Her Back Pages

With Let Me Tell You What I Mean, Joan Didion ties up the loose ends of a literary life.

joan didion, let me tell you what i mean
Brigitte Lacombe

Like many retrospectives, Joan Didion’s Let Me Tell You What I Mean is something of a grab bag. Of the 12 essays gathered here, half come from the Points West column she and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, shared for the Saturday Evening Post from 1964 to 1969; the others appeared between 1976 and 2000.

In that regard, the book has more in common with South and West (2017), which brought together two unfinished pieces from the 1970s, than it does with the collections Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, which remain among the most necessary of her works.

This makes sense, for Didion is at the summing-up part of her career. Now 86, she has produced no substantial work since her memoir Blue Nights was published in 2011. There, she reflects on the death of her daughter, Quintana, and her own process of aging. “When I began writing these pages,” she confides, “I believed their subject to be children, the ones we have and the ones we wish we had…. As the pages progressed it occurred to me that their actual subject was not children after all, at least not children per se, at least not children qua children: their actual subject was this refusal even to engage in such contemplation, this failure to confront the certainties of aging, illness, death.”

Didion’s presence in those sentences—the way she interrogates not only her intentions but also the very act of writing—is what makes her work so vivid. For her, everything, perhaps most especially narrative, is conditional, a construction: not least the voice, the character, of the first-person narrator.

“In many ways,” she acknowledges in “Why I Write,” “writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions—with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating—but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.”

Let me tell you what I mean, indeed.

“Why I Write” was originally published in 1976 in the New York Times Magazine, and together with “Telling Stories,” another late-1970s essay, it sits at the center of this book. In his introduction, Hilton Als suggests that writing has been among the author’s core topics all along. “When I first started reading Didion in the late 1970s,” he recalls, “it became clear to me after a while that one of her big subjects was the craft of writing itself. Why it mattered to her, mattered to anyone, and it’s writing as subject, writing as a way of life, that is part of the subject of this book.”

That’s true enough, I suppose, although it’s less craft than engagement that concerns Didion, the position of the writer in the text. When I interviewed her in 2006, not long after the publication of The Year of Magical Thinking, she described this as “triangulation,” noting that three perspectives are essential to any piece of writing—that of the reader, that of the subject, and that of the author—and that the story, such as it is, always develops from the interplay between them.

What she was referring to was subjectivity, which is vital to the essay, a form that reveals the movements of a writer’s mind at play. “I do not think in abstracts,” Didion informs us. And: “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.”

For Didion, this means that writing is a high-wire act in which we are necessarily making it up as we go along. Such a sensibility informs her most memorable essays: “The White Album,” for instance, with its fragmentary structure and blurring of the personal and cultural, or “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream.”

A related perspective, or angle of approach, can’t help but emerge in Let Me Tell You What I Mean, especially in the details, the bits of nuance around which Didion has long been so astute. Here she is, describing an encounter with a World War II vet who has shown her a newspaper clipping about his son, missing in action in Vietnam: “I gave the clipping back to Skip Skivington, and before he put it in his pocket again he looked at it a long while, smoothed out an imagined crease, and studied the fragment of newsprint as if it held some answer.”

Or giving an account of then–California First Lady Nancy Reagan preparing to shoot B-roll with a television news crew:

“Let’s have a dry run,” a cameraman said.
The newsman looked at him. “In other words, by a dry run, you mean you want her to fake nipping the bud?”
“Fake the nip, yeah,” the cameraman said. “Fake the nip.”

Both moments come from Points West columns and are as trenchant as anything else in the book.

At the same time, the Points West material also highlights a key issue with Let Me Tell You What I Mean because of the limitations of the column format, which—in these examples, anyway—doesn’t give Didion the leeway she requires. The pieces are too short, or perhaps too narrow; they are written not to frame a set of questions but to illustrate a point. As Als observes, “sometimes she used didacticism as a tool.”

That’s fine for a columnist, but it doesn’t really work for an essayist, and the tension it provokes, between intention and execution, reverberates across Let Me Tell You What I Mean. Of the 12 pieces here, just 3—“Why I Write,” “Telling Stories,” and a long essay on Hemingway called “Last Words”—have the necessary breadth and sense of inquiry. Only in these efforts does Didion reveal her complicated self.

“Last Words” is particularly instructive because it addresses Hemingway’s career aftermath, the plethora of writing, incomplete or simply not good enough, that was released after his suicide in 1961. There is, Didion points out, making an argument against that type of publication, “a substantive difference between writing a book and making notes for it.”

Something similar might be said of Let Me Tell You What I Mean.

Let Me Tell You What I Mean, by Joan Didion
Knopf Publishing Group Bookshop.org

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