In the spring of 1975, Joan Didion returned to her alma mater, U.C. Berkeley, to deliver the school’s prestigious Regents Lecture before a crowd of (mostly young, mostly female) admirers. She began with an admission: “Of course I stole the title for this talk, from George Orwell.” The lifted title was “Why I Write.” She had taken it, she said, because she liked its sonic resonances—i, i, i—and the way those three steady beats, first-person by default, captured the intimacies, and also the egocentricities, of writing. Didion had chosen her profession, she told the crowd, because, though she had tried to live in the realm of ideas—to be a professional academic, at Berkeley or somewhere like it—she had always found herself incorrigibly preoccupied with the messier facts of the world: the way a yellow curtain will catch the wind on a soft summer day, the pattern the lights take at the particle accelerator near the Berkeley campus, the particular way that petals, having lost their bloom, fall and gather on a floor. She had tried many other things before it became obvious that, for Joan Didion, writing was the only thing.
And then she broke the bad news. “There’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper,” the novelist and essayist informed her audience, “is the tactic of a secret bully.” Writing, she suggested, was not merely self-centered, but selfish; it was “an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.”