Joan Didion and the Art of Motherhood


“Joan Didion was known for her confident, self-assured statements and the surgical precision with which she observed the world. The one adjective continually invoked of her writerly persona and her work was cool. When she passed recently, one of the conversations that bubbled up about her life and her legacy was her identity as a writer and a mother. Online, some male writers asked if she was proof it was possible to be a great artist and a great parent—to be met with parent writers who quickly pointed out the nonsensicalness of that question. But if we look at Didion’s work itself, we see her contradictions. She is often admired for the clarity and conviction of her writing, but in her work, and how she thought of it, there is the uncertainty and tension between the demands of being a writer and the demands of being a mother. And certainly, in how Didion approached it, an understanding that to ask her to conceptualize the two was something that was never demanded of her male peers. Where her nonfiction is all certainties and declarations, her fiction is a receptacle of ambiguities, vacillations, and deep anxieties. The topic of motherhood and her relationship to children straddles both genres. Though in her essays, such as her iconic collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, these anxieties surface as acrid, sometimes derisive observations, particularly of women, they also linger and lurk in the undercurrents. In her novels, including A Book of Common Prayer and Play It as It Lays, the anxieties often fuel the erratic behavior of the female protagonists who suffer the torment of repressed mania, among their many other conditions and plights. Her memoirs, each prompted by grief—Where I Was From, Blue Nights, and The Year of Magical Thinking—take rigorous inventory of life with her family while attempting to make sense of the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and soon after, their daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne. …”
HARPER

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