THE ‘LOST’ WORDS OF JOAN DIDION
The late author’s full 1975 UCR commencement address is available online for the first time
alifornia-rooted author and new journalism maven Joan Didion, who died Dec. 23, 2021, delivered what has been called one of the best commencement addresses ever to the UC Riverside class of 1975. In subsequent decades, excerpts have frequently been quoted in major media, but the 3,000-word-plus speech has existed in full for nearly 50 years only in the stacks of UCR Special Collections, and never in digital form — until now. Following are two excerpts from Didion’s famous address, “Planting a Tree is Not a Way of Life.” Find the full text online at UCR News.
I’m not going to give you the usual commencement line about how you stand on the brink of something. I don't know what that means. We all stand on the brink of something every day we get out of bed, and it usually turns out to be a precipice.
And I’m not going to tell you that today you begin to live in the world because, as I said before, I don’t think that happens automatically. Some of you live in the world already and some of you never will. It takes an act of will to live in the world, which is what I’m talking about today. By living in the world, I mean really trying to see it, look at it, trying to make connections.
And that’s not easy, it takes work. You have to keep stripping yourself down, examining everything you see, getting rid of whatever is blinding you. And sometimes when you get rid of what’s blinding you, you get your eyes opened, you don’t like what you see at all. And that’s the risk. It’s much easier to live in a world you imagined. At Heaven Haven, “where springs not fail.” A world in which the questions fit the answers and the answers fit the questions; the connections are already made. A world in which everything fits neatly into some idea or ideology.
But that kind of world is only easier for a little while. It cripples people who live in it. And it’s also dangerous in a bad way. It’s dangerous to the society, it’s dangerous to your own soul and sometimes it’s even physically dangerous. When you walk around blind long enough, someday you’re going to fall off that precipice that I mentioned you were on the brink of.
I think what you might be blinded for, what you ought to watch out for, is the habit of saying no, the habit of not believing anybody or anything. You’ve got to watch out for moving into a world where you don’t think there’s any objective reality, where there’s only you and that tree you just planted. There’s an objective reality, there is an objective social reality. Take it on faith.
All I want to tell you today, really, is not to do that. Not to move into that world where you’re alone with yourself and your tree. I want to tell you to live in the messy world, throw yourself into the convulsion of the world.
I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment.
And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could only tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.