Sharon Tate

Maybe it’s that when I read this Nathan Heller essay about Joan Didion, I was entering my annual winter yearn for sunshine and palm trees. Still, I found the piece an enlightening exposition on a writer whose career could serve as a template for people like me.

Didion is synonymous with California, Southern California in particular. You can’t read a Didion essay or book without feeling the California sun on your skin or the Pacific Ocean’s waves in your ears. And so, as my desires shifted from snowy cabins to beach cabanas, I was an eager audience for Heller’s article, which let me mentally escape our gray East Coast winter.

Yet easing my mild case of seasonal affective disorder isn’t the biggest bonus to Nathan Heller’s essay. What makes the article stand out is his focus on Didion’s career.

Joan Didion
Joan Didion

“For all her success, Didion was seventy before she finished a nonfiction book that was not drawn from newsstand-magazine assignments,” Heller writes.

Heller explains that throughout the 1960s and 70s, Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, took writing assignments to pay their bills. Didion published a few novels, her first, Run River, in 1963, but to make ends meet, she wrote what businesses, mostly magazines, were willing to pay her.

Didion chose interesting subjects, from San Francisco’s hippies to Sharon Tate’s murder. And Didion wrote illuminatively, brilliantly, in ways that set her apart from others and catapulted her to the iconic status she holds today.

Didion already rested at the forefront of America’s literary mantle by the time I discovered her. Her essay collections are phenomenal, some of the best nonfiction stuff I’ve ever read. Reading them, I assumed Didion pitched publishers on the books, they agreed, then she went and wrote the stuff that went into the books I later read.

Nathan Heller’s New Yorker piece proves otherwise. Most of the essays in Didion’s early nonfiction books, such as Slouching Towards Bethlehem or The White Album, come from columns and articles media companies paid her to write.

Many writers have a loose idea for how we’ll publish books. We get a book deal, then write the book. Next, the publisher releases the book we’ve written. We’ll write a book once someone pays us to write a book.

That may be some writers’ experiences, but it’s not how it went for Joan Didion. She and her husband had to eat, pay bills, and care for their daughter. That took money, so Didion and Dunne took writing assignments that paid.

It’s after Didion produced many articles and columns that a publisher was willing to release her book. Years later, Didion published her first nonfiction book that wasn’t a collection of work someone had already paid her to produce.

Most of us writers have to work for a living. We can feel frustrated and ashamed that we take writing assignments or work nonwriting jobs because we need electricity, food, health insurance. We want to write books, produce art, and yet we’re doing stuff we’d prefer to not in exchange for money.

But that’s OK. It might even be good. The work we do now can lead to the material we publish later. Perhaps it’s writing we repackage into a book, a la Didion style, or maybe it’s experiences and people we meet informing our future writing. 

There isn’t one path to getting published. Joan Didion forged one way, and now we get to walk through it.


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