I blame my flickering attention, but I have always gone as gaga for isolated sentences as for whole books. One favorite begins an essay that I’ve read 20-odd times over 30-plus years, and it’s this: “Once, in a dry season, I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself.”
It plants a provocative idea — that abasement is the gateway to adulthood. But what really gets me is the order of the words, the clustering of all those prepositional phrases near the start. I was in college when I first read it, and I thought to myself that a dour composition instructor would take out a red pen and flag the meandering path from “wrote” to “that.”
I also thought that the sentence was perfect. Its detour was its music. And that music had a deliberately overwrought quality, signaling the author’s self-consciousness. “Large letters.” “Two pages.” This was someone taking herself very seriously — and wholly, endearingly aware of that.
Syntax and sensibility: Nobody wed them quite like Joan Didion, the author of that essay, “On Self-Respect,” and many others. She’s the subject of a new documentary, “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold,” which reveals that in the 1960s, when she worked at Vogue, the magazine’s editors committed to a reflection on self-respect before bothering to figure out who would fashion it. Only later did they settle on Didion, then in her 20s. She cooked it to order, and nonetheless came up with what is rightly considered one of her masterpieces.
“The Center Will Not Hold” is no masterpiece. But it’s fascinating, in part because of scattered tidbits like that. Directed by Griffin Dunne, her nephew, who includes footage from his recent interviews with her, it shows that despite her cultivated image as a nervous waif at the mercy of moods and the Santa Ana wind, she could be ruthlessly practical and utterly unsentimental.
Dunne asks her how she felt when, in the course of reporting an article about the San Francisco counterculture, she came across a 5-year-old on LSD. “It was gold,” she tells him. “You live for moments like that.”
She was married for nearly 40 years to an uncle of his, the writer John Gregory Dunne, whose death in 2003 prompted her exquisite memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking.” Griffin asks if he was put off decades earlier by her frank essay about trouble in their marriage.
“He edited that,” she answers, explaining that, as writers, they both understood that “you used your material.”
“You wrote what you had,” she says. “And that was what I happened to have at the moment.”
The couple collaborated on screenplays. Warren Beatty dropped by their Malibu beach house and flirted with her. In public, she hid behind big sunglasses and a little voice. In photographs, the angle of her hips and dangle of her cigarette were just so.
But the wisdom of the documentary, which is available on Netflix, is that it emphasizes prose over pose and keeps returning to her words.
They’re read aloud. They appear on-screen in their original typefaces. They’re why anyone cared about the rest of it and why her essay collections “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and “The White Album” could be found on the bookshelves of just about every aspiring journalist I knew when I was young.
Those volumes include this sentence, about an awakening: “That was the year, my twenty-eighth, when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.”
And this sentence, about college in the 1950s: “I suppose I am talking about just that: the ambiguity of belonging to a generation distrustful of political highs, the historical irrelevancy of growing up convinced that the heart of darkness lay not in some error of social organization but in man’s own blood.”
Also this, about the late ’60s: “I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no ‘meaning’ beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie but a cutting-room experience.”
Now even more than when Didion’s career took off, we turn successful writers and other artists into emblems of their eras, props in public dramas, curiosities divorced from any particular accomplishment. Frequently, they conspire in that.
But they usually get to that point only if there was something of substance to begin with, and they endure only if that something is precious. If it’s gold. At 82 Didion still glitters, on the page and in her nephew’s documentary, not because she had a flair for celebrity but because she had a genius for sentences.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.