Joan Didion’s “Let Me Inform You What I Imply” on inspirations
On the shelf
Let me tell you what i mean
By Joan Didion
Button: 192 pages, $ 23
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“You know, sometimes I think I can’t think at all unless I’m behind my typewriter,” Joan Didion told an editor for Ms. Magazine during an interview at the author’s home in Malibu. It was January 1977, and Didion’s third novel, A Book of Prayer Together, was published in March. The editor, Susan Braudy, had asked Didion to describe a scene in her life that was so typical that she was able to open a non-fiction book about it.
After demurring several times, Didion finally told Braudy of a moment during one of the many parties she and her husband John Gregory Dunne were throwing at their beach house in Trancas when she felt “distracted, upset, not myself”. Instead of walking on the bank or taking a break in the bathroom, she went to her office and sat at her typewriter. “And it was okay. I’m in control, ”she said. “I’m just myself in front of my typewriter.”
In “Why I Write”, a piece in Didion’s new non-fiction book collection “Let Me Tell You What I Mean,” she famously explains that she “only writes to find out what I think, what I see, what I understand and what it is means. “But“ Why I Write ”- given first as a lecture at the University of California at Berkeley and then adapted for the New York Times Book Review in December 1976 – is a deeper drive than parsing and ordering observations. Didion’s Why sums up an existential study of the compulsion to write at all, questioning the source of inspiration, and asking who or what is ultimately in control.
In the essay Didion describes a certain “shimmer” that forms around images in her head and creates a kind of framework that attracts her and forces her to put down words to bring the scene to life. She compares this glimmer to the way a schizophrenic or someone under the influence of psychedelics perceives his environment – “breakdown of the molecular structure”, foreground and background “interact, exchange ions”.
“I’m not a schizophrenic and I don’t use hallucinogens,” she continues, “but certain images shimmer for me. Look closely and you can’t miss it [it]. ”Didion illustrates a few tableaus that shimmered: the little actress with long hair and a short halter dress who walked alone through a Las Vegas casino at 1 am and the splintered boredom of her Hollywood novel“ Play It As It Lies “; and one early morning at the Panama airport the heat rose from the tarmac, into which the author Charlotte Douglas, one of the main characters in “A Book of Common Prayer,” with her square-cut emerald ring and the demand for tea made from water, added the Cooked for 20 minutes (no doubt after Didion’s own struggle with dysentery after visiting the airport).
“I knew why Charlotte went to the airport even if Victor didn’t,” Didion wrote in the novel – although, as she reveals in this essay, “until I wrote these lines, I didn’t have a character named Victor in mind. … Above all, I didn’t know who ‘I’ was, who was telling this story. ‘”
More than a decade later, the shimmer still had an impact on Didion, even if she stopped using the term. In the 1989 essay “Some Women”, an introduction to a monograph by Robert Mapplethorpe that is included in the new collection, she writes about the superstitions some artists have about their practices. Mapplethorpe ponders a “magic of the moment” and explains, “You don’t know why it happens, but it does.” For her part, Didion reveals: “I once knew I had a novel when it presented itself to me as an oil slick with a shimmering surface. … I didn’t mention the oil spill to anyone because I feared the talismanic influence the picture had on me would fade, flatten, go away, like a dream told over breakfast. “
As arbitrary and independent as an asphalt at dawn and an actress in Vegas may be, every picture is full of potential: the airport indicates travel and adventure and possibly danger, the actress is nearing fame and fortune – or perhaps is further away from him. The “talismanic influence” they had on Didion has everything to do with these tensions.
Joan Didion in 2007.
(Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)
Hilton Als, the New York critic and avowed Didion fan, mentions the shimmer in his preface to “Let me tell you what I mean”. According to his analysis, it is a “physics or energy” that is related to Sigmund Freud’s concept of the uncanny – “synonymous with and expression of” everything that causes fear and creeping horror “.
I do not agree with you. Didion’s concept of the Golden Dream – California’s infinite promise as presented in the first essay of her first collection, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” – is often viewed through a dark lens. But when I interpret both the Golden Dream and the Shimmer, their power lies in what is possible, not in what becomes of that possibility – which in the case of the opening essay “Some Golden Dream Dreamers” was and was a cruel murder an imprisonment. Likewise, I would classify the shimmer not as physics, but as metaphysics – as a portal to a border area in which the human potential and the transformative power of language are put to the test.
When I read “Let me tell you what I mean” with a look at the shimmer, I believe it is possible to identify which crystalline and resonant images drew Didion closer and forced her to string words together until the molecules manifested a new truth.
In “Getting Serenity,” one of six late 1960s essays originally published in the Saturday Evening Post, I envision it to be the white cake that came with an anonymous gambler meeting in Gardena “Miracles Still Happen” is served. In “A Trip to Xanadu,” it can only be the Moorish towers of William Randolph Hearst’s mansion in San Simeon that “soar fantastically above the coastal mist,” which Didion remembers taking care of as a child on family trips along Highway 1 to this one Descendants of California pioneers: “San Simeon seemed to confirm the boundless promise of the place where we lived. … If a Hearst could build a castle, everyone could be a king. “
With all the insights into How I Write, perhaps just as much can be gleaned from the moments in the lecture that were left out in the printed version. Didion spoke to the Berkeley audience about the vicissitudes of life as a professional writer. “I make a living writing,” she admitted, as quoted by Ms. Braudy who was present, “but I’ve never been convinced by anyone that there are no easier ways to do it. I think of alchemy as one. “
She was being sarcastic, of course, which meant that it was easier to turn a piece of lead into gold than to put indelible truths on paper. But isn’t converting boring, dense matter into something shiny and precious a perfect metaphor for the writing process, and one that happens to also apply to California’s promise? The shimmer indicates that you are getting closer to gold.
Nelson is the editor of Slouching Towards Los Angeles: The Life and Writing of Joan Didion’s Light and co-author of Judson: Innovation in Stained Glass.