“About once or twice every month I engage in public debates with those whose pressing need it is to woo and to win the approval of supernatural beings. Very often, when I give my view that there is no supernatural dimension, and certainly not one that is only or especially available to the faithful, and that the natural world is wonderful enough—and even miraculous enough if you insist—I attract pitying looks and anxious questions. How, in that case, I am asked, do I find meaning and purpose in life? How does a mere and gross materialist, with no expectation of a life to come, decide what, if anything, is worth caring about?
Depending on my mood, I sometimes but not always refrain from pointing out what a breathtakingly insulting and patronizing question this is. (It is on a par with the equally subtle inquiry: Since you don't believe in our god, what stops you from stealing and lying and raping and killing to your heart's content?) Just as the answer to the latter question is: self-respect and the desire for the respect of others—while in the meantime it is precisely those who think they have divine permission who are truly capable of any atrocity—so the answer to the first question falls into two parts. A life that partakes even a little of friendship, love, irony, humor, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others cannot be called 'meaningless' except if the person living it is also an existentialist and elects to call it so. It could be that all existence is a pointless joke, but it is not in fact possible to live one's everyday life as if this were so. Whereas if one sought to define meaninglessness and futility, the idea that a human life should be expended in the guilty, fearful, self-obsessed propitiation of supernatural nonentities… but there, there. Enough.”
― Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22: A Memoir
Joan Didion, writer of painful truths, hilarious observations, and wicked-good sentences, turns 79 today. She has taught us about the pleasure that can be found in keeping a notebook and the mixed feelings that can be experienced when moving away from a city you love. She's one of the greatest essayists around, which is why there's much to be learned from her fly-on-the-wall approach to journalistic storytelling, and her ability to write about grief in a heartbreakingly honest fashion. Here are six particularly powerful lessons than can be gleaned from her work:
1. It's important to reflect upon your past...
Didion's essay collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, includes a short piece entitled "On Keeping a Notebook." This was written before the author's more famous work about the pains and pleasures of recollection, and so offers a different perspective on personal memory-collecting than most people would typically associate with her. She's a writer's writer, to be sure, and often reflects on why she chooses to write things down. For Didion, a personal notebook is a means of never forgetting the person she once was, and the values she once held. She writes:
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.
Read "On Keeping a Notebook" here.
2. ...but also to not get mired down in memories.
In what may be her best-known work, The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion chronicles the grief she experiences after the loss of her husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne. The "magical thinking" mentioned in the title alludes to the anthropological concept that positive action can help a person evade a certain fate. In both this book and Blue Nights, a book addressing the death of her daughter, Didion mentions clinging to mementos or totems, in the hopes that they'll elicit perfect memories of the people they belonged to. This, she concludes, isn't a healthy means of coping, as memory can be a fickle friend. In Blue Nights, she writes:
In fact I no longer value this kind of memento. I no longer want reminders of what was, what got broken, what got lost, what got wasted. There was a period, a long period, dating from my childhood until quite recently, when I thought I did. A period during which I believed that I could keep people fully present, keep them with me, by preserving their mementos, their "things," their totems.
3. Writing, and other art forms, can be therapeutic forms of self-discovery.
Didion pays homage to George Orwell's famous essay, "Why I Write," in her piece of the same name. She begins by saying that writing is a way to assert her opinions, and even goes so far as to call it an "aggressive, even a hostile act." Of course, there's more to it than that. Didion has also famously said that she never understands how she feels about something until she's written about it. In that sense, it's a form of meditation, or self-discovery. When life presents her with a question, she writes to find the answer. Says Didion, “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.”
Read "Why I Write" here.
4. Telling stories helps us make sense of our lives.
In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion doesn't only explore the healthy or destructive ways she attempts to cope with grief. She also draws poignant conclusions about the ways in which we make sense of seemingly random events. For her, telling stories, or creating a sensical narrative from the disparate happenings in her life, is the most natural way to create meaning, and thereby have peace of mind. She writes:
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.
5. Self-respect is important, and must be sought after actively.
In a somewhat dogmatic, but nevertheless enlightening essay titled "On Self-Respect," Didion explores what it means to, well, respect oneself. The key, she asserts, is to "know the price of things." That is, to weigh the value of immediate pleasures versus long-term, "even intangible" comforts. She says that this ability is a virtue we're slowly losing, but it can always be learned. Interestingly, she cites Jordan Baker from The Great Gatsby as a shining example of self-respect. She writes:
...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.
Read "On Self-Respect" here.
6. Youth is a mixed blessing.
Joan Didion's oft-quoted essay, "Goodbye to All That," is ostensibly about her decision to move away from New York City, and the slower realization that it was no longer her home. But more than that, it's an essay about growing up. Of course, growing up means something different for everyone, but for Didion it meant realizing that personal comfort far outweighs attempting to live the life you're supposed to live - a life others would be impressed by. Didion describes the moments that comprised her New York life with cinematographic language, implying that she valued drama, and the opinions of anyone who might be watching her. She writes:
Some time later there was a song in the jukeboxes on the Upper East Side that went “but where is the schoolgirl who used to be me,” and if it was late enough at night I used to wonder that. I know now that almost everyone wonders something like that, sooner or later and no matter what he or she is doing, but one 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.
Read "Goodbye to All That" here.