Joan Didion’s 79th birthday is today, and yet the writer’s age still belies her contribution to the literary community, to anyone who has ever come of age, and to humanity at large. The novelist and cultural journalist once said she wrote in an effort to better understand herself, but on that path to self-discovery, she's peeled back the skin of existence itself, turning her subjective experience into objective truths, however pure or painful, without wincing or whining. Inspiring? Not always. But honest and soul-shaking, most definitely. She is the kind of writer who can reveal the philosophical weight of a backyard pool, or write a person-of-interest profile solely by documenting other people’s conversations about said person (See “7000 Romaine, Los Angeles”). She published her first novel at 29, and by 34 wrote what should be required reading for anyone considering picking up a pen or downloading Microsoft Word: Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
Did we mention that she is beautiful (see above)? Stylish? Didion drove a Corvette. She was bicoastal. She clocked hours at Vogue. She married another writer. Eric Fischl painted her portrait. As far as we’re concerned, she may just be the most interesting woman in the world. Mrs. Didion—we are not worthy (believe us, we spend far too much time watching One Direction music video parodies). ANYWAY. We took the occasion of her birthday to re-read a lot of her work, and round up some of our favorite Didion quotes and pics.
“I'm not telling you to make the world better, because I don't think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I'm just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave's a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that's what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.”
"You have to pick the places you don't walk away from."
“Do not whine... Do not complain. Work harder. Spend more time alone.”
On New York:
“New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself. To think of 'living' there was to reduce the miraculous to the mundane; one does not 'live' at Xanadu.”
“...quite simply, I was in love with New York. I do not mean 'love' in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again.”
"It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city for only the very young."
"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 own image."
“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended.”
“To cure jealousy is to see it for what it is, a dissatisfaction with self.”
"To have that sense of one's intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything."
“People with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called ‘character,’ a quality which, although approved in the abstract, sometimes loses ground to other, more instantly negotiable virtues…Nonetheless, character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life—is the source from which self-respect springs.”
"Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss. Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it?"
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live…. We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”
“Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
“[Writing is] hostile in that you're trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture. It's hostile to try to wrench around someone else's mind that way. Quite often you want to tell somebody your dream, your nightmare. Well, nobody wants to hear about someone else's dream, good or bad; nobody wants to walk around with it. The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream."
“My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests.”
On Modern Convenience:
“A pool is, for many of us in the West, a symbol not of affluence but of order, of control over the uncontrollable. A pool is water, made available and useful, and is, as such, infinitely soothing to the western eye.”
“She hoped that although he could not hear her she could somehow imprint her ordinary love upon his memory through all eternity, hoped he would rise thinking of her, we were each other, we were each other, not that it mattered much in the long run but what else mattered as much.”
On Growing Up:
“[O]ne of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened before.”
"That was the year, my twenty-eighth, when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it."
“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”