13 Joan Didion Quotes That Every Twenty-Something Will Understand

As a young-ish writer myself, Joan Didion has always been the pinnacle of cool — observing and aloof, glamorous and inspiring, a writer of innovative-in-its-time prose that is sometimes just-biting and always on-point. And although I think Didion’s work appeals to readers of all ages, there are some particular Joan Didion quotes that speak to twenty-somethings especially: those that describe the golden light of her yellow theatrical silk curtains, her encounters with the people she “used to be”, eating a peach on Lexington Avenue and suddenly sensing that the particular time of life in which she is living is unique and fleeting, her understanding impatience of the guilt that comes from unanswered phone calls and un-responded-to letters (or now: text messages), her knowledge that residing in a specific place — particularly a place like New York City — is essential to the act of becoming that women undertake in our twenties. She gets it, because she remembers what it was like to be a young woman discovering who she was as well. And because, as she admits, she wrote everything down.

The White Album was my first Didion, followed almost immediately by Slouching Towards Bethlehem — and I can honestly say they changed my relationship with reading and writing forever. She wrote about sitting on the floor of a recording studio while The Doors waited for Jim Morrison to get his act together, and I was utterly hooked. All I’ve ever wanted in my life is to sit on the floor of a recording studio while The Doors waited for Jim Morrison to get his act together, and then write about it, and Joan Didion did it on page one. I've been enamored with her ever since — and while some readers do consider Didion's writing elitist, I think her unpacking of the twin feelings of one's own significance and insignificance while growing up is something that can every twenty-something reader can understand. And appreciate.

Here are 13 Joan Didion quotes that every twenty-something will understand.

1. “One of the mixed blessings of being 20 and 21 and even 23 is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened before.”

― from Slouching Towards Bethlehem

2. “All I ever did to that apartment was hang fifty yards of yellow theatrical silk across the bedroom windows, because I had some idea that the gold light would make me feel better, but I did not bother to weight the curtains correctly and all that summer the long panels of transparent golden silk would blow out the windows and get tangled and drenched in afternoon thunderstorms. That was the year, my twenty-eighth, when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every word, all of it.”

― from Slouching Towards Bethlehem

3. “We are not idealized wild things. 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.”

― from The Year of Magical Thinking

4. “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.”

― from Slouching Towards Bethlehem

5. “There's a point when you go with what you've got. Or you don't go.”

― from The Paris Review

6. “I remember walking across Sixty-Second Street one twilight that first spring, or the second spring, they were all alike for a while. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out of the West and reached the mirage. I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume and I knew that it would cost something sooner or later — because I did not belong there, did not come from there — but when you are 22 or 23, you figure that later you will have a high emotional balance, and be able to pay whatever it costs. I still believed in possibilities then, still had the sense, so peculiar to New York, that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month.”

― from Slouching Towards Bethlehem

7. “All I knew was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was.”

― from Why I Write

8. “Time is the school in which we learn.”

― from The Year of Magical Thinking

9. “It is the phenomenon sometimes called alienation from self. In its advanced stages, we no longer answer the telephone, because someone might want something; that we could say "no" without drowning in self-reproach is an idea alien to this game. Every encounter demands too much, tears the nerves, drains the will, and the specter of something as small as an unanswered letter arouses such disproportionate guilt that answering it becomes out of the question. To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, 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.”

― from Slouching Towards Bethlehem

10. “I closed the box and put it in a closet. There is no real way to deal with everything we lose.”

― from Where I Was From

11. “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 oneself Cathy in Wuthering Heights with one's head in a Food Fair bag.”

― from Slouching Towards Bethlehem

12. “Of course we would all like to "believe" in something, like to assuage our private guilts in public causes, like to lose our tiresome selves; like, perhaps, to transform the white flag of defeat at home into the brave white banner of battle away from home. And of course it is all right to do that; that is how, immemorially, things have gotten done. But I think it is all right only so long as we do not delude ourselves about what we are doing, and why. It is all right only so long as we remember that all the ad hoc committees, all the picket lines, all the brave signatures in the New York Times, all the tools of agitprop straight across the spectrum do not confer upon anyone any ipso facto virtue. It is all right only so long as we recognize that the end may or may not be expedient, may or may not be a good idea, but in any case has nothing to do with "morality." Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble. And I suspect we are already there.”

― from Slouching Towards Bethlehem

13. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

― from The White Album

Images: Bảo-Quân Nguyễn(2), Arkady Lifshits, Utomo Hendra Saputra, Jake Melara, Evan Kirby/Unsplash