Award-winning writer, sharp critic, and insightful memoirist — is there anything the author of Slouching Towards Bethlehem can't do? Probably not, which is why you can take writing advice from Joan Didion to heart. After five decades of real-world practice, could you think of anyone better to advise you? I didn't think so.
A professional writer for over 50 years, Joan Didion knows a thing or two about the creative process. While getting her start at Vogue, Didion penned "Self Respect: Its Source, Its Power," an essay that became a guide for all women in the 1960s. From there, she went on to publish National Book Award-winning essay collections, celebrated novels, and groundbreaking journalism, each new writing endeavor more powerful than the last. From her works of fiction to her literary journalism to her personal letters, Didion's work is beautifully crafted, an encouraging inspiration to women writers everywhere. The real question is, how does she do it?
Someone like Joan Didion didn't learn to craft perfect literature and journalism overnight. Years of experience, long nights of writing and rewriting, and decades of perfecting the craft has made Didion into the admirable author she is today. And, luckily for us, she isn't shy about sharing her insights.
If you find yourself in a rut or desperate for some professional insight, here are 11 pieces of writing advice from Joan Didion to help get you through. Trust her, she knows what she's talking about.
1. “Novels are like paintings, specifically watercolors. Every stroke you put down you have to go with. Of course you can rewrite, but the original strokes are still there in the texture of the thing.”
2. "Yes, and the last sentence in a piece is another adventure. It should open the piece up. It should make you go back and start reading from page one."
3. “I write entirely 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.”
4. “The impulse to write things down is a particularly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself.”
5. "It's hostile in that you're trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture. It's hostile to try to wrench around someone else's mind that way. Quite often you want to tell somebody your dream, your nightmare. Well, nobody wants to hear about someone else's dream, good or bad; nobody wants to walk around with it. The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream."
6. "Let me tell you one thing about why writers write: had I known the answer to any of these questions I would never have needed to write a novel."
7. "All I know about grammar is its infinite power. 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."
8. “As a writer, even as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs... The way I write is who I am, or have become...”
9. "We tell ourselves stories in order to live."
10. "What's so hard about that first sentence is that you're stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you've laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone."
11. "I think of writing anything at all as a kind of high-wire act. The minute you start putting words on paper you're eliminating possibilities."