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Pickle Me This

March 4, 2021

Let Me Tell You What I Mean, by Joan Didion

For years, I kept a photocopied piece of paper pinned to a cork-board that hung on my wall, the following lines from Joan Didion’s essay “Telling Stories”: …it was at Vogue that I learned a kind of ease with words, a way of regarding words not as mirrors of my own inadequacy but as tools, toys, weapons to be deployed strategically on a page.” And it’s strange now to think about piece of paper, because I don’t write like that I at all. I never learned that ease, or such strategy, and my reverence for this passage (and for Didion in general) has always been mostly aspirational. I never ended up writing anything at the desk that the cork-board hung over, eventually writing my books while lying on the coach instead, far too reclined to be deploying weapons.

“Telling Stories” is the only essay in Didion’s new collection, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, that I have read before—and I had to visit the sub-basement of an archive to find it, so if my experience is anything to go by, these pieces aren’t so widely known. Though my expectations for the book were pretty low—Joan Didion is 86, and hit the height of fame with her 2005 memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, a book that doesn’t really typify what Joan Didion’s work is all about. Written in the throes of grief as well, it would have surprised me if anything written and published afterwards could have been as sharp and pointed (“tools, toys, weapons to be deployed strategically on a page”) as her previous work. I have appreciated every one of her releases since then, but there does seem to be a lack of urgency in all of it, they’re mainly obligatory, though always interesting. But of course, this is a writer who has been looking back on things since her early thirties, at least, who was born supposing that the best of everything was well behind her, so maybe it’s all just in keeping.

I read a review of this book (somewhere! Can’t remember where) that remarked upon the strangeness of the title, incongruous with Didion’s work, whose words were so strategically deployed that such explanations were usually unnecessary. Interestingly, the title itself does not come up in the book, and instead is (I assume) altered from the far more typically Didion-esque “Let me show you what I mean by pictures in the mind,” from her essay, “Why I Write.” Always a shower not a teller, in her introduction to her 1968 collection Slouching Toward Bethlehem, she writes about the advantages of being so physically unimposing as a figure that the people she’s writing about scarcely notice she’s there.

But in this collection, perhaps to satisfy readers seeking …Magical Thinking levels of disclosure, she’s more of a presence than I’d been anticipating, and the title does not seem so unfitting indeed. I get a sense of how a writer is formed and of her process, and not just simply her observational eye (which is eviscerating in her essay about Nancy Reagan, then First Lady of California). She’s also very prescient, in a 1968 essay about parental expectations that anticipates parenting fixations of the 20th century, or her 2000 piece on Martha Stewart, and branding, and the World Wide Web, and the expectations for women to succeed in a culture that is always going to hate them for having done so.

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