When Joan Didion noticed my dress.

I wore it last night because it reminded me of a feeling I get when I read her early work.

It’s olive green, and loose, and I wore it with sandals and a poncho and a bag with tassels on. I chose it because I’m a synesthete and I think of the world in terms of color and taste. The whole ensemble made me feel a little like one of her essays from the late ’60s, or like the sound of a Joni Mitchell album.

And when she signed my copy of Play it as it Lays, she looked up and complimented me on the dress. “I’m partial to that color,” she said.

When I was a young writer, hungry for wisdom and mentorship, that comment would have been anti-climactic for me, coming from the mouth of one of my heroes.

I first read the work of Joan Didion as a young journalist. An editor, choosing my name from the hat in our newsroom’s Secret Santa, gave me a copy of The White Album. It was exactly what I needed at a time when I was becoming jaded about my job. Didion’s essays lifted me out of the drudgery of school board meetings and graduation speeches. Her work taught me how to see the people and the pathos in my news stories. Her prose taught me how to describe them. Every essay I read was a challenge to be a better reporter.*

There are certain people who take sharp notice of the world, and who transmit their mindsets with a startling clarity.  Didion is one of these. It was a shock to discover her work. When I was a self-centered 23 year-old, she made me able to see a larger world through older eyes. I think I grew some compassion when I read her essays.

If I had met Didion at that age, I would have wanted to wring writerly wisdom from her during our five-second interaction. I would have wanted her to impart some pearl, some insight, anything that would help me to be more like her.

I’m proud that I’m over that stage.

Today I’m happy to know that she liked my dress, because it means that those eyes, which have noticed so much and which taught me how to see the world as a writer, had seen and acknowledged me, too.


*I loved that book, but I never finished it. I’d been reading it slowly, savoring it essay by essay. I’d read and re-read an essay, then put the book away and spend a few days trying to emulate Didion in the stories I wrote for my daily. One day, the book slipped away from me. I’ve been looking for it for a decade, and I refuse to buy another copy, because I’m convinced it’s around here somewhere and my editor gave it to me and that means something. That was six or seven moves ago.

Writer Wednesday: Joan Didion

For me, books can be like hard candy. You get a bag of Jolly Ranchers,  you rip it open and maybe you immediately eat one of your favorite flavors first, as a sort of opening-the-bag celebration.  But, then if you’re like me, you start eating all your least favorite flavors, so that what’s left in the bag – eventually – is a big pile of watermelon and sour apple. Heaven.

There are probably more moody black and white portraits of Joan Didion than of any other writer. If you print them all out and staple them together in a flip book, you can actually watch her age.

That’s how I’ve been treating the work of Joan Didion. I’ve loved Didion since a newspaper editor gave me The White Album as part of a newsroom Secret Santa gift exchange. I was 23, loved my job, and Didion’s essays sang to me. I’d never read prose like that before. I spent months on that book. I pored over each essay, reading each word twice, but I was stingy with myself, squirreling the essays away like sour apple Jolly Ranchers, and savoring that wonderful first-read feeling.

I have not read Slouching Toward Bethlehem yet. I know I will love it, so I am saving it for later.

Joan D.  is a two-edged sword, however. On the one hand, her work is heartbreakingly beautiful. On the other hand, it’s also just heartbreaking. I read Play it As it Lays this past spring and emerged from the novel feeling like I’d gotten drunk and then had a three-hour phone conversation with a friend who makes bad choices.

Below the page break is the craft essay I wrote about point of view in that novel.

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