Since Joan was published, interviewers have been asking me: What was the most important thing you learned about writing from Joan Didion?
I learned so much it was difficult to answer, but one precept stood out: Anything can be fixed.
Whenever Joan was working on an article or book, she downplayed it, saying things like, “I’m having trouble,” or “It’s not going terribly well.” She never said, “It’s flowing,” or “This is a great subject.” Then, when it was published, it invariably would be a jewel.
Joan gave a name to the anxiety I felt every morning. She called it, “Low dread.” It was fear, she explained, “fear that you won’t get it right, that you’ll fail.”
I had High Dread with my first book, Loose Change. In 1975, I’d completed a draft but I was hung up on the prologue—the most important part. For weeks I’d been writing and rewriting the same six pages and I was so pained and scared I became paralyzed. I would wake up in the middle of the night and weep. When I called Joan and told her I was in a panic, she invited me to drive out to her house north of Malibu.
She spread the pages on the dining room table so she could see them all at once and move her eye back and forth. I assume that’s what she did with her own work, and with her husband, John’s. While she read the pages, I sat frozen, praying and hoping against all reason that she would tell me it was fine and I was worried for nothing. But after reading the last page, she looked up and said, “You’re really having trouble with this, aren’t you?”
She made suggestions, pointing to different spots and saying, “Try moving this here…” and “That’s good,” and “Maybe a few more sentences to let us know why it’s important…”
Less than an hour later, it did seem to work and I drove home feeling life was worth living.
Joan often spoke about the need to keep returning to your desk, even when you hate what you’re turning out. “You can have three days of writing terrible stuff but if you keep going back and working every day, something will break through.”
It took me 30 years to have faith that this is true. Once you’ve got something on paper—anything, no matter how bad it seems—you can fix it, steadily, one word or phrase at a time. You can turn something awful into something reasonably good. Knowing this, I write with less anxiety these days but when I falter, I look at the words written in red on a card above my desk: “Anything can be fixed.”