What’s Left Unsaid

Joan Didion is one of those writers whose tone is instantly and unmistakably recognizable. Didion writes mostly in spare, detached style. She manages to sound distant but at the same time to reveal intimate things. Much of this tone comes from Didion’s pacing and structure. She composes the essay out of fragments and simple sentences, so that the writing moves slowly and often by association. She juxtaposes seemingly unrelated scenes one after another with no transition. She lets quotations and dialogue stand on their own, often with little commentary. On the surface the pieces of the essay might seem disconnected, the descriptions sometimes plain. But Didion’s skill, and her distinct voice, is apparent in the meaning that emerges in these spaces. For all the gaps, and for all that she leaves unsaid, Didion has only to mention one small thought of her own, or give one small piece of commentary, and she manages to fill in all the gaps, to make both the scene and her feelings perfectly vivid exactly because of what has been left out.

I counted the control knobs on the electronic console. There were seventy-six. I was unsure in whose favor the dialogue had been resolved, or if it had been resolved at all. Robby Krieger picked at his guitar, and said that he needed a fuzz box. The producer suggested that he borrow one from the Buffalo Springfield, who were recording in the next studio. Krieger shrugged. Morrison sat down again on the leather couch and leaned back. He lit a match. He studied the flame awhile and then very slowly, very deliberately, lowered it to the fly of his black vinyl pants. Manzarek watched him. The girl who was rubbing Manzarek’s shoulders did not look at anyone. There was a sense that no one was going to leave the room, ever. It would be some weeks before The Doors finished recording this album. I did not see it through.

This paragraph is one small, simple example of Didion’s removed tone and quiet pace. She describes the scene in a series of simple sentences, most of which each describe a single, discreet action. There is no flowery language, no excess of detail. The scene unfolds as slowly as if it were in real time. Nor does Didion give any explanation or commentary on the scene, she simply describes what happens plainly, almost bluntly, sentence by sentence, action by action. The scene itself almost doesn’t even qualify as a scene: nothing of consequence happens — really almost nothing at all happens. And yet somehow, perhaps just in the last three sentences, the passage and the scene manages to take on a great weight. Clearly Didion finds significance in this scene, and while her pace matches the pace of the actual event, it also leave room for the reader to fill the writing with importance.


1. What, if anything, does this passage contribute to the argument of the essay as a whole?

2. Didion seems to include certain unnecessary details, such as the fact that she counted seventy-six knobs on the electric console. Do these details have a function within the piece? If so, what is it?

3. How does Didion’s writing here compare to a piece of newspaper reporting, which also often uses simple sentences to describe only actions and facts? How is this different?

4. Does Didion give away her own feelings about this scene? Does she feel positively or negatively about it, or is it ambiguous?

Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses Joan Didion Leading Questions

1 February 2011