Let Me Tell You What I Mean
Updated: May 19
First, I want to thank A.A. Knopf for sending a free copy of Joan Didion's Let Me Tell You What I Mean over.
My first encounter with Joan Didion came with her powerful book The Year of Magical Thinking. I had no previous experience with her writing and didn't fully know what to expect; to say I was rocked would be an understatement. And perhaps to my own dismay, I found that book so powerful that I've now pegged any further reads to that experience. It really is an unfair hurdle to set and partly why going back to Didion's older works for me is a struggle.
As I piece together this book, following on the heals of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, I am starting to see the writer that Didion truly is. I should have started here. To see the sharpness in her writing and ability to critique while also opening herself up to the flaws that she sees in herself. It wasn't common for writers to be forward with their own weaknesses; the idea that Joan herself didn't believe she would be a writer and yet became it guided by this thirst to understand what she was thinking.
"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."
One of the essays I found particularly good was her look back at Hemingway and his life as a writer while focusing on the nature of writing and what death means to your legacy. Hemingway was clear that upon his death he wanted none of his letters published; they did not represent the writer that he was and for him, his writing had to be fully by his hand; edited and such. Of course, his letters were published as were additional unwritten manuscripts begging the question as to whether this is truly his writing?
If someone else comes along and edits the writing does it still hold enough of the original essence to be considered their writing?
As a writer/reader it always feels insightful to peer deeper into the minds of our heroes and yet perhaps this voyeurism does a disservice to those we admire. Perhaps deep down that is always a fear of a prolific writer; that control is lost and your legacy is left to others to fill in the blanks and perhaps try to make a bit more money on what you left behind.
If you haven't read anything from Didion before I'd encourage you to start with her essays first before diving into something like The Year of Magical Thinking or Blue Nights. Slouching Towards Bethlehem is viewed as one of her finest works. This gives you a chance to see her writing outside of the incredibly poignant emotional rollercoaster that Didion can bring to the page.
I'll leave you with one last quote from Didion herself; an insight into writing and how we interpret books. Something I'd never given thought to but perhaps could change the way we view our interaction with authors and books.
“In many ways, 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.”
I haven't covered Didion here on the blog before but encourage you to check out my previous Instagram posts on Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The Year of Magical Thinking. You may also appreciate Rebecca Solnit if you haven't already read anything by her. Check out my Instagram post on A Field Guide to Getting Lost.