The Key to Life, Love & Feminism Is in Joan Didion's Packing List

In her 1979 book of essays, The White Album, Joan Didion published her packing list. As in, she sent to print a list of the items she put in her suitcase when she traveled. It's a strange thing to publish and an even stranger thing to read, but I honestly don't know if another 28 lines of literature have impacted me so profoundly or taught me more about feminism. That should probably be an embarrassing thing to admit, but you know what? It's true. So naturally, when we talk about Women's History Month, I want to talk about Joan.

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Joan's packing list isn't just a fashion and self-care how-to (both of which it is, by the way); it's armor. It's a lesson in how to blend in, how to stand out, how to pamper yourself, how to pamper those around you, and how to take your whiskey. It's a lesson in minimalism and a lesson in feminism -- and, yes, it's framed inside my closet.

It's the essence of Joan, who is not an easy woman to pin down or describe. But we can try.


Who She Is

Joan Didion is a writer, a reporter, and a Sagittarius. She's an 81-year-old fashion and feminist icon, and she's penned more than 20 books in her life -- plus countless essays, articles, and pieces of advice. She is a little bit of a snob. She is also an essential figure in the lives of generations of writers and thinkers, and her thoughts and politics are as relevant now as they were when she wrote them. I will not call her a badass because I don't think she'd like that. But she's an untouchable kind of cool and at least a little mean, so take that as you will.

She's also a model, and hot as hell:

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How She's Shaping History

In the '50s and '60s, Joan wrote a fashion column by day and a novel by night. She was a woman who was prioritizing herself and her work. Who did that?

In the '70s, she popularized New Journalism and the idea that news writing could carry a narrative -- she was an investigative reporter who brought a measure of creativity back into journalism. In the '80s and '90s, she used this to create work that deconstructed the country's politics, digging through the rubble and showing us what lay beneath. Now, she's aging ahead of us and showing us how to love and lose and reflect gracefully, without dropping any measure of curiosity or spirit.

What I'm trying to say is this: Joan Didion doesn't so much as shape history as carve a path through it. We're lucky enough to follow behind her, deepening and widening the trail she's making while learning, from her guidance, how to navigate the world with sense, style, and a tough glint in our eyes.


Why She Inspires Me
 

Joan barged into literature and journalism and holds her ground to this day. She's mean, and she doesn't apologize for it. But she's also smart and graceful and a master at using words to structure and color a story -- whether that story is a romantic thriller or an investigation of the El Salvadorian massacre at El Mozote or a heartbreaking examination of her own journey with motherhood and loss.

I want to be as self-aware and as self-possessed as Joan Didion is. If I could write like her or pull off sunglasses like her, that'd be great, too. But I'll settle for her curiosity and her posture -- I mean, what else does a girl need?

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Her Words To Live By

Joan wants us to live by this:

To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves -- there lies the great, singular power of self-respect.

And I do. But I also live by this:

TO PACK AND WEAR:

2 skirts
2 jerseys or leotards
1 pullover sweater
2 pair shoes
stockings
bra
nightgown, robe slippers
cigarettes
bourbon
bag with: 
   shampoo
   toothbrush and paste
   Basis soap
   razor
   deodorant
   aspirin
   prescriptions
   Tampax
   face cream
   powder
   baby oil

TO CARRY:

mohair throw
typewriter
2 legal pads and pens
files
house key

 

 

Image via Neville Elder/Corbis

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