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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My Article for Friday, September 14, 2007

“New York’s East Village Fighting to Keep Artistic Heritage Alive.” Wealthy development moguls, corrupt City Hall politicians and gentrification threaten to destroy fifty years of artistic traditions in New York’s East Village. Article includes stunning, beautiful high-resolution photographs, photo-gallery and a video.

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