01 April 2021, The Tablet

‘A shock verb two lines in’

‘A shock verb two lines in’

Joan Didion
Photo: Netflix/Everett Collection/Alamy


Let Me Tell You What I Mean
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We romanticise “writing” and “the writer”, but it’s a mechanical business. This new collection of old essays by the great American writer Joan Didion exposes the moving parts: word counts, syntax, decent health, cash. Most explicit is “Telling Stories”, an essay unbalanced by an excerpted draft of her dud first novel and a long sequence of rejection letters (boring until Good Housekeeping: “I’m sorry we are seldom inclined to give our readers this bad a time.”) Didion begins by describing a writers’ workshop at the University of California in which she “listened to other people’s stories read aloud and … despaired of ever knowing what they knew”; she “managed to write only three of the required five stories”. After this, she abandoned stories but “wrote constantly”: merchandising and promotion copy for Vogue. There follows one of my favourite paragraphs in the collection, a description of exactly what Vogue taught her: “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 … passive verbs slowed down sentences; ‘it’ needed a reference within the scan of the eye … ‘Give me a shock verb two lines in.’ ‘Prune it out, clean it up, make the point’.”

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