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Joan Didion | Biography

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Early Life

Joan Didion was born on December 5, 1934, in Sacramento. Little is known about her childhood other than what she has written. In an essay in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), Didion described her family as having "always been in the Sacramento Valley," saying she grew up playing on "the same flat fields that our great-great-grandfather ... had planted." Didion attended the University of California at Berkeley and then moved to New York to work for Vogue as a copywriter.

Life in New York

Didion vividly describes her life in New York in one of her most celebrated essays, "Goodbye to All That" (1967). She worked for a demanding boss and made little money. Although she was initially thrilled with life in New York City, she describes a growing depression and uneasiness. In New York she met John Gregory Dunne, who she married in 1964. In "Goodbye to All That," Didion says, "I got married ... a very good thing to do but badly timed." Whether or not the timing was bad, Didion and Dunne would remain married until his death in 2003, almost 40 years later.

Back to California

Didion and Dunne moved to Hollywood, where they attempted to make money by writing screenplays. Didion had written a novel, Run River (1963), which had received a lukewarm reception, but her essays made her a celebrity. They got to know many Hollywood stars thanks to Dunne's brother Nick, who was a television producer. Didion and Dunne adopted a baby girl, whom they named Quintana Roo.

Success and Struggle

The three of them traveled together whenever either Didion or Dunne was doing research. Hawaii was a favorite stop, and it was there Didion wrote one of her most famous statements: "We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for divorce." Both financially and emotionally, their marriage was unstable in the early years.

By the mid-1970s, though, things were turning around. They wrote a blockbuster script together, and each wrote a highly successful novel. They sent Quintana to an exclusive private school and later to Barnard for college. Yet, they still faced challenges. Didion suffered for years with migraines, and she was also diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease of the immune system. Dunne's brother Stephen committed suicide and his niece, Nick Dunne's daughter Dominique, was murdered in the early 1980s. In 1987 Dunne was diagnosed with heart disease, which would ultimately cause his death. According to The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion refused to believe the heart disease would be terminal. Still, at Dunne's request, they began to spend more time in New York.

2003 and Beyond

In July 2003 their daughter Quintana married Gerry Michael. Dunne had been having heart problems again, but they were both delighted to see their daughter so happy. Less than five months later Quintana was hospitalized when a case of the flu turned into pneumonia and septic shock, an infection that causes organ failure and very low blood pressure. She was in a coma when Dunne died on December 30, 2003.

Dunne's service was not held until March of 2004 so Quintana could participate. She spoke at the funeral, but a couple of days later she collapsed and was hospitalized, requiring emergency brain surgery. Quintana was able to leave the hospital, but she never returned to full health. She died in August 2005 at age 39.

The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights

Didion had always used her life as material for her writing. Shortly after Dunne's death, Didion began trying to write about what happened. The Year of Magical Thinking recounts the events around Dunne's death and Quintana's illness. The book was finished before Quintana died but was not published until after her death.

The Year of Magical Thinking became one of Didion's most successful books, earning her the 2005 National Book Award. Blue Nights (2011), about Quintana's death, was published in 2011 and also received great acclaim. Didion was awarded the 2012 National Humanities Medal.

Didion's Tone and Content

Didion is known both for the content of her writing and the style in which she writes. An article written when she won the National Humanities Medal said she "devoted her life to noticing things other people strive not to see." Early on she earned praise for her surprisingly detached way of writing about murder, drug use, and other horrors of the 1960s. Didion's description of a five-year-old high on LSD (thanks to hippie parents) was one of the most shocking moments in her early writing. All her novels offer a pessimistic view of life, and her works in the 1980s often explored politically controversial regions in Latin America.

New Journalism

Stylistically, Didion's work has hallmarks of New Journalism, though her writing is uniquely her own. New Journalism, which developed in the 1960s, incorporated fictional writing techniques into nonfiction accounts of real events. In New Journalism the writer is also prominently featured. While a traditional journalist should be invisible, New Journalists often directly describe their feelings and impressions.

Didion's style is best known for its detachment. Whether describing a five-year-old on drugs in the 1960s or her husband's death in 2003, Didion is consistently a "cool customer," as she says in The Year of Magical Thinking. Some people read her detachment as heartless or disinterested, but Didion suggests it is in fact a deep need for control and a fear of becoming too emotional. Didion's language tends to be very precise and spare. Her profile for the National Humanities Medal stated: "She says exactly what she thinks, and in exactly the number of words required." She plays with sentence structure and often uses refrains or motifs, repeated phrases and images, throughout the text. For example, in The Year of Magical Thinking, she repeatedly returns to the opening phrases of the book, including, "You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends."

Cultural Icon

Didion has not been only a writer: she transformed into a cultural icon, too. Just past her 80th birthday, Didion became the face of a fashion brand. In 2017 her nephew Griffin Dunne produced a documentary about her entitled The Center Will Not Hold.
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