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Planning Your Trip: Insider Tips on Reaching Catalina Island Hassle-Free

If you’re dreaming of a relaxing getaway to Catalina Island, you’re not alone. With its stunning beaches, crystal-clear waters, and charming seaside town, it’s no wonder that this Southern California gem is a popular destination for both locals and tourists alike. While planning your trip, one of the most important factors to consider is how to reach Catalina Island hassle-free. In this article, we’ll explore the best ways to get to Catalina Island so that you can start your vacation on the right foot.

By Ferry: The Classic Route

One of the most popular and iconic ways to reach Catalina Island is by taking a ferry. This classic route offers a scenic journey across the Pacific Ocean and allows you to fully immerse yourself in the island experience from the moment you step onboard. Several ferry companies operate daily trips from various mainland cities like Long Beach, San Pedro, and Dana Point.

The ferry ride typically takes around an hour or so, depending on your departure point. During the journey, you can relax on deck and enjoy breathtaking views of the coastline as you approach Avalon or Two Harbors. Ferries are spacious and comfortable with amenities such as indoor seating areas, restrooms, and snack bars.

By Helicopter: A Spectacular Arrival

For those seeking a more luxurious and time-efficient option, traveling to Catalina Island by helicopter is an excellent choice. Helicopter tours offer a unique way to experience the beauty of Southern California’s coastline while enjoying a thrilling adventure at the same time.

Helicopters depart from multiple locations along the coast such as Long Beach and San Pedro. The flight duration is significantly shorter compared to ferries – usually around 15-20 minutes – making it an ideal choice for those who want to maximize their time on the island.

By Private Boat: Ultimate Freedom

If you own or have access to a private boat, sailing to Catalina Island can be an unforgettable experience. It provides the ultimate freedom and flexibility, allowing you to explore the island at your own pace and discover hidden coves and secluded beaches that are often inaccessible by other means of transportation.

Before embarking on your journey, it’s crucial to familiarize yourself with the regulations and guidelines set by the Catalina Island Conservancy. You’ll need to obtain a permit for anchoring or mooring your boat in Avalon or Two Harbors. Additionally, it’s important to check weather conditions and plan accordingly as the ocean can be unpredictable.

By Seaplane: A Unique Adventure

For a truly unique adventure, consider taking a seaplane to reach Catalina Island. Seaplanes offer an exhilarating way to arrive on the island while enjoying stunning aerial views along the way. While this option may not be as readily available as ferries or helicopters, it offers an unparalleled experience for those seeking something out of the ordinary.

Seaplanes depart from select locations such as Long Beach and offer scheduled flights during peak seasons. The flight duration is relatively short, usually around 15-30 minutes depending on your departure point.

When planning your trip to Catalina Island, choosing the best way to get there is crucial for a hassle-free experience. Whether you opt for the classic ferry ride, a thrilling helicopter tour, a private boat adventure, or even a seaplane journey, each option offers its own unique advantages. Consider your preferences in terms of comfort, time constraints, budget, and overall experience when selecting your preferred mode of transportation. With careful planning and consideration of these insider tips, you’ll be well on your way to enjoying a memorable vacation on beautiful Catalina Island.

This text was generated using a large language model, and select text has been reviewed and moderated for purposes such as readability.


joan didion california dreaming essay

California Dreaming the Joan Didion Way

A new generation falls for the literary icon’s Golden State-inspired prose in a forthcoming essay collection


In The White Album , Joan Didion famously wrote that “a place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively … loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image” — criteria that made California hers for all time. Slouching Towards Los Angeles: Living and Writing by Joan Didion’s Light is a celebration and an investigation of Didion’s ongoing claim on California and its writers — because she, in turn, belongs to us.

joan didion california dreaming essay

Joan Didion grew up in Sacramento, went to college in Berkeley, and then, after a stint in New York City during which she worked at Vogue and met her husband, John Gregory Dunne, she returned to California in 1964 to live for 24 years in Los Angeles. These years were ones of radical change — from the rise of the counterculture through the Reagan era — and in that time Didion became the city’s most important public intellectual, elevating L.A. beyond Hollywood and Hollywood beyond itself. She held California up like a diamond, revealing each facet (and flaw) through meticulous and surprising detail, startling psychological insights and prose so clean it’s incandescent.

Slouching Towards Los Angeles is a love letter and thank-you note, personal memoir and social commentary, cultural history and literary critique. It offers a portrait of a writer and her readers that is as multifaceted as the work that inspired it. Each author finds a unique entry point. Some meet Didion on the L.A. freeways or Franklin Avenue. Others are more connected through inner landscapes. Some gaze at a photograph — a fleeting instant captured in Hollywood or Malibu — until it speaks its truth. A few enter through side doors like Didion’s recipe collection and the Sacramento state archives. Still others share personal histories that take us to Brentwood’s Mandeville Canyon and San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, after the hippies.

For my own essay “Dark Mirror: Reflections on the Golden Dream” (and the title of this tribute), I turned to the pages of Didion’s seminal 1968 book, Slouching Towards Bethlehem . The collection grapples with the cultural values of California, and the connection between identity and place — subjects that remain every bit as compelling today.

“This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with the country.” Those words, the first sentence of the first essay in Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem , struck me as vividly as the sunshine-yellow and Day-Glo-orange cover I found tucked into my mother’s bookshelf one summer after college. I was an aspiring magazine journalist with a creative writing degree, but Didion had eluded me until that moment, like so many things that don’t appear until we’re ready for them. I’d studied Yeats, though, and I recognized the nod to his poem “The Second Coming,” in which a sphinxlike beast turns its “blank and pitiless” gaze, and slowly moves its thighs. …

It was as if I’d been handed a psychic map pointing west

Steffie Nelson

So it was actually the Irish poet — and the acid hues of that 1979 edition, which currently sits on my bookshelf — that led me to this woman whose writing lit up some nerve center in me, speaking to me in a language I’d never heard before, about a California where the sun’s gaze was as pitiless as a beast’s. Somehow I didn’t read futility in her words; I felt desire, and a willingness to risk everything for the prize. Teetering on the edge of adulthood, it was as if I’d been handed a psychic map pointing west.

Love. Death. The golden land. The country.

joan didion california dreaming essay

That opening line of “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” is so simple yet so loaded with meaning, it’s almost a mantra. It reveals nothing but promises everything, and puts us in the driver’s seat — because in a flash, epic crimes and passions and landscapes unfurl like teaser reels across our minds. You might even call it lazy, leaning as it does on the reader’s imagination, but that’s the territory of the essay, anyway: the chasm between the glittering projection and what pans out. We’d like to believe that the dream will send us directly over the rainbow, reinvented and renewed, with pockets full of shiny nuggets and a suntan, too. But of course, the odds are against us. In this land, despair is bred at the same rate as hope, and Didion places her bets on the former. In fact, when this essay was originally published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1966, it was titled “How Can I Tell Them There’s Nothing Left?”

On the surface the tale of a marriage gone sour, an illicit affair and a murder, Didion frames this exurban tragedy as the Golden Dream running its inevitable course and, in so doing, flips the narrative so that the dream is more defined by its end than its beginning. Without the flameout (in this case Lucille Miller’s literal incineration of her husband, Gordon, in the passenger’s seat of their Volkswagen in Bakersfield), we only know half the story.

joan didion california dreaming essay

“Of course she came from somewhere else,” we are told about the 35-year-old mother of a teenage daughter, “for this is a Southern California story.” From the start, it’s obvious that nothing good can happen in this place just an hour east of Los Angeles, where the winds blow hot and women cobble their aspirations from movies, newspapers and the radio. According to her father, Lucille Miller “wanted to see the world.” In this setup that was her fatal flaw.

What she did get to see was the 1-acre lot through her picture window, and it wasn’t enough. Didion visited the California Institution for Women at Frontera, where Miller was incarcerated after being convicted of murder in the first degree, and found it to be populated by “murderesses … girls who somehow misunderstood the promise.” This was already clear about Miller, she implies, from the high lacquered hairdo she’d worn in the courtroom: as ready for her close-up as Norma Desmond ever was.

“The dream was teaching the dreamers how to live”

Joan Didion , Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Didion shows no compassion for Lucille Miller, but I find it hard not to pity this woman who was self-aware enough to realize that she’d settled for a life that would never fulfill her, and foolish and corrupt enough to think she could change her fate by burning her husband alive — an idea that came to her after watching Double Indemnity . The question is, when and where did the schism happen? Recounting the boilerplate B-movie dialogue exchanged by Miller and her lover, who’d promptly abandoned her once she was accused of murder, Didion asserts, “the dream was teaching the dreamers how to live.” But was it fiction dictating the script, or was this the glass Didion herself was looking through?

She’s such a master at manipulating the tension between utopia and dystopia that many L.A. writers — most of us from somewhere else, too — have internalized this queasy balance as our geographic destiny. But I’ve lived in Los Angeles for more than a decade, and I still don’t know if I’ve been to that pitiless place. I believe I’ve shielded my eyes against the same slanting sun and heard the Santa Anas rustling through the eucalyptus like snakes, but are those actual memories or just impressions left by language? They are like phantom experiences, in which sensations exist without physical cause.

joan didion california dreaming essay

“The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past,” Didion famously claimed in this essay. However, looking at the now iconic portraits of the young writer, I see a woman who is reluctant to smile for the camera, as if happiness or hope were somehow naive, given all that she knows. By any account she actually was living the dream during this time, but the passionate gratitude her fans have for Joan the person can be explained, I think, by our certainty that she never bought into the myth. She had seen the world and accurately gauged its promise. And then she made her place in the sun anyway — defying her own odds. There she will remain, plain and uncompromising, arms crossed — nobody’s fool, nobody’s victim. The fact that her darkest human dread was borne out, decades later, makes her youthful vigilance seem that much more exacting.

I’ve often wondered whether Didion, an avowed atheist who has stated her belief in “geology” over a personal God, knew about Yeats’ dedication to mysticism and the occult when she borrowed the title of her collection from him. His language brilliantly lends itself to the explosive creativity and chaos of the late 1960s — like the “sages standing in God’s holy fire” from his second most famous poem, “Sailing to Byzantium” — but “The Second Coming” also alludes to a pagan awakening that definitely suits the era but may not have suited Joan. Still, I’d like to think that somewhere within her solemn heart — maybe in the part of her that walked onto airplanes barefoot and gave her daughter the impossible, romantic name of Quintana Roo — she found space for a golden dream to drift in, and a center that would hold.

Excerpted from Slouching Towards Los Angeles: Living and Writing by Joan Didion’s Light , edited by Steffie Nelson ( Rare Bird Books , $27), available February 2020.


  • In 1963, Didion published her first novel, Run River — a haunting portrait of a California family with underlying commentary on the history of The Golden State.
  • Slouching Towards Bethlehem , Didion’s collection of essays largely about California in the 1960s, was published in 1968 to critical acclaim.
  • Didion published her second novel, Play It as It Lays . The story of a Hollywood starlet who descends into madness, it exposes the dark side of the California dream.
  • In 1979, Didion released a second book of essays, The White Album , featuring works that previously appeared in The Saturday Evening Post , Life and The New York Times , among other publications.
  • The Year of Magical Thinking , Didion’s memoir about her marriage and the year of grief that followed the death of her husband, was published in 2005 and named a Pulitzer Prize finalist. The same year, her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, tragically died from acute pancreatitis at the age of 39.
  • In 2011, Didion published Blue Nights , a memoir about her daughter’s adoption, parenthood, aging and her daughter’s untimely death.

joan didion california dreaming essay

Feature image: The couple and their daughter, QUINTANA ROO DUNNE, in Malibu in 1976. Photo by J ohn Bryson/Netflix.

This story originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of C Magazine.

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Joan Didion's California

Term paper, 2009, 14 pages, grade: 2,0, danko drusko (author), introduction, i. joan didion vs. california dreamin’, ii. california - a place of the mind.

III. Insider – Outsider

IV. Disillusionment

V. Los Angeles Notebook


In my paper on Joan Didion’s California I would like to take a closer look at Joan Didion’s writings, especially the way she writes about her home state of California. Many of her perspective consist of interesting dichotomies and contrasts. Throughout her works Didion reflects her feelings and impressions of California against the idealistic California Dreamin’ mentality. She shows in her writing the California of her mind and the contrasting California of her surroundings. Her perspectives also often present a paradox, as she seems to approach California sometimes as an outsider and sometimes as an insider. Following this I will discuss how she presents and reacts to disillusionment in her writing. Finally I will take a closer look at the essay “Los Angeles Notebook” in order to point out some specific examples of Didion’s perception.

Joan Didion’s upbringing in California gave her a unique and personal understanding of her home state, and the opportunity to witness other people’s perspectives and opinions of California. In order to better understand her stance, it is important to be aware of some of the decisive historical happenings from Joan Didion’s past. Her personal experiences and unique upbringing give her a strong and very different perspective on California opposed to the idealistic, common California Dreamin’ mentality that was pervasive throughout her generation. These little flashbacks into her past and a look at the common attitudes towards California will then serve as means to examine the different perspectives.

Joan Didion was born in Sacramento and her family history can be traced back to the nation's very first westward migration in search of new land. To those first migrants this western part of America, with its fierce American river and the muddy but fertile Sacramento river, must have looked like a paradise. In having such a remarkable family history reaching back to the first settlers of California, it is understandable that for some people California belongs to Joan Didion like to her "Kilimanjaro belongs to Ernest Hemingway. Oxford, Mississippi, belongs to William Faulkner... a great deal of Honolulu has always belonged for me to James Jones... A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image." [1]

In more recent decades the cultivated fields were replaced by housing developments or aerospace factories and the deserted roads made way for big freeways. The Sacramento she seems to know is a town of the past. In her book Slouching Towards Bethlehem, she writes that “All that is constant about the California of my childhood is the rate at which it disappears.” [2] […] “California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension." [3]

Being a member of the Central Valley elite, Didion grew up in an environment with a strong belief of the West as a special place. Didion herself is very attached to her native soil and admits, “I myself feel better the farther west I am.” [4] The stories and sayings from earlier times were handed down to her and, in a way, formed her value system. The California Joan Didion still lives in as an adult, is very much the latter-day California, and therefore stirs up reflections on the old California for her and how it compares to a constantly changing California. This constantly changing California has undergone different phases, from gold to cattle to aerospace engineering. Each particular phase that the state undergoes seems to have its boom and then fade out again.

Despite being the state capital, Sacramento, her hometown, remained a valley town where the winters are cold and the fields are threatened by floods, where the summers get very hot and the region is plagued by drought. The land in the valley is flat and thus exposed to the weather. It is striking that Joan Didion tries to involve nature as an extreme, and something of a contrast to the shiny belief of “California Dreamin’” and the belief that anything is possible here. In this sense her California reflects a mean side of a beautiful landscape. She describes these extremes in an interview with the New York Times Magazine:

“Well, I grew up in a dangerous landscape. I think people are more affected than they know by landscape and weather. Sacramento was a very extreme place. It was very flat, flatter than most people can imagine, and I still favour flat horizons. The weather in Sacramento was as extreme as the landscape. There were two rivers, and these rivers would flood in the winter and run dry in the summer. Winter was cold rain and tulle fog. Summer was 100 degrees, 105 degrees, 110 degrees. Those extremes affect the way you deal with the world. It so happens that if you’re a writer the extremes show up. They don’t if you sell insurance.” [5]

In writing about the dangerous landscape, Didion not only shows insights into her own fears and the way she grew up in this region, but also describes certain natural phenomenons and their scientific consequences. Because she describes the extremes and puts them against a California Dreamin,’ she shows that she does not conform to the concept of California that is being sold to the mainstream, which to her is a dream world. There is more to California than just Big Sur, the Golden Gate Bridge or Hollywood. In an interview she says, that “It kills me when people talk about California hedonism, […] anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento." By using the mentioned extremes, she also seems to shake her readers in order to wake them up from their dream. However, one might ask oneself: what is so wrong about dreaming? Who wants to live in fear when it is so much more comfortable to avoid it; a thought that Didion doesn’t quite want to reconstruct. People are surfing, enjoying the sun and relaxing in the hot tubs, but it doesn’t seem that there are people who think that they are living in a dream world and she wants to wake those people up.

Didion’s essays and novels play in a new California, that is attracting “the missing children [who are now] calling themselves “hippies”.” [6] She cannot identify with this generation because she grew up in an earlier much more conservative generation. The usage of many negative images in her writings, such as a nature that is a constant threat, shows the conservative disapproval for those chasing the “California Dreamin’.” It almost seems as if she wants to teach everyone a lesson by making use of these images. For example, there is a sarcastic passage about death where she writes that ”the dream was teaching the dreamers how to live.” [7] The picture that Didion uses here shows a new generation, striving for advancement and love, but all is being measured against negative consequences such as divorce, death, devastating winds or just “sunken” [8] lemon groves in front of their beautiful houses.

Didion has no faith in the new generation, “the children of the aerospace engineers” [9] . In her eyes not knowing the past only bears witness to ignorance and delusion. In the little passage about John Wayne she directly addresses the reader and tries to compare and give advice to the possible reader who she supposes to be of the new generation, (which also shows that her writings are meant not exclusively for her kind): “I tell you this neither in the spirit of self-revelation nor as an exercise in total recall, but simply to demonstrate that when John Wayne rode through my childhood, and perhaps through yours, he determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams.” [10]

In her writings she warns her readers that happiness cannot be found through illusion. Her observations try to involve the past and the reality behind a mentality full of dreamers. In this respect she says, "I'm not interested in the middle road-maybe because everyone's on it. Rationality, reasonableness bewilder me. I think it comes out of being a 'daughter of the Golden West.' A lot of the stories I was brought up on had to do with extreme actions-leaving everything behind, crossing the trackless wastes, and in those stories the people who stayed behind and had their settled ways-those people were not the people who got the prize. The prize was California." [11]

The California that Joan Didion seems to relate to appears to be place of the mind, in that it consists of a framework of memories and experiences were absorbed and is then imagined and pictured in a later time or circumstance.

Throughout her work, Joan Didion describes her California using historical background that goes back to the first migrants, the renowned Donner-Reed Party. The California she pictures is built upon memories from the past and from stories and sayings that were handed down to her. California is a place that Didion actively observed only to a certain degree. All that she experiences is being compared to the memories of a bygone California, a place of special people and special abundance that almost seems like a mythology full of tales.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/1979/06/10/books/didion-calif.html

[2] Didion, Joan. Slouching Towards Bethlehem. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968: 176

[3] Didion 1968: 172

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/1979/06/10/books/didion-calif.html

[5] www.parisreview.org/media/3439_DIDION.pdf

[6] Didion 1968:85

[7] Didion 1968:17

[8] Didion 1968:5

[9] Didion 1968:185

[10] Didion 1968: 30

[11] http://www.nytimes.com/1979/06/10/books/didion-calif.html

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Title: Joan Didion's California

California Dreaming With Joan Didion

Trapped in my apartment I pulled Joan’s books off the shelf. I wanted to learn again from her meticulous observation of detail, character and setting, and her great sense of irony.

Christopher Dickey

Christopher Dickey

World News Editor

joan didion california dreaming essay

John Bryson/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty

PARIS—A few years before I met her in an elevator in San Salvador, Joan Didion wrote a novel set in Central America. She’d been inspired by a fever-plagued trip to Colombia, which is actually a bit South of Central. And when the novel, A Book of Common Prayer , came out in 1977, a reporter for the New York Times noticed “props and cue cards” around Didion’s home office in Malibu: “postcards from Colombia, a newspaper photo of a janitor mopping up blood in a Caribbean hotel, books on tropical foliage and tropical medicine and a Viasa Airlines schedule with ‘Maracaibo-Paris’ circled in blue.” (Joan and her husband, the author John Gregory Dunne , loved Paris, especially the Bristol Hotel on the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, which had the distinction of an indoor pool and tanning terrace on the top floor.) 

There was also a map of Central America on which Joan had written notes to remind her of the effects she was looking for in the novel. Among them was the word “iridescent.” “I wanted to do a deceptive surface that appeared to be one thing and turned color as you looked through it,” she told the Times.

But when Didion was in the home stretch of Common Prayer she left behind the house in Malibu overlooking the sea, and the map, and the cue cards, and retreated to her mother’s home in Sacramento, which is where she grew up. “It’s very easy for me to work there,” she told the interviewer. “I’m not required to lead a real life. I’m like a child in my parents’ house.” Her room was “sort of a carnation-pink, and the vines and trees have grown up over the windows,” she said. “It’s exactly like a cave. It’s a very safe place.” 

Certainly it was very far from the Central America she imagined in Common Prayer , or that she and John and I traveled in five years later after we met in the elevator. That was part of a world they liked to call “Greene-land,” after the morally ambiguous, menacing, seductive settings for Graham Greene’s classic novels in Vietnam, Africa, Haiti and Cuba. But Sacramento, that was home. That was where Joan was from.

It was more than 25 years after A Book of Common Prayer that Joan published a nonfiction book looking at the iridescence of all she thought she knew about Sacramento, and about California. 

Here in a sun-filled room in Paris in an apartment I have not left for any reason for a week, and only a handful of times, for food, over the last month, I pulled several of Joan’s books off the shelf. I wanted to learn again from her meticulous observation of detail, character, and setting, and her great, often surprising sense of irony.

There were the classic essays of Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album , which were the first books by Joan Didion I ever read, long before I introduced myself at the Camino Real Hotel in 1982, when she was reporting the book that became Salvador . And there were the uncorrected proofs of several books she wrote after that which, for one reason or another, she would have her publisher send to me.

One of them from 1996, her novel The Last Thing He Wanted , has a broken spine and a lot of marginalia. The narrative overlapped with some of my own experiences in Central America, and I guess Joan wanted to check a few things, so I read it closely and made notes. One of the passages I underlined:

“ History’s rough draft.

We used to say.

When we still believed that history merited a second look. ”

Another I highlighted: 

“I recently sat at dinner in Washington next to a reporter who covered the ground in question. After a few glasses of wine he turned to me, lowered his voice, and said about this experience that nothing that had happened to him since, including the birth of his children and assignment to several more overt parts of the world, had made him feel so alive as waking up on that particular ground any day in that particular period.”

I understand that Netflix recently aired a movie based on The Last Thing He Wanted , but for any number of reasons I have not been able to watch it.

Finally, the book I picked up to read again from uncorrected cover to cover was Where I Was From , Joan Didion’s exploration of California’s past tense, and her last goodbye to the carnation-pink safety of Sacramento as she had thought she knew it.

“A good deal about California does not, on its own terms, add up,” Joan writes, as she tries to come to terms with the state’s often perverse exceptionalism. 

The first part of the book is an exploration of her family’s attachment to the legendary spirit of their forebears, pioneers who traveled overland to California in the 1840s and 1850s. Joan had been taught she was “a child of the crossing,” a story associated with extraordinary hardship. The grim fate of the Donner Party snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains in the winter of 1846-47 was only one example. “Children who died of cholera got buried on the trail. Women who believed they could keep some token of their mother’s house (the rosewood chest, the flat silver) learned to jettison memory and keep moving. Sentiment, like grief and dissent, cost time. A hesitation, a moment spent looking back, and the grail was forfeited”—the grail being the prize of land and life in California, and, finally, the ability to reinvent yourself on your own terms, perhaps many times over.

But this was not Hollywood or Malibu, which play little part in this book. The homes in Sacramento where Joan felt so safe while finishing her novels about Greene-land cultivated patinas on unpolished silver and brass as if that passed for history. “This predilection for the ‘old’ extended into all areas of domestic life: dried flowers were seen to have a more subtle charm than fresh, print should be faded, rugs worn, wallpaper streaked by the sun. Our highest moment in this area was the acquisition, in 1951, of a house in Sacramento in which the curtains on the stairs had not been changed since 1907. These curtains, which were of unlined (and faded, naturally) gold silk organza, hung almost two stories, billowed iridescent with every breath of air, and, if touched, crumbled.”

Yes, iridescent . 

Didionesque repetition is hard to resist.

Much of the middle of Where I Was From is about a place Joan Didion most assuredly was not from: the huge Lakewood housing development in Los Angeles built during the post-World War II early-Cold War boom when the aerospace industry in Southern California was taking off. Didion was looking at what happened after it crashed in the early 1990s, as McDonnell Douglas and other factories moved or shut down and hundreds of thousands of workers were laid off.

Today, with tens of millions of people filing for unemployment all over the United States, those chapters in Where I Was From have a resonance I hadn’t felt when they first appeared:

“The message on the marquee at Rochelle’s Restaurant and Motel and Convention Center, between Douglas and the Long Beach airport, still read, ‘ Welcome Douglas Happy Hour 4-7,’ but the place was nailed shut, a door banging in the wind. ‘We’ve developed good citizens,’ [real estate magnate] Mark Taper said about Lakewood in 1969. ‘Enthusiastic owners of property. Owners of a piece of their country—a stake in the land.’ This was a sturdy but finally unsupportable ambition, sustained for forty years by good times and the good will of the federal government.” And in the early 1990s all that was gone.

A thread running through the Lakewood chapters follows the allegations against a bunch of young men accused of rape and theft who called themselves the Spur Posse. The story of abuse of women is familiar, but takes on new relevance as the #MeToo era is conjoined with a depression economy:

“When times were good and there was money to spread around, these were the towns that proved Marx wrong, that managed to increase the proletariat and simultaneously, by calling it middle class, to co-opt it. Such towns [as Lakewood] were organized around the sedative idealization of team sports, which were believed to develop ‘good citizens,’ and therefore tended to the idealization of adolescent males… 

“When towns like these came on hard times, it was the same adolescent males, only recently the community’s most valued asset, who were most visibly left with nowhere to go.”

It is only in the last 23 pages of Where I Was From that Joan pulls the thread that brings the book together and back to her—where she was from—as she writes about the death of her mother “two weeks short of her ninety-first birthday” in May 2001: 

“Flying to Monterey [for the funeral] I had a sharp apprehension of the many times before when I had … ‘come back,’ flown west, followed the sun, each time experiencing a lightening of spirit as the land below opened up, the checkerboards of the midwestern plains giving way to the vast empty reach between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada; then home, there, where I was from, me , California. It would be a while before I realized that ‘me’ is what we think when our parents die, even at my age, who will look out for me now, who will remember me as I was, who will know what happens to me now, where will I be from. ”

Where I Was From was published in September 2003 when Joan was 68 years old. Reading it now one realizes that the elegiac tone at the end was like a premonition. In December that year, Joan and John’s daughter, Quintana, came down with a brutal strain of the flu, then toxic shock, and was put into an induced coma. I believe she was on a ventilator. One night after a visit to her in the hospital, John died suddenly in the apartment on the Upper East Side of New York, which had become where they were, and where they were from. And so began what Joan would call “ the year of magical thinking .” In 2005 Quintana, only partially recovered from her first illness and then the effects of a fall, died as well. She was 39 years old.

Joan is now 85, and my wife and I talk to her often on FaceTime, as we were doing long before we were locked down here, and before she was confined to the apartment there in New York. She seems almost impossibly frail. We laugh, we reminisce, we shake our heads about the state of the nation. But as I think of the cascading tragedies she has suffered over the last 16 years, I often wonder how she can endure. After re-reading Where I Was From this week, I have a clearer idea. After all—with whatever caveats she might make, and even there on the Upper East Side—she is still a child of the crossing.

joan didion california dreaming essay

Where I Was From

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joan didion california dreaming essay

Valerie Zane

Creative nonfiction: didion and sedaris.

My focus for this reading response is on the following four essays: Joan Didion’s Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 3-28), California Dreaming (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 73-78), On Going Home (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 164-168) and David Sedaris’s Go Carolina (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 3-15).

I enjoyed all four essays but to different extents and for different reasons. While I appreciated the first two (Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream and California Dreaming) primarily from a stylistic standpoint and because they gave insights which sparked my curiosity, I connected on a more personal level to the other two (On Going Home and Go Carolina).

In Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 3-28), Didion tells the story of “Lucille Marie Maxwell Miller” (AKA: Lucille Miller) who allegedly murdered her husband, Gordon “Cork” Miller by setting his car on fire with him still alive in it late one night on Banyan Street nearby their home in the San Bernardino Mountains in California. While Lucille Miller eventually gets convicted and sentenced for this crime, Didion never seems to pass judgment on her or settle on any particular conclusion of guilt or innocence in the story she tells. Instead, Didion seems to use this particular story as commentary on this place and the type of people who live there, as well as food for thought on the case, our legal system and society itself.

Stylistically, this essay struck me as both beautiful and functional. Didion’s transitions worked especially well as they allowed her to move the essay masterfully back and forth between the facts of the case and the illusions of opinion. Transitions like “Of course she came from somewhere else” (7) and “Unhappy marriages so resemble one another that we do not need to know about the course of this one” (8) gave Didion the ability and flexibility to weave in and out of the information she wanted to share and leave out things she deemed unimportant to her essay. These transitions allowed Didion to tell an otherwise tangled tale in an easy-to-digest way.

Didion’s California Dreaming, a much shorter essay though equally revealing story, is about the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, “the current mutation of the Fund for the Republic.” It’s in the little details where we as readers learn the most. For example, by choosing to use the word “mutation” here Didion is able to make a subtle though still poignant statement. In this essay, Didion takes what’s on the surface, or otherwise known as public knowledge,” and adds details, like the nepotistic aspects of the society for example, and even makes a few cult-like parallels, to make us curious about what is really going on here. Though Didion herself avoids making accusations and seems to almost dance around what she really thinks, she gives enough information so we, as readers, can come to our own conclusions.

In both essays, Didion take news stories and public information and dives deeper into them to reveal the aspects anyone not paying close attention may have missed. In doing so, she provides a unique insight into California culture while showing an uglier side of the so-called “American Dream.” In both essays, Didion uses imagery and description exceptionally to add layer after layer, while transitioning smoothly between those layers, to build toward climax. I felt myself being pulled so deeply into these stories that I was itching to know what would be revealed at every turn. And, even though neither essay provided a sense of closure, both gave me so much to think about that I could happily chew for days on certain paragraphs in an effort to try to figure out what Didion really thought about the people and events she was writing about.

On the downside, both Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream and California Dreaming struck me as a bit rushed, perhaps due to the sheer quantity of information being shared. And by rushing and squeezing so much in, I think, both essays also dismissed a sense of human connection and feeling. These essays, while profoundly interesting and stylistically beautiful, struck me at times as a collection of informative facts and quotes with little to no emotion.

The final two essays, Didion’s On Going Home (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 164-168) and David Sedaris’s Go Carolina (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 3-15), also made good choices stylistically but they didn’t make those choices at the expense of emotion and in doing so they were able to reach the next level by making the personal connections the other two essays missed. Both relied more heavily on opinion and feelings over “just the facts” and gave very personal accounts of the writers’ lives to give insight into perhaps why they are who they are.

In On Going Home, Didion tells the story of a time when, without her husband, she took her daughter “home” to celebrate her first birthday in the home where Didion grew up and with her premarital family. The essay deals with Didion’s personal issues as she compares and contrasts her current life with her husband and their child versus her life and experiences growing up. Didion shares vivid details to make her points about the differences between her current life/family and her background and in doing so she reveals positive and negative qualities about both. For example, I loved the story about the dust. By telling us that it was so dusty that her husband could literally write the word “dust” in it, it shows how unkempt the house is while also showing the condescending and pretentious qualities of her husband.

I really loved this story, and will likely use it as my second reading response later this week. I loved it so much, I think, because I could relate to it. It connects so well to the feeling many, including myself, get when they grow up, marry or enter a commitment with someone from a wildly different background. It’s so easy to see the differences, both positive and negative, between the families we are given and the families we choose. For example, I grew up in the inner city in Philadelphia while my husband grew up on a farm in Iowa (keeping in mind that while I grew up in Philly, I currently live in Iowa with my husband and daughter). It’s impossible to ignore the many glaring differences between the two that I often find myself loving and hating one over the other and shifting back and forth between which one wins or loses the individual battles of comparison. For example, while I love that my husband comes from a large laid back family with so many cousins all living nearby and the fun and festivities which come naturally with that, I hate that everyone knows each other’s business. Of course, there are also things I love, especially by comparison, about my own premarital family, too, like the faster paced life of the city and the way that how we, as a small family, act in times of struggle like it’s us against the world and how we all truly seem to “get each other.” But while I love “going home,” when I do there are moments when I feel like Didion as she revealed in her essay.

Not only was this story far more personal and emotional than Didion’s other two essays, in the other two she goes to great efforts to set up her stories before revealing the underlying issues and elements, while in this one she gets to the main points almost immediately and was far more conversational and raw, both personally and emotionally, than the other two.

Go Carolina (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 3-15) by David Sedaris made similar emotional connections for me as Didion’s On Going Home but while it had some similarities to Didion’s other two essays it maintained a style of its own. Like Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream and California Dreaming by Didion, Sedaris goes to great efforts to set up his story before jumping into its true themes and getting to the good stuff, so to speak. I liked his quirkier style and specifically how he used elements from a young boy’s imagination, like referring to the speech therapist as “Agent Samson” and his younger self’s creative problem solving, like avoiding the Ss. But what I really liked about this particular essay was the smart humor throughout and the way in which Sedaris set up this story—how he leads us to believe that this is a story about a boy who battled a speech impediment, but as the story builds the story behind the story is revealed and this is where Sedaris shares a far more personal journey and his issues with his sexuality.

Like Didion’s On Going Home, my favorite aspect of this essay is how Sedaris lets us in. He welcomes us into a very personal part of himself and does so in such a way where we feel like we belong there, like we’re not snooping around in someone else’s business.

Didion’s Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream, California Dreaming, On Going Home, and Sedaris’s Go Carolina are exceptional examples of how to weave a story that will grab and maintain a reader’s attention from start to finish. In all four of these essays, Didion and Sedaris use dark humor to deal with dark topics and some intense issues as they lead us down various well detailed paths in what felt to me, at times, like layered labyrinths. But none of them strolled too far down any particular path long enough for me to nod off, stop reading or skip ahead.

What I admire most and aspire toward, as a writer and writing student, is how Didion and Sedaris masterfully set up and paced their stories, as well as how they grabbed and kept my attention from start to finish by revealing just what I needed to know just when I needed to know it. Each told unique stories in his and her own unique ways and in reading them I feel satisfied by what I’ve consumed and yet I am still left thinking and wondering and wanting more.

Works Cited:

Didion, Joan. Slouching Towards Bethlehem. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.

Sedaris, David. Me Talk Pretty One Day. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2001.

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Op-Ed: I thought Joan Didion’s essay would ruin my life. But something else happened

A police officer looks at the charred Volkswagen Beetle in which Gordon E. Miller was found dead, in San Bernardino.

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Many people have been influenced by Joan Didion’s writing. But few of us can tell you what it was like to be the subject of one of her essays.

One of her most famous, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” which appeared in her book, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” is about my family. It is, in particular, about my mother, Lucille Miller, who was convicted of killing my father in one of the most infamous murder trials in California history.

To be the subject of a famous author’s work is both thrilling and devastating. Over the years, I have cycled through many emotions before coming to a kind of peace about my family’s strange connection to this iconic writer.

At the time of my father’s death, we lived in Alta Loma, a new subdivision of San Bernardino County. My father was a well-established dentist who hated his career and wanted to be a physician. My mother was an upwardly striving housewife who was deeply unhappy in her marriage and in love with the husband of one of her best friends.

One night in October 1964, as we three children slept, my mother and father drove in our black VW bug to the store for milk. On the way home, as my father slept in the passenger seat, the car caught fire and he burned to death.

My mother, who maintained her innocence until the day she died, was found guilty of setting the fire and murdering him. I was 14. My brother Guy was 10, and our little brother Ron was 8.

Didion’s essay is not sympathetic, but it helped make her famous. And rightfully so; she was able, by focusing on my mother, to rip apart the tissue of lies that California newcomers tell themselves about how life will be better, different, happier here.

“Here,” wrote Didion, “is the last stop for all those who come from somewhere else, for all those who drifted away from the cold and the past and the old ways. Here is where they are trying to find a new life style, trying to find it in the only places they know to look: the movies and the newspapers. The case of Lucille Marie Maxwell Miller is a tabloid monument to that new life style.”

My mother hated Didion’s essay and taught her children to hate it too. She believed it was Didion’s revenge on her for turning down an interview request. Whether it was or not, I think my mother made a huge mistake refusing to talk to Didion.

Didion would probably have found my mother to be a sympathetic character. Yes, she was vain, but she was small like Didion. At the time of her trial, she weighed less than a hundred pounds, even though she was pregnant with our little sister, Kimi, to whom she gave birth at St. Joseph’s Hospital in San Bernardino. She had petitioned Gov. Edmund G. Brown to have her baby away from the prison so Kimi would not have to bear that stigma.

At the time she was convicted, I believed deeply in my mother’s innocence. As Didion wrote about me: “‘She didn’t do it,’” Debbie Miller cried, jumping up from the spectators’ section. ‘She didn’t do it.’”

Now I’m not so sure. I think I need my mother to be guilty because she suffered so much, and no innocent person should pay such a price. I believe her infidelities doomed her. She was also stoic during her trial, hardly seeming like a grieving pregnant widow. The lines of her mouth turned down, making her look cold.

My mother spent seven years in prison and was paroled in 1972. If she wasn’t a criminal before she went to prison, prison turned her into one. Using her children to supply contraband, she ran the entire illicit alcohol supply in the prison and was never caught. She tried but failed to ever make a legitimate income once she was released. She died of breast cancer, broken and estranged from her children in 1986.

I struggled with addiction, got sober and became an English teacher in an all-girls school in Los Angeles. For years, I had been ashamed of Didion’s essay. I thought it was cruel, portraying us as a more upscale Joad family, only from Oregon instead of the Dust Bowl, having moved to California to find a nonexistent Golden Dream.

I remember one day in the early 1990s hearing a colleague musing about “Some Dreamers,” weighing the merits of teaching it to his seniors in conjunction with “The Great Gatsby,” both stories about strivers run amok.

I was horrified. I had never talked about that essay, not in high school, not in college, with one exception, my best friend Jill Bickett, chairman of our English Department to whom I immediately ran with this information. I feared some student might ask if the “Debbie” in the essay was related to me. One excited student might pass on the news to her parents, who would then call the school demanding to know if one of their teachers had been hired without revealing her sullied and infamous past. I would be called in, excuses would be made; the school couldn’t be embarrassed this way. I certainly understood, didn’t I?

I knew that essay would one day ruin my life and now it was happening. The situation worked itself out. I don’t remember how. I just remember I was assured the essay wouldn’t be taught.

Then a few weeks later, I sat on my pink couch at home in Venice looking through my books on writing for a good descriptive essay describing a place that reflected the author’s feelings. I found myself once more reading Didion’s essay, and then I read it again.

It had caused me to keep silent about my past, interfere in my colleague’s curriculum decisions out of fear of what could happen to me. I saw that Didion’s descriptions of us, where we lived, and my mother were in fact spot on. I was an adult. My mother was dead. Didion was a genius. I was free to have my own opinions. It was then that I saw what Didion saw. I knew my mother hadn’t fooled her. We were a modern day Joad family. My burdens were lifted.

I decided to write to Didion. I wanted her to know what had become of us. My baby sister, Kimi, died of lung cancer at the age of 25 in March 1991. Guy is a dentist. Ron is a high school English teacher.

My letter began, “Dear Joan Didion, I am anxious, angry, and jealous as my fragile self-esteem evaporates. I just can’t seem to avoid ‘Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream.’ It helped to make you famous, but it’s my life.”

I anxiously awaited her reply. Her letter arrived a month later in November 1991. It began, “Dear Debra Miller, I’ve begun this letter so many times, because there’s no real way to tell you how moved I was (am) by your letter.” Then her letter moves away from me and talks about the weird relationship between an author and her subject. She continues, “as a writer I tend to compartmentalize the people and events I’ve written about — the writer goes in, tries to understand the story, as if the act of writing it down completed the situation, became the truth. I guess I think writers need to do this, have to do this to maintain the nerve to write anything at all. But of course it’s an illusion.”

“I’m glad you wrote to me, ”she concluded. “Thank you –”

Six years later I met Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne at the Directors Guild in Beverly Hills. My husband’s daughter, Robin Abcarian, The Times columnist, was to interview Didion onstage about her latest novel, “The Last Thing He Wanted.” Robin cautioned me that Didion was famously shy and that I shouldn’t expect more than a hello, nice to meet you.

But that’s not what happened. When Robin introduced me to her backstage, she threw her arms around me, called her husband over to meet me, then tucked her arm in mine and escorted me into the auditorium and sat me down beside her. When an excerpt of the essay was read, focusing on the moment my father burned to death, she grabbed my arm and gave it a hug. Years of mortification melted away.

Sometime after that, I gave my colleagues permission to use the essay in their classes. I also gave them permission to tell their students that Ms. Miller was “Debbie,” the 15-year-old who cried out for her mother when the judge read the guilty verdict. I told my story to each junior English class, inviting students to ask me anything they wanted. It was intimidating to them, but it was rewarding for me.

Today, I’m proud to be the subject of a Joan Didion essay, and inspired by her, I’m working on my own memoir.

When people find out who I am they’re often shocked and then fascinated. I know they think that Debbie must have ended up a drug-addicted hooker on Sunset Boulevard. But that’s not what happened; I like seeing how the contradiction between what should have been and what is registers on their faces.

When I heard that Didion had died, the loss felt so personal to me. I called my brother Ron to talk about what she had meant in our lives. If not for her essay, I would not be the woman I am today — a woman to tell her own story, who survived and flourished rather than succumb to the darkness that consumed my mother and beckoned me.

Debra Miller is a retired high school teacher in Los Angeles.

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