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Awards & Honors: 2012 National Humanities Medalist

Joan Didion

Joan Didion has devoted her life to noticing things other people strive not to see. Over the past half-century she has investigated and interrogated the absurdities of contemporary American life—in five novels and five screenplays, and in thirteen books of nonfiction that sprawl across the genre, from personal essays and memoir, to criticism and political reportage, and to hybrids of these that have stretched our cultural understanding of what nonfiction can be.

Her language is a marvel: elegant, precise, and straightforward. In person, as on the page, she says exactly what she thinks, and in exactly the number of words required. Hemingway was a formative inspiration. “Writing is the only way I’ve found that I can be aggressive,” she once said. “I’m totally in control of this tiny, tiny world.”

Her grandfather taught her the “code of the West”: if you saw a rattlesnake while driving, you were obliged to pull over, track it into the brush, and kill it. Newcomers to California, those who arrived during and after the Gold Rush, incited his contempt by allowing rattlers to proliferate unchecked. In Where I Was From, a book that tracks the history of her ancestors and the history of the West, Didion recounts the migration of her granddad’s family “from the hardscrabble Adirondack frontier in the eighteenth century to the hardscrabble Sierra Nevada foothills in the nineteenth.” Like her forebears, Didion is drawn to the unexamined but alert to its dangers, intent on draining its venom. “You have to keep it in sight like a rattlesnake,” she says.

Didion was born in Sacramento in 1934 and grew up during the Second World War, a time when adults were distracted by terrible and important adult matters and children were expected to fend for themselves. Her father’s work with the Army Air Corps took the family all over the country. In Colorado Springs, a city where her dad was stationed longer than usual, Didion spent many days wandering the grounds of a psychiatric hospital, recording the dialog she overheard, and working it into stories.

Stealth and economy, and an obsession with getting at dark, hidden, difficult truths, characterize all her work. As a girl she wanted to be an actor, not a writer, but she first started writing at the age of four or five, at her mother’s suggestion, to entertain herself. She has spoken of writing as a kind of performance—a role, she told the Believer in 2011, that an author creates for herself and grows to fill. Her first essay appeared after she won a Vogue magazine contest in 1956, during her senior year at Berkeley. Her first book, the novel Run River, was published in 1963, and Slouching Towards Bethlehem, an essay collection, appeared five years later. More essays and novels followed, and in the 1980s she turned to reportage, writing books on Miami and El Salvador, and covering the Dukakis campaign. Political reporting was “the most daunting form” she’s worked in, she says, and she would have a hard time reimmersing herself in that world.

Didion is probably best known and most admired nowadays for The Year of Magical Thinking, a wrenching memoir written after her husband’s death, or for its companion, Blue Nights, a gorgeous and (in the Biblical sense) terrible meditation on motherhood and loneliness, written after the shocking death of her daughter, Quintana, at thirty-nine, from a protracted illness that set in after the flu. “‘You have your wonderful memories,’ people said later, as if memories were solace,” she writes in Blue Nights. “Memories are not. Memories are by definition of times past, things gone. Memories are the Westlake uniforms in the closet, the faded and cracked photographs, the invitations to the weddings of the people who are no longer married, the mass cards from the funerals of the people whose faces you no longer remember. Memories are what you no longer want to remember.”

But it is fiction rather than autobiography that Didion finds most emotionally draining to write, because “you have to make it up as you go. It’s not there until you make it.” The Last Thing He Wanted (1996), which is drawn partly from her own life, from her experiences in writing Miami, was the most difficult of all, she says. In some ways this book, her most recent novel, is her favorite. “I was going to write another novel after I finished that one and started to write it and then I discovered that it was the same novel. I didn’t want to repeat it, and I didn’t want to not repeat it either.”

A classic Didion dilemma. Whatever the genre, Didion’s writings are all unmistakably her own, both deeply individual—intimate, restless, and withering—and culturally astute. Like Mark Twain, she works at the intersection of truth and absurdity, an uncomfortable place, one rife with the potential for humor but also for disillusionment, sadness, and pain. In Didion’s work, the comedy is so dark and so deadpan, some readers don’t seem to notice how endemic it is. “I don’t see any point in writing anything that isn’t funny,” she says.

— by Maud Newton

Maud Newton is a writer and critic living in Brooklyn.