When Joan Didion first began writing, she thought she would have little to contribute to the craft. Luckily for readers — and for students in attendance at Didion’s Berkeley College Master’s Tea and reading Tuesday — she eventually changed her mind.
At the tea, Didion — a journalist, screenwriter and novelist — spoke to a room full of students about writing and politics, especially as they relate to California. Her latest novel, “Where I Was From,” describes her family’s experience in that state.
Didion first spoke of the problems she perceived with the California recall election.
“There may have been someone at the very beginning who thought it was a step in the correct direction,” she said, “but it rapidly got hijacked by opportunists.”
If presented with the choice, Didion said she would have voted against the recall.
Berkeley College Master John Rogers called Didion “one of the great Californian oracles.” He said he felt fortunate that Didion’s speech occurred at such a politically charged moment for California.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to have her here, a day before the recall,” Rogers said.
Didion, who spoke about the beginnings of her life as a writer, offered suggestions to aspiring writers in the audience.
“You just have to keep your notebook open and keep writing,” Didion said. “Then go back and reread, and those things will make a pattern.”
The author, who is known for carefully depicting place setting in her works, said her workplace of preference is “a bedroom in the back of her apartment” so cluttered with boxes and books she jokingly called it “a fire hazard.”
Didion discussed her goals in writing “Where I Was From.”
“I set out to write an essay about California, not a history,” she said. “I started it with my family because it kind of bled into what I thought of California as a place.”
Didion spoke of another place as well — El Salvador, the setting for her book entitled “Salvador.” Among her 11 other books are “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and “The White Album.”
Rogers praised Didion’s contributions to the literary world.
“[Didion is] widely considered to be the master of literary journalism,” Rogers said. “Her collection of essays are surely amongst the most influential works of the 20th century.”
Didion co-wrote the screenplay for “Up Close & Personal,” a 1996 film about broadcast journalists. When a student asked Didion about her screenwriting experience, she stressed the differences between the various types of writing experiences.
“Screenwriting is a game, a craft,” she said. “There’s a different rhythm to the novel.”
Regardless of the genre, Didion said she chooses to write on topics that captivate her.
“It can’t be a shallow interest,” she said.
Shira Milikowsky ’04 said listening to Didion was a unique opportunity.
“For me it’s just exciting to see her in person,” Milikowsky said. “She talks a lot like she writes.”
Didion said she considered other career paths. Nicole Lim ’04 said she was surprised by Didion’s answer to a student’s question about what profession she would have chosen if she did not become a writer.
“I just thought it was interesting that she would have wanted to have been an oceanographer,” Lim said.
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