Book Review: “Let Me Tell You What I Mean” by Joan Didion

My Rating: Five Stars

This is a book for writers, or anyone who want a peek at how Joan does her writing. In typical memoir style, she talks about studying writing in college, and what drew her to the craft. She has some witty observations on the anxious high school kid she was, who didn’t get into her first choice college, then found out it didn’t seem to make much difference. She’s avoids generalizations, staying always in the particularity of her experience. As she points out, this is her, all the time. She could never be a philosopher or historian, because she’s enmeshed in the world as it is experienced.

She describes one of her novel-writing techniques. She receives shimmering visions in her mind’s eye of scenes and characters, often in dialogue. She writes these unconnected pieces down. Then she weaves a story that connects the visions. The vision-based pieces seem to act as anchor points, at least in the beginning, to get the novel through the first draft.

I thought I was the only one who saved these little visionary scenes that appear from nowhere. I don’t recall seeing shimmers, so now I’ll look for them. I had thought of my tree of folders more as a well-stocked and structured scrap pile while Joan treats them as messages that are interconnected. It is her strategy to begin writing the novel, and discover the connections. Perhaps I’ll try her approach.

Other writers have said that they have never salvaged an idea from their scrap pile of ideas and snippets. Maybe they just didn’t have it organized so they could easily retrieve just the right snippet. Maybe Joan’s real secret is some method she uses to select the snippets that belong together. Whatever the answer may be, this is far afield of the John Campbell approach to writing that so many ‘writing experts’ tout.

It felt good to hear that I had a kindred soul out there. Unfortunately, Joan Didion passed away in 2021. She doesn’t lay out her creative approach with any recommendation, just making the point that it works for her. If there’s a theme, to this entire book, that is it.

She also describes some assignments where she honed her craft. The longest being ten years at Vogue magazine, writing captions and short pieces to accompany photos. It turns out to be a very disciplined task. The book wraps up with an in-depth non-fiction piece on Martha Stewart. Joan’s incisive comments are fun, but I felt like Martha was an easy mark for Joan’s incisive wit. I couldn’t finish the last chapter. I’d still give this book five out of five stars.


			

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