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Podcast #46: Joan Didion on Writing and Revising

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Joan Didion's stately prose, with its dry humor and turns toward observation, has enamored readers for the last five decades. A writer of fiction, nonfiction, and screenplays, she has taught us how to depart a once-loved city, critique "the process" of democracy, and of course, enjoy the pleasures of an elegant sentence. In 2012, NYPL had the honor of hosting a conversation with the beloved author and essayist Sloane Crosley.

Didion and Crosley interview

The author of fifteen books, Didion has developed her own writerly habits. She described her work as cycling between new writing and revision:

"Before I start to write, the night before—I mean, when I finish work at the end of the day, I go over the pages, the page that I’ve done that day, and I mark it up. And I mark it up and leave it until the morning, and then I make the corrections in the morning, which gives me a way to start the day... I can have a drink at night. And the drink loosens me up enough to actually mark it up, you know. While you’ll just kind of be tense and not sure. Marking up something is just another way of saying editing it. Because you don’t edit very dramatically when you’re—you’re not very hard on yourself, you’re not very loose with yourself most of the day. Really, I have found the drink actually helps."

Her two most recent books, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights have prompted many readers to seek Didion's guidance in their personal affairs. This responsibility could become a terrible burden for some, but it has not kept Didion from continuing to write:

"For a while—when I first started writing, when I was writing actually for Vogue, I wrote some personal pieces, and the reason I wrote some personal pieces, it was kind of by accident. It was one of those things where we had assigned—I was on staff. We had assigned pieces and put the title of these pieces on the cover and then the pieces didn’t come in. The people didn’t—the writers didn’t deliver the pieces. Suddenly I was left to write the pieces. So the pieces all had titles like, 'Jealousy: Is it a curable illness?' or 'Self-respect: Its source, its power.'  And it was—a lot of people read these pieces and for the first time people would come to me for life advice and I hated it. I mean, I had—I quit writing those pieces because I couldn’t take this Miss Lonelyhearts role, and I hadn’t written anything that got that kind of response until Magical Thinking in between all these years, and Magical Thinking suddenly people were speaking to me in airports and usually they had some really terrible thing that had happened and I learned simply to—that I didn’t have to take it so personally. You know, I learned that I could talk to them without taking it personally, so I didn’t have to stop writing."

Didion described Blue Nights as a challenge that she was not certain she could complete. At one point, when she considered quitting the project, her agent played a pivotal role:

"I did not in fact think I could finish this last book, and when I say that people usually assume because it’s a very sensitive subject, that I couldn’t finish it because it was too painful. Not at all. I didn’t think I could finish it because I didn’t think I was getting it right. I didn’t think I could finish it, period. So I mentioned to my agent, who is Lynn Nesbit, that I didn’t think I could finish this book and I would give the money back to Knopf, and Lynn said why not wait a while?"

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Unnbearable

I a big of Ms. DIdion's work but I found Sloane Crosley's nervous, fawning and insecure interview style to be unbearable. I listened to 10 or 15 minutes and then had to turn it off.

Has Sloane Crosley never spoken in public before?

Like the reviewer above, I couldn't stand to hear another young woman say "UHhhhh, have ? at the end of her sentences, and generally sound like a nervous middle schooler. If only I could have heard Ms. Didion speak w/o interruption.

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