Category Archive 'Joan Didion'

10 Oct 2021

Joan Didion Learned How to Write From Papa Hemingway


Sarah Davidson explains in LithHub:

Didion famously said that when she was young, she learned to write by typing Hemingway’s stories. “I learned a lot about how a short sentence worked in a paragraph, how a long sentence worked. Where the commas worked.”

In an article, “Last Words,” arguing against the publication of Hemingway’s unfinished work, she quoted the first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms. Then wrote, “That paragraph, which was published in 1929, bears examination: four deceptively simple sentences, 126 words, the arrangement of which remains as mysterious and thrilling to me now as it did when I first read them… Only one of the words has three syllables. Twenty-two have two. The other 103 have one. Twenty-four of the words are ‘the,’ fifteen are ‘and.’ There are four commas.”

Now people are counting her words. I did that with the last paragraph of The Year of Magical Thinking. The paragraph has ten deceptively simple sentences, 137 words. Only two of the words have three syllables. 16 have two. The other 119 have one. 16 of the words are “the,” one is “and.” There are five commas.

Both writers used a preponderance of single-syllable words, which underscored for me the power of those drum-like single beats. Both writers were sparing with commas, but Didion did not adopt Hemingway’s repetitions of “and… and… and…” to string clauses together.


05 May 2016

Joan Didion on Self Respect



The essay appeared in Vogue in 1961:

To protest that some fairly improbable people, some people who could not possibly respect themselves, seem to sleep easily enough is to miss the point entirely, as surely as those people miss it who think that self-respect has necessarily to do with not having safety pins in one’s underwear. There is a common superstition that “self-respect” is a kind of charm against snakes, something that keeps those who have it locked in some unblighted Eden, out of strange beds, ambivalent conversations, and trouble in general. It does not at all. It has nothing to do with the face of things, but concerns instead a separate peace, a private reconciliation. Although the careless, suicidal Julian English in Appointment in Samarra and the careless, incurably dishonest Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby seem equally improbable candidates for self-respect, Jordan Baker had it, Julian English did not. With that genius for accommodation more often seen in women than in men, Jordan took her own measure, made her own peace, avoided threats to that peace: “I hate careless people,” she told Nick Carraway. “It takes two to make an accident.”

Like Jordan Baker, people with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things. If they choose to commit adultery, they do not then go running, in an access of bad conscience, to receive absolution from the wronged parties; nor do they complain unduly of the unfairness, the undeserved embarrassment, of being named corespondent. If they choose to forego their work—say it is screenwriting—in favor of sitting around the Algonquin bar, they do not then wonder bitterly why the Hacketts, and not they, did Anne Frank.

In brief, people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called character, a quality which, although approved in the abstract, sometimes loses ground to other, more instantly negotiable virtues. The measure of its slipping prestige is that one tends to think of it only in connection with homely children and with United States senators who have been defeated, preferably in the primary, for re-election. Nonetheless, character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life—is the source from which self-respect springs.

Self-respect is something that our grandparents, whether or not they had it, knew all about. They had instilled in them, young, a certain discipline, the sense that one lives by doing things one does not particularly want to do, by putting fears and doubts to one side, by weighing immediate comforts against the possibility of larger, even intangible, comforts. It seemed to the nineteenth century admirable, but not remarkable, that Chinese Gordon put on a clean white suit and held Khartoum against the Mahdi; it did not seem unjust that the way to free land in California involved death and difficulty and dirt. In a diary kept during the winter of 1846, an emigrating twelve-year-old named Narcissa Cornwall noted coolly: “Father was busy reading and did not notice that the house was being filled with strange Indians until Mother spoke about it.” Even lacking any clue as to what Mother said, one can scarcely fail to be impressed by the entire incident: the father reading, the Indians filing in, the mother choosing the words that would not alarm, the child duly recording the event and noting further that those particular Indians were not, “fortunately for us,” hostile. Indians were simply part of the donnée.

In one guise or another, Indians always are.

Read the whole thing.

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