My thoughts on Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold

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I’d made an early resolution recently to be a better non-fiction writer and committing myself to my voice and my writing. I want to do a better job sharing my experiences with the world through rhetoric. I want to be armed with adjectives and poetry to help me share what I see. I know it’s a little early for resolutions, but I still gathered all my favorite non-fiction works for inspiration; Susan Sontag, Hunter S. Thompson, the journals of Sylvia Plath. And of course, Joan Didion.

I woke up early Saturday morning hoping to get some chores done before diving into my current read. But for some reason, I was compelled to watch TV. Perhaps it had something to do with the new season of Stranger Things, but I tend to follow my gut. I remembered that a document recently came out about Joan Didion. Being the nerd that I am, I wanted to watch this.

I watched The Center Will Not Hold on Netflix before noon and I was surprised to find that Joan Didion is way more than just a non-fiction writer. I thought of her as your average writer; nothing remarkable or interesting. Someone who’s work speaks for themselves. Little did I know her life and her experiences were so crucial to showing the world what’s going on. How she came up in journalism and used her observing eye to share with the world the reality of life. Her work is poetry and even if her intention wasn’t to share her thoughts, she somehow manages to make you see and think the way she did.

When you see her for the first time, you see this tiny little old woman. Her bones hanging off her flesh and deep purple veins bulging through her like rivers on a map. She barely speaks without stopping to consider her word choices, so the movie is driven mostly by the readings of her work out loud.

I thought it would be interesting to hear how she spoke. You always assume that she would speak as eloquently as she wrote, but the words on the page and the words from her lips never matched. I guess you can say that she is a true writer, someone who finds her words in ink. I think my favorite part of hearing her read her own stories is also understanding where she was coming from and what she thought about. How she found a 5-year-old tripping on acid in the middle of someone’s living room to be journalistic “gold.”

But I’m not here to talk about the movie. I’m here to talk about this story and this life that has been stuck in my brain for the past 24 hours and I can’t seem to stop thinking about it. I’m here to talk about my serious goals to improving my non-fiction writing because I love writing it. I’m here to talk about how Joan Didion will probably be my favorite non-fiction writer until the day I die.

I used to be able to write observationally. I would listen to music and point out the variations and mixology of drums to guitar to vocals. I would watch a stream of water from a car wash and how the soapy bubbles refracted hints of a hidden rainbow. I used to sit in my room and write terrible poetry about the imagery in my mind. “Consciousness is…” being a poem I wrote in five minutes.

I didn’t hear about Joan Didion until a few years ago when I read A Year of Magical Thinking. After watching that film, it was obvious I knew nothing about her life. All I knew was that she wrote this book about losing her husband and how incredibly beautiful it was. I honestly wish I learned more about her in college while I was studying journalism.

Journalism nowadays feels like the rapid reporting of trivial issues. A quick tweet from our president or five things you should know about your face cream are the kinds of stories that rise to the top of reading lists. It’s a series of short articles less than 500 words and meant to be read, digested, and forgotten. Even political pieces about the subject of the hour are overwrought with over-emotional commentary and opinions on how much he sucks.

If I’d known about Joan Didion in college, then maybe I would still be trying to be a better journalist. Maybe I wouldn’t believe that all journalism was a sham to please advertisers. Perhaps my experience interning at Conde Nast wouldn’t have left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I gave up that dream because it didn’t seem worth working hard when everyone was networking harder.

But after watching Joan Didion and how she made reporting a style and how her observations haunt her until she writes them down, it’s really made me rethink how I approach my work here. I don’t want to be writing short pieces that you can throw away. I want to write substantially, poignantly, and richly. Of course I don’t want to bore you as well, but as Joan Didion says, I just want to answer the questions I ask myself.

7 thoughts on “My thoughts on Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold

  1. Very thoughtful and well-written post. I can remember reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem in college and being so moved by Didion’s essays.

    I enjoyed this!


      1. Joan Didion was nothing more than a tabloid journalist. The way she speaks about “covering” Sharon Tate’s murder ; she’s practically salivating at relaying the gory details. Of course peppered in with lies that ended up blaming the victims for their deaths. She’s trash and used that poor women’s death to sell articles and line her pockets. She helped create a false narrative that took years to break down.
        She’s quoted as saying “No one was surprised”. Are you kidding me. Talk about heartless. I think EVERYONE was surprised that crazy people accended into Sharon’s house and stabbed everyone to death.
        Terrible. Didion was a terrible person.


  2. Simone, thank you.

    You wrote: “You always assume that she would speak as eloquently as she wrote, but the words on the page and the words from her lips never matched.” Reminds me of a phrase I remember reading once as a kid in a Stephen King novel about how people either speak well or write well – they rarely do both. I always hoped beyond hope that King’s line had some truth to it since I’m not terribly quick-witted on my feet (maybe… *maybe* i could be on the page!???!).

    Also, as a guy who earns his living spelling reciprocating stanzas out of rotating gears and quoting the mythology of neutrons, I wish I had instead studied journalism which at least would have forced me to practice a form of that which I love.

    Is the grass green where you live? It’s browning here in Wisconsin!

    Keep writing – I enjoyed your thoughts.


    1. Thanks so much for your thoughts here and I will say there isn’t anything holding you back from pursuing your interests. You can even write about your rotating gears and mythology of neutrons. I’m in New York City!


  3. I watched this documentary a few days ago, and came away much more appreciative of her work. It helped me understand the trajectory of her life and work in a way I had not been aware of before. I love documentaries about writers and artists and this one did not fail to deliver.


  4. I loved reading this. “I just want to answer the questions I ask myself.” Yes! Reminds me of the James Baldwin quote about writing to find out what you don’t know. Or thought you didn’t know.


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