In Her Own Words: Joan Didion Quotes on Life, Love, & Writing

Joan Didion in 1977

There are hugely influential writers who inspire others within their lifetimes, and Joan Didion ( 1934 – 2021 ) was certainly one of them. But it’s after her passing that everything she wrote seems to resonate even more, because we realize that there will be no further words of wisdom. This selection of quotes by Joan Didion highlights her unique talent at examining life — its joys, sorrows, and challenges.

In her tribute to Joan Didion upon her passing, Nancy Snyder wrote, “Joan Didion had her sublime sentences filled with a myriad of details to convey her personal and wholly authentic stories. She wrote about nearly every cultural and political upheaval that transformed the U.S. from the 1960s to the present day.”

Another, equally significant part of Didion’s writing is her observations on day-to-day things in a way that many of us already think about. But the manner in which she expressed them was anything but commonplace. She faced tragedies, like the loss of a beloved husband and a daughter, with words that cannot help but move.

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“To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves – there lies the great, singular power of self-respect.” (“Self-respect: Its Source, Its Power” (essay originally published in Vogue, 1961)

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“I am still committed to the idea that the ability to think for one’s self depends upon one’s mastery of the language.” (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1968)

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“Character – the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life – is the source from which self-respect springs.” (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1968)

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Joan Didion, photo by Brigitte Lacombe

Joan Didion, photo by Brigitte Lacombe
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“A writer is a person whose most absorbed and passion­ate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper. I write entirely to find out what’s on my mind, what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I’m seeing and what it means, what I want and what I’m afraid of.” (“On Keeping a Notebook,” essay included in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1968)

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“So the point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking. That would be a different impulse entirely, an instinct for reality which I sometimes envy but do not possess.” (“On Keeping a Notebook,” essay included in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1968)

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“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.” (UC Riverside commencement address, 1975)

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“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.” (“Why I Write,” essay originally published in the New York Times Book Review , 1976)

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“In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions—with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating—but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.” (“Why I Write,” essay originally published in the New York Times Book Review , 1976)

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“The fancy that extraterrestrial life is by definition of a higher order than our own, is one that soothes all children and many writers.” (The White Album, 1979)

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The Center wll not Hold - the Joan Didion documentary

The Center Will Not Hold is the excellent
2017 documentary on Joan Didion
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“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 Year of Magical Thinking, 2005)

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“A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.” (The Year of Magical Thinking, 2005)

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“I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead. ” (The Year of Magical Thinking, 2005)

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 “If you are doing a piece about somebody, even if you admire them tremendously and express that in the piece, express that admiration, if they’re not used to being written about, if they’re civilians … they’re not used to seeing themselves through other people’s eyes. So you will always see them from a slightly different angle than they see themselves, and they feel a little betrayed by that.” (Academy of Achievement Interview, June 3, 2006)

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“You get the sense that it’s possible simply to go through life noticing things and writing them down and that this is OK, it’s worth doing. That the seemingly insignificant things that most of us spend our days noticing are really significant, have meaning, and tell us something” ( The Paris Review interview, 2006)

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“When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.” (Blue Nights, 2011)

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“When we lose that sense of the possible we lose it fast. One day we are absorbed by dressing well, following the news, keeping up, coping, what we might call staying alive; the next day we are not.” (Blue Nights, 2011)

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“Do not whine … Do not complain. Work harder. Spend more time alone.” (Blue Nights, 2011)

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Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

2 Responses to “In Her Own Words: Joan Didion Quotes on Life, Love, & Writing”

  1. Thanks for collecting these great quotes that bring Joan’s wisdom into view and to practice into our own everyday lives; indescribable – the best word I can think to describe Joan

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