Sunday, December 31, 2017

Starting with What Matters, Part 3: Joan Didion

Two paragraphs into Joan Didion's essay, "Self-respect: Its Source, Its Power," which appeared in the August 1961 issue of Vogue and in her 1968 essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, comes this 85-word sentence: 
I lost the conviction that lights would always turn green for me, the pleasant certainty that those rather passive virtues which had won me approval as a child automatically guaranteed me not only Phi Beta Kappa keys but happiness, honor, and the love of a good man (preferably a cross between Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca and one of the Murchisons in a proxy fight); lost a certain touching faith in the totem power of good manners, clean hair, and proven competence on the Stanford-Binet scale. 
With wit, edginess, and aplomb, Didion crafts a young woman's sudden, unwelcome arrival at the rite of passage from precocious youth to pragmatic adult by:

  • dropping and after the first comma to set a running rhythm
  • referencing a half-dozen symbols of popular culture (Phi Betta Kappan, Bogart, Casablanca, Murchisons, proxy fight, Stanford-Binet scale)
  • inserting an unexpected semicolon, departing from standard usage for surprise
  • breaking parallel structure twice for impact (happiness and honor joined with love of a good man; good manners and clean hair, with the longer phrase proven competence on the Stanford-Binet scale
  • transitioning from abstract nouns (happiness, love, honor) denoting romantic youth to sharper adjectives (good, clean, proven) to usher in the rash realities of womanhood.

In doing so, Didion charmingly creates an urge in her readers to know how such a setback sets the stage for defining self-respect. This is the kind of purposeful writing that makes critics admire her finesse with language.