Joan Didion

Hello, friends. Another week, another Joan! A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned Joan Didion’s book of collected nonfiction, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live. I’ve now read Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a series of loosely connected essays on the state of American culture in the late 1960s. It includes her famous reports from Haight Ashbury in 1967, and it is astonishingly, hauntingly good and powerful writing. I love being humbled in the presence of other writers, and I always hope a tiny fleck of that greatness will rub off on my own work.

This week, I wanted to put to you her claim about writers. In its longer form:

My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.

When I first read this, I wondered if it applied to fiction writers. I thought it was a sweeping statement, and I generally distrust sweeping statements (even sweeping statements about distrusting sweeping statements). But when I thought about it, I made a mental inventory of all the things I’ve raided from my personal life, childhood, family, friends’ disasters, relatives’ neuroses, strangers’ misfortunes and absurdities. I realized that yes, indirectly, I am always preying on these scraps in order to serve my work. If I’m not directly selling somebody out, I’m certainly cannibalizing their experiences and quirks. Or, at least, my interpration of them.

When writing, I also sell myself out. I create an alternative version of my own impulses. I might celebrate it, or mock it, or twist it, or pity it. Or, less satisfyingly, I sometimes fail to stand by a concept that was important to me, and which I would have preferred to pursue. It may be small comfort for the people who have to live with writers, but I suspect we’re even more merciless towards ourselves.

So yes, Joan Didion, I buy it. I love this image of the beady-eyed writer, never entirely trustworthy, always with an unarticulated agenda. What do you think, friends and readers?

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2 Responses to “Joan Didion”

  1. E.G.Randolph says:

    Never trust any one who bears a pen. Last winter I was pulled over at a school dance by a group of seniors because I was writing a poem on my arm. They thought I was taking note of the people who were drinking, (alcoholic beverages that is). I guess you can never be too careful.
    And, I agree, we are always our own worst critics. It can be quite a challenge to see ourselves as others do. Perhaps we simply know ourselves too well. If only it were as easy to correct our flaws as easily as we critic them.

  2. Ying says:

    E.G.Randolph, I love that anecdote. Writing poetry should come with its own disclaimer. And I’m enjoying the idea that you may, one day, sell them out, too, by working that incident into your poetry or prose.

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