Joan Didion, the American journalist and author, wrote fiercely and relentlessly. She was a stylist with a firm tone, arguably one of the strongest in her generation.

Her mathematical relationship with syntax and grammar created a certain sensibility in her craft. Mixed with her journalistic objectivity, it produced works that were astringently honest and deft but at time enigmatic. To understand Didion's work you had to understand her.

Born in Sacramento, she spent most of her life in California. New York was her second home. She wrote fiction, non-fiction and plays. Her creative non-fiction and first-person writing were the most revered by her fans.

Her forte was ' new journalism ' that seeks to create imagery in a long-form narrative. Her collection of magazine pieces titled Slouching towards Bethlehem is an example of that.

She wrote deftly about the counterculture in California in the nineteen sixties. Later, she wrote a grief memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, following her husband's death. Her only daughter was hospitalized at the time and passed away while she was on a book tour.

As a student, Didion had worked up her craft as a sensitive reader of literary masters. Hemingways was clearly her favorite.

As an English student at Berkeley in the nineteen-fifties, she read and re-read Hemingway and would often type his sentences to crack their pattern for syntax and grammar.

She used the patterns in her work as a reporter and in her personal essays. She wrote an essay about Hemingway in the New Yorker. The essay opens with the famous first paragraph from A Farewell to Arms.

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.

Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees.

The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterwards the road bare and white except for the leaves.

Didion broke it down as, ''four deceptively simple sentences, one hundred and twenty-six words, the arrangement of which remains as mysterious and thrilling to me now as it did when I first read them, at twelve or thirteen, and imagined that if I studied them closely enough and practised hard enough I might one day arrange one hundred and twenty-six such words myself.''

Ripping open a story or a feeling, often with unsparing rigour, in order to understand why, was what made Didion a literary master in her own right.

She viewed sentence structure to be supremely essential to her work. In her essay, WHY I WRITE, for which that title is a '' steal '' from Orwell, she writes, ''To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed ......  

The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind ..... The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what's going on in the picture.

As a reader and writer, I have always found lessons in Didion's work. As a teacher, when I taught Didion to my students, I felt Didion was teaching me. She is gone but we will always have her sentences, helping us unfurl new layers of discovery as her stories unfold.

The World Students Society thanks Hanneya Zuberi, a freelance journalist from Toronto.


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