Today, Joan Didion turns 81.
Most of the writer's devotees and critics agree upon the fact that in her carefully woven sentences, whether fictional, personal or reported, "her subject is always herself." So, in honor of Didion turning the big 8-1, I'd like to share a short anecdote in which the subject is me.
Women writers love Joan Didion. This love may have sprung initially from a certain black-and-white photo of a stylish intellectual, arms crossed, cigarette in hand, eyes daring you to look away. But of course, there's so much more.
We love her because she is unsentimental yet evocative, gifted and industrious in technique but open to errors and loose ends in signification. She molds sentences with scientific precision, every rearranged comma ever so slightly recalibrating the assertion made, the story told, the reality reflected, only to settle matters with an inconclusive "who knows?" thus embracing the chaotic, unsayable reality that inevitably lurks after every sentence break.
But also, we love her because she's short and sometimes can't say words good.
Didion says so herself. In the preface to 1968's Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a collection of essays on California culture and chaos, she writes: "My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does."
For me, measuring in at a whopping 5-foot-2, this iconic quote of Didion's was big. Though I may (on occasion) feel competent or even confident while working through ideas on a laptop, as a disembodied voice manifesting itself through keyboard clicks, the moment I pick up the phone to make an interview or walk into a room I feel imposter syndrome flowing through my veins, as if I've been caught guilty of catfishing someone after years, and am awaiting a big, Dr. Phil-style blowout.
I look young and sound young, and even 26-year-old women who look and sound their age are professionally undermined more than they appreciate. The fact that I laugh four volume notches louder than I talk and that my eyes wander off in directions I can't control doesn't help. I used to wish I could call up the artists I admire for an interview and engage them in a conversation so mutually compelling we'd become pen pals for life. Instead I get a lot of "what?" and "can you repeat that, your voice is really soft."
In 2012, I was assigned to interview artist James Rosenquist after he was awarded the Isabella and Theodor Dalenson Lifetime Achievement Award. Starting off as a billboard painter, Rosenquist adapted his predilection for popping color and sharp line into painted collages combining patriotic, commercial and surrealist imagery. Making a name for himself in the early '60s alongside artists like Johns, Rauschenberg and Lichtenstein. For me, although I knew little about him or his work, it was a huge deal.
When I introduced myself I couldn't locate the usual force of breath that buttressed my words. "Hello, darling," he boomed in response. I was nervous and he was patronizing, not in a malicious manner but in a way I felt I deserved for being nervous, meek, young. Rosenquist was around 79 years old at the time of our conversation, I was 23. Not long into our chat, however, he kindly divulged that I did not sound like it. "How old are you, 14? You don't sound a day older than my granddaughter," he said.
Any pretense that Rosenquist and I were engaged on an even playing field was immediately shot, as his offhand comment dragged me down two generations. I stumbled through, hating myself, and wrote up a dull Q&A in which I described Rosenquist as "gently cocky," whatever that means.
This isn't to say that James Rosenquist is an asshole, which he's not. Or that I'm operating on Joan Didion levels of fly-on-the-wall observations followed by brilliant exposés, which I'm most definitely not. It's about, in the wise words of my colleague Tricia Tongco, "recognizing the moments when you feel the most powerless and imbuing them with power."
After years of feeling hugely disadvantaged by my diminutive stature and propensity for saying "great!" in situations that should not be qualified as such, I realized it's quite the opposite. As an observer by profession, being small, inarticulate, overlooked, and underestimated is a gift. Every conversation becomes its own little ritual of espionage.
It's such a powerful realization, that this thing you've been fighting is a valuable weapon itself. That you don't have to network or banter or have the perfect handshake. You just have to write.
Trivialize me, condescend me, let your guard down. It's not our conversation that will be remembered, it's what I write on paper. Or, laptop, whatever. Great.
Happy birthday, Joan Didion, from a fellow tongue-tied shortie.
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