One pastel afternoon in 1954, Joan Didion, an eager-eyed twenty-year-old from the West Coast, hopped off the DC-7 and inhaled her first breath of New York. The air was light with spring’s early blossom, streets buttered with sleepy rays of sunlight. A mountain of tired bags sat perched beside her California-kissed legs. She took another breath. Scents of lilac and garbage and expensive perfume lay heavy, the grinding of subway carts rumbling beneath. Loud, bustling, beautiful. This was Didion’s first encounter with the City, a timid greeting that would later develop into infectious infatuation.
Following any writer’s prescribed pilgrimage, Didion set off for New York in pursuit of inspiration and fulfillment. In fact, every great American author in recent history, if not a New York native, has dwelled in the city for at least a short period of time. In her reflective essay Goodbye To All That, she confidently explains “New York is no mere city...It is instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power.” Indeed, it is on this premise so many wonderfully talented writers, musicians, and designers flock to the Empire city in mass. It is for this reason, in turn, the city has orchestrated some of the most stunning street art, Broadway shows, and spoken word poetry to date.
Of course, the pulling-factor that makes New York City so inviting to artists is its sheer reach, both in geography and spirit. Didion is famed for her critical journalism—honest and intelligent—much of which was sculpted by her time working at Vogue. Yet, borrow punk-poet Patti Smith’s looking glass and you’ll experience a much darker, toxin-fueled account of the same iconography. Again arriving in New York a self-proclaimed “young artist,” Smith spends the majority of her debut memoir Just Kids romanticizing poverty and fueling her inherent hunger to create. For Smith, energy and connection form New York’s currency, with little attention granted to modern materialism. Naturally, a large proportion of her work ponders over the golden bond she shared with photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe. A disruptive creator in his own right, she recalls how “coloring excited him, not the act of filling in space, but choosing colors that no-one else would select. In the green hills he saw red. Purple snow, green skin, silver sun.”
Freedom to choose. Freedom to change. Freedom to be.
Freedom to choose. Freedom to change. Freedom to be. This is what New York has not only always allowed, but encouraged. The city’s rich tapestry promotes diversity and distinction, making way for colorful self-expression across the spectrum of age, gender, race and occupation. We witness it in the frankness of Didion and the Rimbaud-inspired impressionism of Patti Smith. Ever more relatable, we see it in the form of Instagram poetry and podcasts; the likes of Atticus and Rupi Kaur magnifying the tones of New York’s literary innovators, molding their messages into bitesize chunks.
The social media of 2017 is not, as many assume, a driving force in artistic innovation. Somber emotion and sweet flavor have been at the forefront of the American literary scene for the past century, Didion and Smith tying together the frail strings of style, music, and modernism. The digital setting, instead, sparks a fire in the forthcoming generation of creatives, empowers those shy to speak, and acts as one the most powerful literary vehicles to date. A literary vehicle, we must note, largely driven by the unstoppable momentum of New York initiatives.
In arguably her most widely-shared quote, Joan Didion puts succinctly: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” Her message is poignant, soft and snuggly fits into a 140 character bracket. Seeing, thinking, communicating. Isn’t that all social media is, after all?
Learn more about the life of Joan Didion in a new Netflix documentary, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, made her nephew.