When one's thoughts gravitate towards American Literature and the finest writers to have ever emerged as part of one of the most widely read canons around the world, there is a tendency to prescribe such renown to those with ties to Northeast and the Deep South of United States.
With names such as Herman Melville, Henry James, Edith Wharton, William Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, Harper Lee, and Philip Roth to names just barely a quarter of handful -- writers of various movements, and styles from across different generations, and times who's renown has grown as tall as the highest skyscraper in New York, and as fruitful as the lushest plantation in Mississippi -- it's hard not to privilege such parts of the United States with a reverence that is perhaps, rightfully deserved.
Nevertheless, while New York was busy enthralled by the latest Thomas Pynchon novel along with also having recently rediscovered its long lost love for F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby", out West, among the quiet suburbs of Sacramento, California, a city that even few Californians paid much heed to lost beneath the glamorous bliss of the booming film industry in Los Angeles, arose a writer named Joan Didion. Praised for her literary journalism and memoirs that identified and observed American subcultures for mainstream audiences, Didion also immersed her incisive hand into fiction, further reinforcing her trademarked style of exploring the issues of individual and social fragmentation in an America that was changing faster than the people who lived in it.
1. “Grammar is a piano I play by ear.”
There is no blueprint to good and great writing. There is only writing. Like all art, it begins from passion, and only from passion can it ever be made good. Made great.
2. “To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves--there lies the great, singular power of self-respect.”
In an age where much of our culture is consumed by social media -- how many likes we get on Instagram, or pokes on Facebook -- here perhaps, is a quote delivered several generations before who's relevance has but increased with the passing years. With our perception of dignity obsessively predicated what those around us expect of us, it is important to realize, and be reminded, that true fulfillment, and reverence comes when we learn to set our own expectations. And fulfill them.
3. “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 own image.”
We can only belong when we feel we belong within ourselves, and order to belong within ourselves, we first have to be ourselves, and before we can be ourselves, we must love ourselves. Among the greatest songs sung, the greatest stories told, there is no greater art than the art of being, and like all stories and songs stuck in a constant state of rewrites and edits, so to are we. But if we are to become the thing we love, we must write, rewrite, and edit, and afterwards, write, rewrite, and edit -- until we are the song, the story we love; the song, the story the belongs.
4. “A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.”
Whether you get much coverage from CNN or Fox, or you are just one of many passing back and forth the street like the hand on the clock who's shadow passes as a tireless manner of tired routine, your existence, along with the actions and decisions you make because of it, in some way manifest as a manner of consequence. Remove yourself from this place, and the world in consequence, will be left a lesser place (and not just because of the extra space).
5. “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.”
A line that has perhaps become all the more iconic for its appearance in Greta Gerwig's Academy Award nominated movie "Lady Bird", Didion takes a jab the persevered libertine lifestyle prescribed to California due to Hollywood's intoxicating influence. Nevertheless, as a place that has yielded writers such as John Steinbeck and Joan Didion herself, she among many of her Californians knew that the Golden State was a place far more capable than most, of yielding a greater subtlety. An introspection that has transformed Didion into one of America's greatist literary and journalistic icons.
At 84, and likely to stick around a little longer, there still remains a chance that Joan Didion might spare more of her insights and convictions from a long lost generation to one very much in need of insight and conviction. Before those of such a lifetime, pass into a generation that is long lost.