4 March 2021

Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion

I would kill my own boyfriend for a Joan Didion essay written post 2018, but beggars can't be choosers. I was still thrilled to see that there would be a new Didion publication in 2021, even if it consisted of old writing. 

Let Me Tell You What I Mean is just under 200 pages and is all non-fiction. Some of the essays were dated very early in Didion's life. A very short essay details her reaction after being rejected from Stanford university. A longer one talks about observing her surroundings and her writing process:

I was not going to Honolulu because I wanted to see life reduced to a short story. I was going to Honolulu because I wanted to see life expanded to a novel, and I still do. I wanted not a window on the world but the world itself. I wanted everything in the picture. I wanted room for flowers, and reef fish, and people who might or might not have been driving one another to murder but in any case were not impelled, by the demands of the narrative convention, to say so out loud on the 8:45 am Pan American from Los Angeles to Honolulu."

I really enjoyed the essay she wrote about Ernest Hemingway. When Didion was a child she used to borrow A Farewell to Arms from the library and write out the first few sentences over and over again on her typewriter. She was obsessed with Hemingway's writing, and this essay is a reflection on his death and the posthumous publication of his work.

The Hemingway essay made me a little uncomfortable because I want what happened to his writing to happen to Didion's when she dies. I not-so-secretly hope that everything Didion even typed on her computer is published in a giant book I can order immediately. 

There is also a short essay on Tony Richardson which I enjoyed reading. Didion's family was close to the Richardson's (Vanessa Redgrave, and the late Natasha Richardson). Both families lost their daughters at a young age and share that horrible connection. Redgrave later performed The Year of Magical Thinking as a stage production. The essay talks almost exclusively about Tony and the movies he directed over the years. Now I want to watch The Border (1982) starring Jack Nicholson. 

I enjoyed reading Let Me Tell You What I Mean because I love seeing how Didion's writing develops over the decades she spent publishing work. There's still so much underlining anxiety and dread in these early essays ... something that will continue throughout all her work (fiction and non-fiction).

Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Strait seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the Bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind?" 

My favourite essay in the collection is the last one which is on Martha Stewart. This is the longest essay in the collection and was published in 2000, so a few years before Stewart is sentenced for insider trading. Didion has written about many famous women during her career (Nancy Regan, Patty Hearst, Linda Kasabian) and Stewart seemed like a very fitting topic. Below is my favourite passage from the Stewart essay, but also from the entire collection:

This is not a story about a woman who made the best of traditional skills. This is a story about a woman who did her own IPO. This is the 'woman's pluck' story, the dust-bowl story, the burying-your-child-on-the-trail story, the I-will-never-go-hungry-again story, the Mildred Pierce story, the story about how the sheer nerve of even professionally unskilled women can prevail, show the men; the story that has historically encouraged women in this country, even as it has threatened men. The dreams and the fears into which Martha Stewart taps are not of 'feminine' domesticity but of female power, of the woman who sits down at the table with the men and, still in her apron, walks away with the chips." 

I recommend Joan Didion to everyone I know. I always suggest they start with The Year of Magical Thinking or Blue Nights, but for those who really love her writing, I would recommend everything in between as well. I blew through this book in two days and have leant it to Ashley (another Didion superfan) right after!

1 comment:

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