Joan Didion is one of those few contemporary writers whom you could essentially ask anything—a woman of high class who's been ahead of her generation (she was born in 1934) ever since the Great Depression. Famous for her novels and nonfiction work, Didion was raised on California sunshine and a discontent with the American dream. It took her only two years to go from copywriter to feature editor at Vogue in the mid-1960s. Some of her more well-known works include Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and The Year of Magical Thinking (2005). She's one of the first literary journalists I ever studied in college, and ever since I read her essay "On Keeping A Notebook," my perspective on writing has been forever changed. Here are 40 photographs and quotes of Didion for you to feast your eyes and your soul on.
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.
Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one's own life — is the source from which self-respect springs.
Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes.
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.
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.”
The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself.
Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
Do not whine...Do not complain. Work harder. Spend more time alone.
Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.
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.
It was once suggested to me that, as an antidote to crying, I put my head in a paper bag. As it happens, there is a sound physiological reason, something to do with oxygen, for doing exactly that, but the psychological effect alone is incalculable: it is difficult in the extreme to continue fancying onceself Cathy in Wuthering Heights with one's head in a Food Fair bag.
The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past.
We tell ourselves stories in order to live. We live entirely by the impression of a narrative line upon disparate images, the shifting phantasmagoria, which is our actual experience.
There's a point when you go with what you've got. Or you don't go.
When I am near the end of a book, I have to sleep in the same room with it.
The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others — who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation, which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, is something people with courage can do without.
I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.
Until now I had been able only to grieve, not mourn. Grief was passive. Grief happened. Mourning, the act of dealing with grief, required attention.
To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed.
Writing nonfiction is more like sculpture, a matter of shaping the research into the finished thing. Novels are like paintings, specifically watercolors. Every stroke you put down you have to go with. Of course you can rewrite, but the original strokes are still there in the texture of the thing.
This post was originally published on May 10, 2016
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