Before I really knew anything about Joan Didion, I overheard an interview she did on PBS where she explained to Jeffrey Brown that paradox that all great writers know in their heart—writing gives one the ability to “[k]eep their distance and [g]et close” to others.
It is almost a criminal understatement to say that I identified with this.
But Joan Didion was a lot more than an interesting intellectual who had a penchant for great sound bites. She was an American success story. During her senior year as an English major at Berkeley in 1956, she won first place in the Prix de Paris essay contest that Vogue magazine sponsored. The prize was a job as a research assistant at the magazine.
By 1963, she published her first novel, Run, River. The writer, John Gregory Dunne, helped her edit the book, and before long, they fell in love and married. She stayed prolific with articles in Life, Esquire, The New York Review of Books, and countless other periodicals.
When she covered the case of the Central Park Five in 1991, she was practically the lone voice who cried foul. She observed how racism and media hysteria led to the conviction of the five young, black men. In 2002, when all five convictions were vacated, the rest of the world finally caught up.
If you’ve never read her work, I’d recommend The White Album or The Year of Magical Thinking, The latter is available for no cost if you belong to Audible and Vanessa Redgrave is perfectly suited to narrate.
So let’s celebrate the life of this great American author with 10 of her best quotes:
1. “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.”
2. “There’s a point when you go with what you’ve got. Or you don’t go.”
3. “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”
4. “Grammar is a piano I play by ear. All I know about grammar is its power.”
5. “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.”
6. “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.”
7. “You have to pick the places you don’t walk away from.”
8. “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.”
9. “The truth is, it’s easier for me to write than talk…to express the state I’m in at any time.”
10. “The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to their dream.”