by Nicola Sayers
We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
I don’t know where I first came across this sentence. I was in my early twenties, so it can’t have been on Instagram, although I’ve since seen it there so many times that this is now how it appears in my mind’s eye: boxy black print, hovering in mid-square. My young notebooks are less polished: in those the sentence is scribbled over and over in messy, heartfelt handwriting, a kind of incantation to writerly promise. But there, too, it stands alone. Surrounded by white space, free-floating, as though it does its best work all by itself.
But it wasn’t, of course, written to stand alone. It is the first sentence in Joan Didion’s iconic 1979 essay The White Album, an essay which goes on to examine exactly the moments when the stories we tell ourselves no longer work or, worse, when no stories present themselves to us at all, when we can’t make sense of any of it. It is an essay about California in the 1960s and, not unrelatedly, about her own mental health struggles (as is often the case in Didion’s writing, her state of mind is not examined as its own particular thing, but taken instead as a clue to the state of the world). It is an essay about disorder, about fragmentation, about falling apart. If, in 1976, Didion stated in ‘Why I write’ that ‘I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means’, in her 1979 essay (parts of which had been previously published) she concludes that – at least when it comes to the events of the sixties, and her experiences of them – ‘writing has not yet helped me to see what it means.’
I did not know any of this, though, when I first came across that sentence. In truth, I didn’t even know who Joan Didion was. It was a number of years before I would come to read the essay to which the sentence belongs, and I confess that I was initially disappointed.
I could see, of course, that the writing was brilliant, the mood evocative, but there was a coolness to Didion’s writing that was different to what I had imagined. The author of the sentence I had years ago latched onto was an ally, a friend. She understood the existential fear that nothing makes sense, but applauded the utopianism inherent in the effort to try to make sense of it anyway. The author of ‘The White Album’ was more circumspect in offering any intimations of hope. The sentence does something different, read alone, to what it does in the larger text of which it was originally a part.
I am not the only one for whom that sentence has particular meaning. It is one of Didion’s best known sentences, so much so that the 2006 complete volume of her collected essays was named after it.
We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
It is such a simple sentence that it is a wonder that no one had ever written it before. It manages to seem both self-evident and profound, to tell you the thing you already knew but didn’t know you knew. It speaks to both the longest standing, deepest narratives (Greek mythology, the Bible and so forth), and to the thing that might have preoccupied you yesterday (why didn’t he text me back?) It is concise, sparse, careful.
In this regard is it usefully contrasted with another sentence that has also attained the distinction of what I will call the ‘celebrity sentence’: sentences that are far more widely read than the essays or books of which they are a part. This one is by Jack Kerouac, in his 1957 novel On The Road.
… the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centrelight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
This one struck me long before I knew it to be famous. In my copy of On the Road, bought initially for a university assignment, it actually has stars and hearts all around it – in red ink! (It was the very end of the nineties and my little records were all suffused with a kind of Virgin Suicides -esque cuteness). The point is that it is a great sentence, and it has been since long before the internet made it famous. If it is over the top it is because it needs to be. It captures the kind of life-affirming intensity, or wildness, that it sets out to, and that the Beats are known for.
As is sometimes said of actual celebrities, the sentences that become famous in their own right often do have a ‘star quality’. They stand out from other sentences on the page. Unlike actual celebrities, celebrity sentences are rarely famous for nothing.
That said, there are countless brilliant sentences that never make it to celebrity status. So what’s the formula? What elevates certain sentences above the others? The authors of celebrity sentences are often those who themselves were surrounded with an aura of celebrity. This helps the sentence, in today’s age, as the image accompanying the sentence on social media does wonders for its allure. If Didion is known for her cool, it is of course not only in her prose. The photographs of the waif-like figure leaning against her Corvette Stingray, cigarette in hand, looking simultaneously fragile and steely, vulnerable and determined, are even more Instagrammed than the aforementioned sentence, and understandably so. Don’t we all wish we were as cool as that? (As incredible a writer as she was, I don’t think it’s inappropriate or, I hope, unfeminist, to ask whether she would have become as iconic if she’s been badly dressed or overweight. Celebrated, surely, but iconic in the way she is?)
Kerouac, likewise, looks good. And the thrill – the cool – of the Beats sure helps to sell a sentence. Re-reading On The Road recently I was struck by how differently it felt to me now: too close to the women they left at home to look after their children to be as enamored with their escapades as I once was. And yet even with that new perspective there was still a kind of nostalgia, a sharp memory of the excitement that his words used to stir in me, a pang of what used to – in his words – burn, burn, burn. And that easily evoked, or easily remembered, dart of promise is what the Instagrammable sentence relies on.
I do wonder, as these sentences float past me in squares, how many of those posting have read the original works. Does it undermine the sentences to be re-packaged, in just the same way as wellness quotes by anon and the like, and sent forth into the world? But then I remember that the standalone sentence has a long tradition. When, as a youth, I was drawing inspiration from certain sentences whose origins I knew little of, then even then it was nothing new. (Just think of Walter Benjamin’s Paris Arcades: a love letter to the ‘quote’ if ever there was one, and an argument for how words and works can be taken out, re-cut, re-used in different contexts, and made anew). What’s more, a standalone sentence often can contain clues to the whole. Even if Didion’s famous sentence doesn’t tell you much about the particular essay of which it is a part, my youthful sense of its inherent writerly utopianism does speak to something true of Didion’s oeuvre more generally. She is, after all, the poster-girl for many aspiring writers – perhaps because, if she believed in anything, it was the basic worth of putting pen to paper.