We’ll keep telling your stories, Joan: A tribute to the late and lovely Joan Didion

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” This is the opening line to American novelist, journalist and counterculturist Joan Didion’s essay collection, The White Album. It is also the first sentence I read in an American Lit class a year and a half ago at UBC.

As simple as that sentence sounds, how beautiful and captivating those words prove to be. Isn’t that what we all do? We tell ourselves things in order to get through the day-to-day, the mundane. We learn to comfort ourselves when no one else can, and the power of a story, whether true or not, can be sought out and articulated as the purest form of consolation.

Another human being who knows absolutely nothing about our individual existences is able to offer us comfort through their words. How beautiful this is!

As an English student, I often find myself enthralled with certain writers or activists that I study, allowing their words to seep into my skin in a way I imagine movies or artwork have the same effect on some people. I live vicariously through their lives which are often long gone. It’s a symbiotic relationship; I’d like to think that a writer — though unbeknownst to them — has such a profound and lasting impact on one of their readers, and I am lucky enough to have found them, as if the words were meant for me to hear.

Joan Didion is someone who I have idolized ever since I first encountered her work. Our differences are palpable; Didion lived a long and extraordinary life amidst times of extreme reformation and witnessed some of the greatest social rebellions in the twentieth century firsthand. Meanwhile, I study from behind my computer screen in my Ikea swivel chair, sipping my third coffee of the day before 11 a.m.

What struck a chord for me with Didion was her ability to make these wildly unapproachable topics so endearing and relatable to a crowd of UBC students whose lives began 20 years after Didion wrote about these experiences. Her undeniable elegance depicted in her seamless writing, matched with her fiery persona and toughness, stitch together such an emblem for femininity.

Didion writes, “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” In her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion details her struggle with grief following the sudden death of her husband, John, as well as her daughter, Quintana’s persistent illness and hospitalization.

Didion was not dramatic or flamboyant. She did not use worn out adages or tired quotations. She was a realist. Her words were so uniquely her own, but so deeply perceptible to anyone who came across them.

I think her words about grief are so comforting to people because they aren’t exaggerated expressions. She wrote honestly.

So in this time of mourning, of course there is the life that she left behind, and the words that will ring in my ear encouraging me to savour each moment, each dinner party, every long and drawn out class — because it could expire at any given chance.

“We imagine things — that we wouldn’t be able to survive, but in fact, we do survive. We have no choice, so we do it.”