What I Want and What I Fear

Let Me Tell You What I Mean

The peculiarity of being a writer is that the entire enterprise involves the mortal humiliation of seeing one’s own words in print.

Didion has spent the majority of her life seeing her work in print and experiencing this unique kind of embarrassment alongside inspiring generations of prose writers. These newly collected pieces explore a variety of her nonfiction work, from reportage of important cultural figures to more lyrical musings on what it means not to get into your first-choice college.

Let Me Tell You What I Mean. By Joan Didion. Knopf. 2021. Hardcover.

How did I get the book?

I walked into Bank Square Books in Mystic, Connecticut back in February with my LitHub Joan Didion tote bag and saw this book at the front of the store alongside “Oh no you Didion” pins. Naturally, I needed both to complete the look.

You can purchase the book for yourself here and support independent bookstores!

What did I think?

I had previously read all of the pieces in this collection with the exception of Hilton Als’s forward, which is equally (if in some cases not more) impressive. It’s part close-read of the essays, part commentary on Didion’s work, part Als’s own writerly wisdom. He defines Didion’s nonfiction as “a question about the truth,” then goes on to identify the genre as something “provisional, the only thing backing it up is who you are at the time you wrote this or that, and that your joys and biases and prejudices are part of writing, too…It takes a long time to tell the truth.” He discusses the symbiotic relationship between Didion’s fiction and nonfiction work, that regardless of genre what she “sought was naturalness of expression as controlled by a true understanding of one's craft.” He also unpacks Didion’s varied subject matters that often dislodge the reader’s expectations—from bad boys to missing her home state—while still capturing something so clearly, bringing “a feeling for the uncanny” to her pieces that sets them apart from traditional nonfiction. “Didion's ethos is not much related to a school but a way of seeing that's particular to who she is, to the world that made her, a way of seeing that, ultimately, reveals the writer to herself,” Als writes. “A peculiar aspect of Joan Didion's nonfiction is that a significant portion of it reads like fiction. Or, more specifically, has the metaphorical power of great fiction…Part of the remarkable character of Didion's work has to do with her refusal to pretend that she doesn't exist.” If you weren’t already sold on Didion when you picked up the book, Als is certainly doing a good job of getting you there.

As for the essays, I found this particular curation to really highlight the California-ness of Didion that I often forget about, associating her instead with her black turtleneck, big glasses, and cigarette days in New York. These earlier pieces touch upon her transitioning to this world, but take the time to stop and reminiscence on what she was leaving, on just how good she was at capturing it: for instance, her profile on Nancy Reagan over-delivering her lines as California’s First Lady on a sunny, San Francisco morning, or her dimly lit bar conversations with veterans just over the Nevada border. Although Didion makes it clear that she enjoys the challenge of moving east to work at VOGUE (comparing it “training with the Rockettes”), when collected together, these works also show what she longed for despite all she was gaining. “For several days…I wanted only to be in places where the lights were bright and no one counted days,” Didion writes. “The notes reveal what I actually had on my mind that year in New York...was a longing for California, a home sickness, a nostalgia so obsessive that nothing else figured...room in which to play with everything I remembered and did not understand.”

Part of this connects to the collection’s desire to seemingly create a kind of coming-of-age narrative for Didion. It starts with the portrait she paints of herself as a young woman rejected from Stanford, wallowing in the bathtub while contemplating “swallowing the contents of an old bottle of codeine-and-Empirin” in 1952. “Finding one's role at seventeen is problem enough, without being handed somebody else's script,” she writes of thankfulness for not having the pressure on her from her parents that she observed in other teens, eventually coming to see that “none of it matters very much at all, none of these early failures.” Still, though, young Didion struggles with failure, particularly as she tries to develop her voice as a writer and finds herself breaking all the rules: comparing her grammar skills to playing the piano only by ear, her attention drawn not so much to story but “to the specific, to the tangible, to what was generally considered, by everyone I knew then and for that matter have known since, the peripheral.” Even as she continues to write everything around her down around her and tries to practice successfully arranging words, Didion admits, “My failing performance was a function of adolescent paralysis, of a yearning to be good and a fright that I never would be, of terror that any sentence I committed to paper would expose me as not good enough.” Eventually, of course, Didion comes to realize that “being nineteen was not a long-term proposition,” just as the reader from the future knows that the peculiarities that plagued Didion’s opinion of her work are the very things that continue to draw people to it more than half a century later.

Final Verdict?

🌟 3.5/5 — Good

Didion’s voice, particularly in her nonfiction, is shaped through great attention paid to detail and presenting this information with a cutting sort of delivery, making use of the “deadening and particular” aspects of our daily lives in a way that feels both pointed and fresh. This collection gives readers a little taste of that, applying the technique to subject matters big and small, from the location of her college rejection letter—“the kind of back-bedroom drawer given over to class prophecies and dried butterfly orchids and newspaper photographs that show eight bridesmaids and two flower girls inspecting a sixpence in a bride's shoe”—to Nancy Reagan’s smile, that of “a woman who seems to be playing out some middle-class American woman's daydream, circa 1948.” Didion writes at one point that she struggles at times to focus the world through a window in order to write about it, but I think even in creating such a metaphor she proves that idea false.

However, because none of these pieces are new, this collection very much felt less like a must-have for a general-interest reader and more like a book for writers, the sort of thing to keep in your pocket (especially considering its small trim size) and return to when inspiration is needed. Didion is indeed full of little moments that can help the wayward writer not feel alone, such as advice for “how to make narrative attention out of nothing more than the juxtaposition of past and present” and a reminder that “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…an aggressive, even a hostile act.” It’s also fascinating to hear about her own process of learning how to write, discovering “a way of regarding words not as mirrors of [her] own inadequacy but as tools, toys, weapons to be deployed strategically on a page...how to play games with words, how to put a couple of unwieldy dependent clauses through the typewriter and roll them out transformed into one simple sentence composed of precisely thirty-nine characters,” and how she truly felt like a writer after spending hours with a page and realizing “I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means.” But if you’re not a writer yourself, I fear one could view the whole thing as a bit navel-gazing, and as much as I enjoyed the read, they wouldn’t exactly be wrong.

Beyond the book.

Hilton Als and Jia Tolentino spoke about the collection back in February through Writers Bloc Presents. Both are wildly talented writers themselves, so hearing them fangirl over Didion’s work is comforting if you’ve spent any time fangirling over them (also, weirdly, the two of them despite working for The New Yorker had never met before the Zoom call). If you want some screen time with Joan herself, she was the subject of a Netflix documentary a few years back, The Center Will Not Hold, directed by her nephew, Griffin Dunne.

See you again soon!

Rachel x