Joan Didion died last week at 87. She was the best, from her bleak existential novels of the sixties and seventies to her late memories of a certain kind of California girlhood. I used her to teach, and I think sometimes that everything my writing students needed to know was in this short passage, about her “apprenticeship” at Vogue.
“It is easy to make light of this kind of “writing,” and I mention it specifically because I do not make light of it at all: it was at Vogue that I learned a kind of ease with words, a way of regarding words not as mirrors of my own inadequacy but as tools, toys, weapons to be deployed strategically on a page. In a caption of, say, eight lines, each line to run no more or less than twenty-seven characters, not only every word but every letter counted. At Vogue one learned fast, or one did not stay, how to play games with words, how to put a couple of unwieldy dependent clauses through a typewriter and roll them out transformed into one simple sentence composed of precisely thirty-nine characters. We were connoisseurs of synonyms. We were collectors of verbs. (I recall “to ravish” as a highly favored verb for a number of issues and I also recall it, for a number of issues more, as the source of a highly favored noun: “ravishments,” as in “tables cluttered with porcelain tulips, Fabergé eggs, other ravishments.”) We learned as reflex the grammatical tricks we had learned only as marginal corrections in school (“there were two oranges and an apple” read better than “there were an apple and two oranges,” passive verbs slowed down sentences, “it” needed a reference within the scan of the eye), learned to rely on the OED, learned to write and rewrite and rewrite again. “Run it through again, sweetie, it’s not quite there.” “Give me a shock verb two lines in.” “Prune it out, clean it up, make the point.” Less was more, smooth was a better, and absolute precision essential to the monthly grand illusion. Going to work for Vogue was, in the late 1950s, not unlike training with the Rockettes.”