Today is the 79th anniversary of Joan Didion’s entrance into this mortal coil, and I will use the excuse to wear giant sunglasses and write interminable sentences all day long. Didion’s career has changed the landscape of American nonfiction writing, and although she is perhaps best-known for her recent duet of grief memoirs The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, her contributions to journalism and the canon of California writing are significant and singular.
Didion was raised Episcopalian but has grown into agnosticism. In an interview with Beliefnet in2006, asked about the continuation of the spirit after death, she said “It’s one of the clichés people say to you after a death: ‘He lives in our memory, she lives in our memory.’ I mean I don’t disbelieve; I just don’t believe.”
One of the reasons anyone writes is to find answers to the questions they have. To pay attention to the questions of a writer is also to pay attention to that person, to what pains them and brings them joy. Didion loves California, our shared home state. She has a lot to ask of grief, of the order of things and the supposed universality of what is random; in the same Beliefnet interview, she said “the randomness is only personal. We perceive it as random, but there’s a larger pattern somewhere.” Her questions are questions of order and chaos, history and trajectory, truth and shadows. Her questions, in other words, are the selfsame questions asked by all faiths of all ages.
So, today, let’s celebrate Joan and the indomitable spirit of curiosity and compassion she has brought to literary America for all these decades. Many happy returns, Joanie. Thank you for asking the questions we weren’t even sure how to say.