Joan Didion: Life Changes in the Instant

Joan Didion: Photography by Annie Leibovitz

Joan Didion Receiving the 2007 National Book Foundation Award

The National Book Foundation commemorated the literary achievements of Joan Didion at its 2007 awards ceremony in New York City. Didion received the 2007 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters for her “Outstanding achievements as a novelist and essayist.” Didion won the National Book Award in 2005 for her last book, The Year of Magical Thinking.

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Cunningham presented the medal at the 58th National Book Award ceremony and dinner. Harold Augenbraum, Executive Director of the Foundation, said, ” Joan Didion is one of the keenest observers and finest prose stylists of our time.”

Joan Didion Speaks: The National Book Foundation Ceremony

Biographic Notes

Joan Didion was born in Sacramento, California. She spent most of her childhood there, except for several years during World War II, when she traveled across the county with her mother and brother to be near her father. Her family had deep roots in the West; family tales of pioneer days informed her first novel, as well as her later memoir, Where I Was From.

Didion was a shy, bookish child, although she pushed herself to overcome her shyness through acting and public speaking. In her final year at The University of California, Berkeley, she won an essay contest sponsored by Vogue Magazine. The first prize was a job in the magazine’s New York office. Didion remained at Vogue for two years, progressing from research assistant to contributing writer. At the same time, she published articles in other magazines and wrote her first novel, Run River (1963).

In 1964, Didion married John Gregory Dunne, an aspiring novelist who was writing for Time Magazine. The couple moved to Los Angeles with the intention of staying for six months and ended up making their home there for the next 20 years. The pair adopted a baby girl who they named Quintana Roo, after the state on the eastern coast of Mexico.

The atmosphere of California in the 1960s provided Didion and Dunne with plentiful opportunities for writing in the personal style, becoming known as the New Journalism. The personal mode of writing was also associated with the writers Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson and Gay Talese. Didion’s essays on the 1960s counterculture were collected in her book Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968). It was published to critical acclaim and is considered to be one of the signature works of that decade. Didion’s second novel, Play It As it Lays (1970), which was set among the aimless souls adrift at the edges of the film industry, captured a mood of alienation that had crept over the film colony by the time of the decade’s ending.

Working together for the first time, Didion and Dunne wrote the screenplay for the motion picture, Panic in Needle Park (1971). Set among homeless drug addicts in New York City, the film introduced film audiences to the actor Al Pacino. Their work on the film was much admired and they became one of Hollywood’s most sought-after screenwriting teams. Together, they wrote screenplays for the film adaptation of Play It As it Lays (1972); a remake of A Star is Born (1976), starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson; the film version of her husband’s novel True Confessions (1981); and Up Close and Personal (1996) with Robert Redford.

In late 2003, Didion’s daughter, Quintana, fell gravely ill. Soon after returning from a visit to their comatose child in the hospital, her husband, John Gregory Dunne, suffered a fatal heart attack. Joan Didion wrote a searing account of her journey through grief in her novel The Year of Magical Thinking. At the time she finished the book, her daughter appeared to be recovering from her illness, but by the time the book was published, Quintana had died.

Joan Didion with her Husband, John Gregory Dunne

The National Book Award in 2005

The Year of Magical Thinking was published to widespread acclaim and received the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2005. “There’s hardly anything I can say about this except thank you,” said Didion, praising her publisher for supporting her while she wrote her acclaimed best seller. The 70-year-old Didion, who had never won the National Book Award, had long been admired by many distinguished authors for her precise, incisive fiction and literary journalism. However, The Year of Magical Thinking brought her a substantially larger readership, with booksellers saying that her book was especially in demand from others who have lost a loved one or knew someone who had.

Joan Didion pressed on through her sorrow. She wrote a stage adaptation of The Year of Magical Thinking, which appeared on Broadway this year, directed by David Hare and starring Vanessa Redgrave. Her first seven books of nonfiction have been collected in a single volume, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live.

In 2005, Didion appeared at the Chicago Humanities Festival and provided reflections about The Year of Magical Thinking, as well as some about some of the feelings that were evoked by the events described in her book. She described the almost immediate dramatic, life-altering effect that she experienced: “The notion that I could control things died hard…I do not believe in an afterlife; I wish I did.” In her account, Didion contemplated how the rituals of daily life were fundamentally altered when her life’s companion was taken from her.

Her initial struggle to begin writing about the thoughts and feelings of grief, sorrow and utter isolation aroused by this tragic experience began with four magnificantly dignified short lines:

Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

The question of self-pity.”

Joan Didion: Life Changes in the Instant

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Tiny Wofford Upsets Purdue 69-66 in the Las Vegas Classic

Tiny Wofford Tops Purdue University, 69-66

As the fourth-smallest school in the nation that plays NCAA Division I basketball, Wofford College, from The Southern Conference, knows that going on the road into tough environments is unavoidable.  But after seeing what has happened the past three seasons, the Terriers like that just fine.  Shane Nichols hit a running layup with 2.1 seconds remaining as Wofford upset Purdue 69-66 Wednesday night in a second-round game of the Las Vegas Classic.

Its a big win, no doubt, but we know we are capable of going into a place like this and winning,” Nichols said.  “We are used to playing a tough non-conference schedule.”  Two seasons ago the Wofford won at Cincinnati and last year host Auburn University fell victim.

Wofford was on the verge of losing to a major-conference opponent when Purdue took a 55-48 lead with 9:24 remaining in the game.  That six-point deficit didn’t concern Wofford coach Mike Young, whose team had yet to win a road game this season.  “They’re not gonna surprise us,” he said.  “Wisconsin had a sellout with 17,000 people and we werent at full strength there.  Now this may not have been the biggest Mackey (Arena) crowd, but when they had those six straight points in a row you could feel the place shake a little bit.”

Using a quick 9-0 spurt that turned into a 15-6 run, the Terriers led 63-60 on four straight points from Junior Salters with 2:30 to go.  A pair of free throws from Scott Martin and a one-handed dunk from Keaton Grant helped Purdue (7-3) regain the lead at 64-63 with 1:48 left.  Chris Kramer’s layup put the Boilermakers up by three with 1:26 remaining.

With where we have played and what we have gone through, we knew that being down by three points with time left on the clock was something we could overcome,” Nichols said.  Nichols is a big reason why.  The senior guard drained a deep three-pointer with 50 seconds left and then, after Purdue’s Terrance Crump committed a turnover, cut through traffic and somehow managed to get off a shot despite being hounded by several Boilermakers defenders.  “There was a lot of confidence, because I knew either the game would go into overtime or we would win,” Nichols said of the final play.  “I glanced at the clock, put my head down and drove to the basket. Only after I got knocked to the floor and looked up did I know it went in.”

What was Young’s message to his team during a timeout he called with 24.3 seconds left?  “We were looking for me to get out of the way and for (Drew) Gibson or Nichols to make a play,” he said.  Purdue coach Matt Painter was not surprised to see Wofford hang around after falling behind by 10 points in the first half and then by six midway through the second half.  “They made the necessary offensive and defensive plays,” he said.  “We had a few good plays and some defensive stops, but there were some lapses (with) four missed free throws. You have a tendency that when you lose games, you only look at breakdownsWofford made the plays necessary to win.  Down the stretch, they made some big three-pointers.  Give them creditThey were well-prepared,” Grant said.  “We think we are invincible in Mackey and we thought that would carry us through tonight.  It didn’t.”

Both teams travel to Las Vegas for two more games in the Classic.  Purdue (7-3) plays Iowa State and Wofford meets Texas Southern on Saturday.  The tournament finishes play on Sunday.

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