Joan Didion’s Latest Book Reminds us that Writers are People, too

It’s impossible for one to have no faults. An obvious idea, but in a world where most people only post their life’s highlight reel, it can be difficult to remember that no one is perfect, especially as someone like me, who tends to put the people I admire on a pedestal. It’s not quite at the level of “Stan Twitter” (which can be a scary place, I’m looking at you KPop Twitter!) but my habit of romanticization, whether it be of my favorite professors, actors or writers, is unrealistic and I have to remind myself that this almost untouchable status I put people at, isn’t real. 

One of these people in my life is Joan Didion. Joan Didion is an acclaimed novelist, essayist, and Californian, most known for her cultural criticism, precise use of prose, and how she effectively intertwines her voice within her analysis, especially during the 70s and at times when her opinions weren’t popular. A prominent example is her piece on the Central Park Five’s innocence. I first read Didion my junior year of high school, around 2017. 

I was assigned, “Self-Respect: its source, its power” and it enraged me. With claims, I considered too bold, like, “Nonetheless, character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one's own life—is the source from which self-respect springs,” upset me because I didn’t have much self-respect at the time and believed in my false reality that I could have character without respecting myself. I also liked challenging this particular teacher but eventually realized that he was right -- it was a genius piece -- and quickly the trajectory of my life changed. It feels banal to say that Didion changed my life, but until that point, I had never considered writing as a profession and assumed I wasn’t good at it. After reading much of her work, (From Blue Nights to Play it As it Lays to The White Album and more), I didn’t care if I was “good.” I wanted to move to New York and become a writer. So that is what I did. Flash forward to 2021: I am in the second year of my journalism degree at a college in New York City (now virtually) and many things have changed since 2017, but my admiration of Joan Didion hasn’t, and when I heard a couple of months ago she was releasing a new book, I immediately pre-ordered it. 

“Let Me Tell You What I Mean” is a collection of 12 short essays, written in varying decades from the 1960s to 2000. Every essay is like peering into her mind, even while writing on different topics and people, including gamblers anonymous, a critique on objectivity, the press, and Martha Stewart. Although I didn’t fully catch every reference in this book, especially during the 60s, and am not particularly interested in Martha Stewart, it was engaging, thoughtful, and authentic. The essays solely about her personal experience were the most gripping.

One of these essays, “Telling Stories” details her experience as a young student among older, “more interesting” students. She writes, “I remember each other member of this class as older and wiser than I had hope of ever being…” and “... my failing performance was a function of adolescent paralysis, of a yearning to be good and a fright that I never would be…” This is something we can all relate to, especially at the New School, and what is inspiring is how she describes the change of her relationship with writing and to herself, “... 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.” Hearing her internal dialogue not only reminds us that no matter how iconic of a writer, she’s a human first and foremost, but it also gives me hope that my own self-doubt and relationship to myself will shift like that too.  

On a connected note, my favorite essay is, “On Being Unchosen by the College of One’s Choice.” It is exactly as it sounds; a recollection of receiving a rejection letter from her top choice, Stanford University. “I remember quite clearly the afternoon I opened that letter. I stood reading and rereading it… trying to interpret the words in some less final way, the phrases ‘unable to take’ and ‘favorable action’ fading in and out of focus until the sentence made no sense at all.” For me it was being waitlisted at Barnard (which resulted in, “unfortunately we can not offer you a place at this time..”) and that pain she describes is so real and relatable, “I went upstairs to my room and locked the door and for a couple of hours I cried.” Within this she includes a provoking commentary on how much pressure parents put on their children and the dangers of living vicariously through them, “finding one’s role at seventeen is problem enough, without being handed somebody else’s script.” Not only does she share her personal experiences, but she also shares a larger cultural commentary, which is intriguing and insightful; a theme common throughout the book.

I know the dangers of putting people on pedestals: inevitably, they fall. However, the more I learn about Didion’s humanity, she doesn’t disappoint me. In fact, she further inspires me and I’m not sure she’ll ever “fall.” Her precise and carefully crafted use of language, thought-provoking world view, and her inviting but witty and not overly negative, critical tone, continues to influence, generation after generation, and rightfully so. Her grappling of ideas like imposter syndrome is moving, considering who she is -- someone who won a writing contest at Vogue, Obama awarded her the National Humanities Medal and many look up to her -- which is a good reminder that our beloved writers are imperfect humans, just like us.