Posts Tagged ‘Joan Didion’

“In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions—with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating—but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.”
Joan Didion
Why I Write
Published in The Writer and Her Work,
edited by Janet Sternburg

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“I write in time to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
Joan Didion
Essay Why I Write (adapted from Lecture at UC Berkeley)
The Writer on Her Work, edited by Janet Sternburg

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This week we’ll look at examples of descriptive writing and Joan Didion is a fitting place to start. While Didion did co-write the screenplays A Star is Born and Up Close and Personal she is best known for her essays and novels. John Leonard of The New York Times wrote,“There hasn’t been another American writer of Joan Didion’s quality since Nathanael West….”

If I ever had to be locked away with only 10 books one of them I would want is her essay book Slouching Towards BethlehemHere is an excerpt from its first essay called Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream:

“This is a story about love and death is the golden land, and begins with the country. The San Bernardino Valley lies only an hour east of Los Angeles by the San Bernardino Freeway but it is in certain ways an alien place: not the coastal California of the subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind and whines through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves.”

Didion sets the tone from the opening sentences. By using words like  “death,” “alien,” “devastated,” “harsher,” and “haunted” there is an ominous tone even though the words flow smoothly and beautifully. It is descriptive writing at its best. And she continues throughout the essay to turn phases like, “This is California where it’s easy to Dial-A-Devotion, but hard to buy and book” and “The future always looks good in the golden land because no one remembers the past.”

It’s a terrific read and full of great examples of descriptive writing. Usually in a screenplay you just have two or three sentences to set-up a scene and Didion is a crossover writer (essays, novels & screenplays) who you would do well to inhale her work.

Scott W. Smith

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