Joan Didion, in her own words: 23 of the best quotes

The Californian author became the ultimate literary celebrity for her journalistic style. Here are some of her best quotes on writing, love, ageing and fear, plus a selection of essays

Joan Didion inspired writers and readers for decades. Her journalism, memoirs, and cultural and political commentary made her a unique chronicler of 20th-century culture.

Here are 23 quotes that encapsulate her writing:

On life

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. – The White Album (1979)

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

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 in 1976)

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 in 1961)

You have to pick the places you don’t walk away from. – A Book of Common Prayer (1977)

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)

[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 to anyone before. – Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)

There’s a point when you go with what you’ve got. Or you don’t go. – a The Paris Review interview (1978)

I did not always think he was right nor did he always think I was right but we were each the person the other trusted. – The Year of Magical Thinking (2005)

On loss

Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. – The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), which explores grief following the death of her husband

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. – On keeping a notebook, from Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)

I know what the fear is. The fear is not for what is lost. What is lost is already in the wall. What is lost is already behind the locked door. The fear is for what is still to be lost. – Blue Nights (2011)

There is no real way to deal with everything we lose. — Where I Was From (2003)

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)

Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. – The Year of Magical Thinking (2005)

On literature and writing

In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information was control. – The Year of Magical Thinking (2005)

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)

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. – Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)

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).

On places

Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are. – Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)

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. – Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)

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. – The White Album (1979)

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).

Which are your favourite Didion quotes or books? In what ways did her work inspire you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

• This piece was amended on 23 December 2021 to remove some text that had not been edited before launch.