While taking undergrad writing courses, I aspired to be as sharply observant and coolly cynical as Joan Didion. Her essay collections The White Album and Slouching towards Bethlehem captured the allure of Hollywood and the chaos of 60s California counterculture.
In the 60s and 70s, she perfected "New Journalism," the creative nonfiction format that brought stories to life with personal narratives. While eccentric men like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson dominated the genre, Didion brought some refreshing realism to it. Seven of her brilliant nonfiction books are collected in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live.
But she's best known for 2005's The Year of Magical Thinking, which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. With unusual frankness, she chronicled the grieving process after her husband John Gregory Dunne passed away. Blue Nights focused on the death of her daughter Quintana and her musings on the mixed blessings of motherhood.
Warning: these memoirs are not for the weak-hearted. They take us to the darkest mental places, where we lose those we love the most. But Didion rewards us with some of the most precise, quick-witted prose ever written.