’s world (with “journalists” being a joyfully broad term) are in her debt.

Comparisons are often drawn between her and Hemingway, a writer whom she deeply admired and initially sought to emulate, copying down sentences from his books to understand their style and flow. And while her style echoes his straightforward structure and deadpan but perceptive observation, she made it startling, new and chic.

The most recently published book of her essays, “Let Me Tell You What I Mean,” captures just that. The collection, like most, ebbs and flows. It gathers together a collection of pieces from Didion’s decades-long career as a paragon of the “new journalism” style emerging from the 1960s. The book is certainly a hodgepodge: A somewhat melodramatic essay about her rejection from Stanford University stands alongside a piece about Nancy Reagan’s home life. As Nathan Heller writes in The New Yorker, the book “is less a selected essays than a rejected essays, a director’s un-cut of her older work.”

The most recent piece in this “new” book was written by Didion over twenty years ago. In this way, “Let Me Tell You What I Mean” seemed probably best reserved for the Didion diehards: those already confident in their love for her particular style. I figured I would get around to reading it once I’d worked my way through the rest of her canon.

The book, however, published in January of 2021, was cast in a new light when its author tragically passed away in December of the same year. For me, the book took on a new weight: the final period at the end of a sentence, the last writing of Joan Didion — and so I picked it up recently.

Two weeks ago, while I was devouring essay after essay of “Let Me Tell You What I Mean,” I was also starting a class on literary journalism: A class that is, in many ways, a direct result of Didion’s life work. Before her time, the idea of a creative nonfiction writing class would have been scarce indeed.

Sitting down to write my first piece for the class, with my head full of Didion sentence structures and imagery and phrasing, I was frozen. I sullenly avoided the blank document open on my screen for the rest of the day, not sure where to begin. While writer’s block plagues us all, this felt like something of a different sort — more a confounding tangle of sentences and phrasing than an uncertainty of what to say.

It’s an oft-dispensed kernel of writing wisdom: the inevitable process of emulating the styles of dozens of writers, picking up sentence structures and pacing and little turns of phrase until some fragments stick to the ceiling and become some discernible style you can begin to cultivate and call your own. It’s an encouraging thought — unfortunately completely unconfirmable until one has ostensibly reached your intended destination — but nonetheless, I have clung to it.

Joan Didion’s writing, though I do love it, has periodically confounded me, however. Her style is perhaps the first writer’s style that I have ever loved but never aspired to emulate. I have begun to consider it sacred — not in the sense that it is holy or above critique, but rather that it exists in a world of its own, untouchable and not meant to be meddled with.

As many writers have pointed out over the years, when you try to emulate Didion, it becomes obvious — her style is that distinctive. It can be wandering and recursive, filling sentences with musings bordered by a staccato of commas, but then it can snap into startling clarity, suddenly biting and clear-eyed and shocking.

In the weeks since finishing the book, I still feel as if my thoughts have not yet fully settled. As the book sits finished on my shelf, her particular way with words has begun to fade, but the question of her style and what to do with it is still poking around in the corners of my mind.

This is what I can say.

“Let Me Tell You What I Mean,” despite being a miscellany of lesser-known works, is still trademark Didion, bursting with her classically cool style — matter-of-fact, wryly funny and always devastatingly observative.

Didion herself is without a doubt one the most influential, culture-shaping writers of our time. From sheer will and practice, she wrought a singular style that will stand apart for decades to come. Aspiring writers of today would do best to emulate her by following her footsteps, not her sentence structures  — blazing a new trail, pushing the boundaries of the essay and what it can do, and how it can be crafted.

With her death, we have lost one of the great, inimitable voices of American letters. But through her legacy, we see the path by which true literary innovation can be crafted.

Ryan Lillestrand PZ ’23 is a book columnist for TSL. He is currently contemplating spending too much on a 1971 hardcover edition of Frank O’Hara’s “Collected Poems.”

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