Review: Let Me Tell You What I Mean

“The peculiarity of being a writer is that the entire enterprise involves the mortal humiliation of seeing one’s own words in print.”

~ Joan Didion 

Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion
149 pages
Genre: Non-fiction, essays
Published by: Knopf, 2021
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars 
Re-readability: I’ll definitely return to this one. 
Reviewed by: Indiana 

This pocket-sized collection of essays is gratifying and at times wistful. It spans from the 1960s to 2000, and touches on everything from the meaning of Martha Stewart’s rise, to why Didion writes. 

The first in the collection, “Alicia and the Underground Press,” is cranky yet concise, reflecting on the pretense of objectivity in some newspapers: “. . . the inability of all of us to speak to one another in any direct way, the failure of American newspapers to ‘get through.'” Though it was written in 1968, and originally intended for a different audience than today’s, it’s impossible to read it without the lens of recent events. 

In “On Being Unchosen by the College of One’s Choice,” Didion reflects on being rejected from Stanford, and on the intensity with which children’s lives are planned out by their parents today.

It’s a consoling piece to anyone dealing with rejection. 

Throughout the collection, she also reflects on her development as a writer, how she honed her skills at Vogue and failed to write short stories for a class in college. She also ruminates on the craft of writing: “The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement can be found in the picture in your mind. The picture dictates the arrangement.” 

One of the most melancholy, yet striking, essays remembers theatre director Tony Richardson, who Didion was good friends with. She speaks to not only his talent, but the way that he savored working and creating things, no matter the scale. “I never knew anyone who so loved to make things, or anyone who had such limited interest in what he had already made.” and later “The purity of his enthusiasm for making, say As You Like It to run for a few nights at a community theater in Long Beach, or an Anthony and Cleopatra starring television actors at a theater in downtown Los Angeles, was total: the notion that these projects might have less intrinsic potential than the productions of the same plays he had done in London with Vanessa Redgrave remained alien to him.”

The final essay, “,” explores Martha Stewart’s rise and the meaning behind her success for so many women. It was published in 2000, years before Stewart was incarcerated, and there is no update from Didion on how she views the meaning of Stewart’s continued success 21 years later.
The collection leaves one wishing that Didion would reflect on the chaotic events of these last few years.     

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