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What Joan Didion means to us

Her last book, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, tapped into what made the late writer an icon.

A portrait of Didion with her hands cradling her face.
Joan Didion in Vogue in 1972.
Henry Clarke/Conde Nast via Getty Images
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Editor’s note: The writer Joan Didion died on December 23, 2021, at the age of 87. Her final book, the essay collection Let Me Tell You What I Mean, was released in January 2021; the following essay was first published that month.

In the spring of 1975, 40-year-old Joan Didion was both the “Regents’ Lecturer” at UC Berkeley, her alma mater, and kind of a nervous wreck. By then, she was successful, having published two novels (Run River and Play It as It Lays) and a very highly regarded book of essays (Slouching Towards Bethlehem), along with scores of articles, reviews, and columns. In 1973, Tom Wolfe included Didion in his anthology The New Journalism, which solidified her place alongside Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, George Plimpton, and other practitioners of an experience-driven, subjective brand of reporting (even if she always insisted the best journalists knew to stand outside the story). She had also been a guest lecturer before, most notably at Yale a year prior.

She was not yet recognizable as Joan Didion, icon. But everything was about to change.

At Berkeley, she was set to spend a month on campus as a visiting teacher, then conclude her stint with a public lecture. The classroom reviews were not stellar. Didion’s biographer Tracy Daugherty writes that “one student said the class was terribly awkward and tense. Didion would read to them in a barely audible voice or stare at them in silence, drumming her fingers on the desk.”

That version of Didion — quiet, ill at ease, seemingly wanting to be anywhere but where she was — is not a wholly unfamiliar figure to today’s reader. In interviews, especially very recent ones, she often comes across as terse and evasive, like she’d rather be doing literally anything else. But if you’ve read her essays from that era, it’s still a little startling. How could this timid, perplexing lecturer be the source of the wry, detailed, sometimes even chatty voice that pops up in much of her writing?

Dunne, Didion, & Quintana
Joan Didion at home in Malibu with her husband John Gregory Dunne and her daughter Quintana Roo Dunne in 1976.
John Bryson/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images

During her time at Berkeley, Didion was simply buried in writing a new book, and her natural shyness, coupled with a kind of anxiety, likely contributed to her in-class manner. In an autobiographical passage in her 1984 novel Democracy, Didion writes of that period, “In 1975 time was no longer just quickening but collapsing, falling in on itself, the way a disintegrating star contracts into a black hole,” noting that “I seemed able to concentrate only on reading newspapers.”

Whatever the reason, the English faculty at Berkeley had more or less stopped taking her seriously by the time her brief tenure was over, and booked only a small room for her culminating public lecture. Didion, apprehensive and on edge, later told a friend that she had to work up the nerve to ask for a larger room, and so the departmental secretary switched the event to a lecture hall.

She was terrified. What if it didn’t fill? What if it did? Before the lecture, Didion hid in the ladies’ room, certain she was about to throw up.

She shouldn’t have been worried. Caitlin Flanagan, then a teenager and the daughter of a Berkeley professor, recounted years later the “Didion-mania” that broke out, startling the university’s faculty. The youthful Flanagan wasn’t at the lecture, but she heard about it. “It was a madhouse,” Flanagan wrote. Whatever resistance Didion experienced at Berkeley stood in marked contrast to the passionate horde of fans who appeared to hear her speak. “There were tearful women who were turned away at the door, others grateful to stand in the back or to sit on the floor, a huge, rapt crowd of the type that doesn’t feature in even the wildest dreams of most writers.”

For women who had read her essays and novels, Didion’s Everywoman persona — a measured voice that processed a world as it fell to pieces — was a conduit for their own emotions. She was their Superwoman.

Joan Didion, the writer, already had her fans, but Daugherty points to the Berkeley lecture as the moment that Joan Didion, the icon, was born. For the next several decades, Didion would be viewed through not just a literary lens but an aesthetic one. She would come to symbolize cool. In 2015, at 80 years old, she would model for the French luxury brand Celine. A famous photograph with a cigarette and a Corvette Stingray would be taped up above the desks of aspiring young women writers for decades to come. Her 1968 essay “Goodbye to All That,” in which she recounts going to pieces and moving away from New York City, would practically generate its own subgenre of imitation. She meant something to people. She means something to people.

British playwright David Hare directs Joan Didion’s ‘The Year of Magical Thinking,’ which is Didion
Didion at New York’s Booth Theater in 2007, during the Broadway production of her play The Year of Magical Thinking, adapted from her memoir of the same name.
Liz O. Baylen/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

That night at Berkeley in 1975, Didion gave a lecture titled “Why I Write.” It became one of her most well-known works. “Why I Write” was published in the New York Times in 1976 and makes frequent use of one of Didion’s signature rhetorical devices: She makes a statement, then tells the audience what she means by what she just said.

“It took me some years to discover what I was. Which was a writer,” she explains. Then she quickly clarifies: “By which I mean not a ‘good’ writer or a ‘bad’ writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper.”

“Why I Write” is really an explanation for how Didion views meaning as inextricable from syntax itself: “To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed,” she writes. To her, a writer is not primarily a prophet or a polemicist; a writer is someone who uses hammers and saws to shape the raw building blocks of words. Writers coax meaning from the words themselves, from turns of phrase, from the construction of sentences. A writer knows how to conceal and reveal significance by placing the building blocks well.

And, most importantly, a writer looks past the obvious, past surface-level appearances, past the fictions people construct to turn the disorder of the world into order, starting with their own inner life. “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means,” reads one of the most famous lines in “Why I Write.” Writing brings order from chaotic thought, even if the world itself is chaos.

Until now, despite its vaunted status, “Why I Write” has never appeared in one of Didion’s essay collections. But it’s in her newest book, Let Me Tell You What I Mean. For an author as obsessed with meaning as Didion, that title is a revealing double entendre, and one that seems to hang on that moment at Berkeley in 1975. She is telling us what she means, as she told that standing-room-only audience. And she is also telling us what she means, here in 2021, after decades of being one of America’s most admired, most argued-over writers.

Twelve previously uncollected essays, spanning 1968 to 2000, cover all kinds of different subjects: alt-weeklies, failing to get into Stanford, Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographic subjects, the pitch-perfect personal branding of Martha Stewart. She writes on Ernest Hemingway and on William Randolph Hearst’s palatial Xanadu estate. Her infamously surgical evisceration of Nancy Reagan is also included here, in the form of a 1968 magazine profile entitled “Pretty Nancy,” which was found so objectionable by its subject that she wrote of Didion in her memoirs, “She had obviously written the story in her mind before she ever met me.”

Some essays in the collection feel very personal, like Didion’s remembrance of friend, director, and producer Tony Richardson. (Richardson’s daughter, with Vanessa Redgrave, was the late actress Natasha Richardson, who died in a skiing accident in 2009; Redgrave in turn played Didion in the Broadway production of Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking, about grief.)

President Obama Awards 2012 National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medals
Didion receives the National Humanities Medal from president Barack Obama in 2013.
Pete Marovich/Getty Images

Let Me Tell You What I Mean is a small book — literally, you can practically slip it into your back pocket — and it feels more like an appendix or an album of B-sides to Didion’s oeuvre than a fully fleshed-out new entry. Scholars and avid readers of Didion will not find new information here. But it’s a worthy collection nonetheless because it works like a skeleton key to unlock Didion’s continued significance in American culture. What has made her so lasting and important to so many? Why are we still talking about her and reading her and teaching her writing in classrooms? The book unpacks this legacy subtly, in a way as twofold as its title: Because she means things, and because she means something.

In each essay, Didion is explaining what she means when she says things, often things that shock or intrigue. “The only American newspapers that do not leave me in the grip of a profound physical conviction that the oxygen has been cut off from my brain tissue, very probably by an Associated Press wire, are The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Free Press, the Los Angeles Open City, and the East Village Other,” begins her 1968 essay “Alicia and the Underground Press.” Didion rushes to assure us that she’s not trying to “make myself out an amusing eccentric, perverse and eclectic and, well, groovy in all her tastes”; instead, she is lamenting the “inability of all of us to speak to one another in any direct way, the failure of American newspapers to ‘get through,’” and the way the fiction of objectivity strangles journalism. And then she goes on to tell us what she means by that.

Saying things, then clarifying them, is evidence of Didion’s precision, her need to make sure she reveals only what she wants to and not a bit more, that the words she chooses do exactly what she means for them to do. For Didion, sloppy writing is sloppy thinking, on the border of being immoral. When she made the pivot to writing about politics in the 1980s, she frequently focused not only on what people, especially politicians and pundits, were saying to the public, but on the way they said it, and the meaning they tried to repress in their rhetoric. And she holds herself to the same standard. “The whole meaning of anything for me is in the grammar,” she told an interviewer in 2002. “It doesn’t mean anything until I’ve written it. I don’t have a lot of thoughts. They don’t form until I’ve written it down. So the process of writing is the process of thinking.”

The effort Didion devotes to making herself clear is somewhat ironic, since her most-quoted line ever — the first sentence in her 1979 essay “The White Album,” which is “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” — is also her most misquoted. Often it’s brought up as an inspirational bon mot for aspiring writers, an exhortation to keep telling stories so that we can keep living. In fact, it’s the opening salvo in a devastating passage arguing that this storytelling impulse fools us into believing that life makes sense, when, if we looked at it with scrutiny, we’d know the appropriate response to life is “an attack of vertigo and nausea.” By the end of the essay, Didion has told many stories, but she says that “writing has not yet helped me to see what it means.”

But the essays in Let Me Tell You What I Mean aren’t just about Didion clarifying her thoughts while readers look on. Taken together, they reveal how she is trying to interpret — by writing about others, mostly — what she herself actually means to us. In “,” a 2000 essay about Martha Stewart’s personal brand and the fandom it spawned, she writes a telling passage:

The “cultural meaning” of Martha Stewart’s success, in other words, lies deep in the success itself, which is why even her troubles and strivings are part of the message, not detrimental but integral to the brand. She has branded herself not as Superwoman but as Everywoman, a distinction that seems to remain unclear to her critics.

The tell is in the essay’s last paragraph, where she observes that Stewart’s story is a “‘woman’s pluck story, the dust-bowl story, the burying-your-child-on-the-trail story.” For nearly her whole career, Didion has drawn on those same pioneer narratives to explain her entire self-conception, as a descendant of pioneer women who came to California. She is writing, at least a little, about herself. And that makes the kicker even more significant: “The dreams and the fears into which Martha Stewart taps are not of ‘feminine’ domesticity but of female power, of the woman who sits down at the table with the men and, still in her apron, walks away with the chips,” she writes.

Vogue 1972
Didion at home in her Malibu kitchen in 1972.
Henry Clarke/Condé Nast via Getty Images

That seems faintly self-aware. Famously reticent to describe herself as “a feminist,” Didion seems to have tapped into this same version of female power that she ascribes to Stewart. She is, on the one hand, the writer who seems fragile and reserved, even the woman trembling in the Berkeley bathroom — the Everywoman. In her later years, she is the woman left alone by the untimely deaths of her husband and daughter, losses she tries to process in The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights with extraordinary vulnerability. She wants to make sure we know she doesn’t think she is special.

On the other hand, she is the writer who can practically disembowel a politician or pundit’s bad reasoning, take apart a brainless movie or book, or reduce a pompous public figure to a hollow shell, and that’s why writers love her or fear her. Words are her scalpels. In an essay in Let Me Tell You What I Mean titled “On Stories,” she writes that at her first job at Vogue writing merchandising and promotion copy, “I learned a kind of ease with words, a way of regarding words not as mirrors of my own inadequacy but as tools, toys, weapons to be deployed strategically on a page.”

Not everyone learns to write like that. It’s a sort of Superwoman ability. Couple it with the surprisingly controlled iconography she’s let out into the world — the photo of herself with a cigarette, one arm crossed over her waistline; the photo of herself with a cigarette and her Corvette; the modeling work for Celine — and it’s no wonder that some of her fans worship her for what they think she means, even if they don’t always cop to what she means.

Why does Joan Didion matter? Because she has chronicled, for well over half a century, how the powerful use words to obscure meaning. How lies get dressed up as truth. How we all submit to magical thinking when confronted with the inexplicable or the frightening. How we make up stories to convince ourselves that we have everything under control, how we spin webs of meaning from words and sentences and turns of phrase.

How we write to find out what we mean.

How we need, wisely or not, figures who can make meaning for us out of chaos.