While scrolling Netflix a few days back for something interesting to watch during some downtime I stumbled across a Netflix original documentary titled Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold from actor/director Griffin Dunne who also happens to be the nephew of the great journalist and author Joan Didion.
Born in 1934 in Sacramento, Didion once wrote “people are formed by the landscape they grow up in.” And much of her early and most resonating pieces would be about or based in California during the hippie generation of the sixties.
This intimate and moving documentary is a wonderful tribute to Didion’s roller coaster of a life and brilliant writing career which first began in the late fifties as a journalist for Vogue.
Didion, now 83, recalls being encouraged by her mother to enter a writing contest for college seniors sponsored by the publication which she won while in her senior year at Berkley earning herself a job with the magazine. After graduation she moved to New York City where she would spend the next eight years and meet her eventual husband the late John Gregory Dunne, also a journalist and writer.
The couple moved back to the west coast in 1965 and settled in Los Angeles where they managed to scratch out a living writing pieces for prestigious publications of the day such as the Saturday Evening Post, Esquire and Life just to name a few. Later that year they adopted a new-born baby girl.
Back in her home state of California, Didion found herself in the middle of a new cultural revolution that would soon sweep through the entire country. She wrote pieces about what she was seeing for New York magazines in mesmerizing prose that would later be dubbed new journalism such as the title essay in perhaps her most famous book “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” which is a collection of these earlier essays.
The piece is about the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco in 1967, where after following a contact to his home, Didion reported finding a five-year old child sitting on the living room floor tripping on acid. When Dunne asks “what was it like to be a journalist in the room when you saw this little kid on acid?” Didion looking delicate and frail replies after a lengthy pause “well… let me tell you, it was gold. The long and short of it is that you live for moments like that if you’re doing a piece. Good or bad.”
Didion went on to write several more books through the following years, both of non fiction and fiction, not to mention six screenplays and one play for the theatre based on her 2005 book titled “The Year Of Magical Thinking” which is essentially about mourning and the daily struggles of living after the loss of her husband.
The book won the National Book Award for nonfiction and was a finalist for both a National Book Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize. Didion, no stranger to tragedy, suffered the devastating loss of her husband and daughter in the very same year.
Joan Didion is above all a survivor, and her literary voice after all of these years is still vibrant, eloquent and captivating.
If you haven’t seen the documentary The Center Will Not Hold all I can say is Didion fan or not, and especially if you’re not already familiar with her work, I highly recommend it. As for her published books, I’ve listed all of them here chronologically.
Run River (fiction) 1963
Slouching Towards Bethlehem (nonfiction) 1968
Play It As It Lays (fiction) 1970
A Book Of Common Prayer (fiction) 1977
The White Album (nonfiction) 1979
Salvador (nonfiction) 1983
Miami (nonfiction) 1987
After Henry (nonfiction) 1992
The Last Thing He Wanted (fiction) 1996
Political Fictions (nonfiction) 2001
Where I was From (nonfiction) 2003
The Year Of Magical Thinking (nonfiction) 2005
We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order To Live (nonfiction) 2006
Blue Nights (nonfiction) 2011
South And West From A Notebook (2017)