To make a huge understatement, Joan Didion had an incredible way with words. Quotes from the famed essayist always manage to pack a punch, but they hit the hardest when you read them knowing the context of her life. While one of the best ways to get to know her is by reading her work (and by reading this essay on her life), you can also watch Griffin Dunne’s Joan Didion documentary, The Center Will Not Hold, which premiered on Netflix in October 2017. The film is a retrospect of the literary giant’s career, from her earliest successes to more present-day milestones—like the publication of her National Book Award winner, The Year of Magical Thinking.
I first saw the documentary at a New York screening, and at the risk of sounding cliche, I laughed (Didion's solution to writer’s block is putting manuscripts in the freezer), and I cried (she opens up about her husband and daughter's deaths). For the first time, we get an intimate glimpse at a woman who, for the most part, has always seemed slightly removed behind her black sunglasses. More than that, it seems fitting to learn about the woman who has helped so many—including myself—learn about themselves through her writing.
And that’s the thing about Joan Didion: she gets people. During the countless times I've read Slouching Towards Bethlehem' s “On Keeping a Journal," I've felt as though she knew my own thoughts. Her journalism, too, has shone a spotlight on stories that would have otherwise gone ignored, while also tackling hot topics of the era—always capturing a generation, a time, or a place. Her writing often strikes a nerve, and the quotes below are just a few of the 'Didionisms' that have gotten under our skin, and lingered there.
The White Album
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
“I tell you this not as aimless revelation but because I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind. I want you to understand exactly what you are getting: you are getting a woman who for some time now has felt radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest people. You are getting a woman who somewhere along the line misplaced whatever slight faith she ever had in the social contract, in the meliorative principle, in the whole grand pattern of human endeavor.”
“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.”
Play It as It Lays
“I am what I am. To look for reasons is beside the point."
“I know what ‘nothing’ means, and I keep on playing.”
“I mean maybe I was holding all the aces, but what was the game?”
Slouching Towards Bethlehem
“Innocence ends when we are stripped of the delusion one likes oneself.”
“We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”
“Character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life—is the source from which self-respect brings.”
“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.”
“Our favorite people and our favorite stories become so not by any inherent virtue, but because they illustrate something deep in the grain, something unadmitted.”
“To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself and finds no one at home.”
“[I] would even think, God forgive me, that there must be a certain peace in outliving all debts and claims, in being known to no one, floating free. I believed that days would be too full forever, too crowded with friends there was no time to see...I was wrong.”
“A good part of any day in Los Angeles is spent driving, alone, through streets devoid of meaning to the driver, which is one reason the place exhilarates some people, and floods others with an amorphous unease. There is about these hours spent in transit a seductive unconnectedness. ”
“...we never reach a point at which our lives lie before us as a clearly marked open road, never have and never should expect a map to the years ahead, never do close those circles that seem, at thirteen and fourteen and nineteen, so urgently in need of closing.”
"As time goes by I think that men who were unable to make choices were more right than those who made them. Because there are no clean choices."
"To spend time in Miami is to acquire a certain fluency in cognitive dissonance. What Allen Dulles called the disposal problem is what Miami calls la lucha. One man's loose cannon is another's freedom fight, or, in the local phrase, a man of action, or man of valor."
“Do not whine...Do not complain. Work harder. Spend more time alone.”
“In theory momentos serve to bring back the moment. In fact they serve only to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here.”
“During the blue nights you think the end of day will never come. As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone...Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.”
The Year of Magical Thinking
“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.”
“We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.”
“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”
"A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty."
Related: The 10 Best Book Quotes to Live By