I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the writer’s identity, the public persona and the private, the (wo)man and the wordsmith. About being neurotically inarticulate.
I recently heard an NPR interview with author Joan Didion. I was taken aback by how little she had to say, by the faltering way in which she spoke, by the excruciating seconds of dead air that followed her terse responses to open-ended questions. Is this clunky Q&A a subtle form of authorial rebellion, I wondered? Is this most uncomfortable of interviews Didion’s way of saying “screw you” to the interviewer or perhaps to NPR’s listeners?
Or, worse (and this one hit me hard) — was she still unable to talk about the pain and mourning she so devastatingly describes in The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights?
In a piece about Didion in Poets & Writers, Kevin Nance writes, “Didion has never been a great talker—she’s referred to herself as ‘neurotically inarticulate’—but is peerless on the page, blessed with a fluid yet miraculously compressed prose style that somehow melds the thunderclap clarity of Hemingway and the sinuous depths of Henry James.”
Neurotically inarticulate? What’s the deal here? A genius on the page, Didion would nonetheless make an unsatisfactory dinner party guest? How can such a powerhouse of a writer seem so retiring in person? Such dichotomies floor me. And intrigue me.
Such dichotomies intrigue me because I consider myself a social misfit of sorts. To be clear, I’m not trying to suggest I’m dysfunctional in social settings. I know how to give and receive social cues, engage in conversation with friends and strangers alike, hang alone or in a big crowd. No, what I mean is that my social “how to’s” feel to me as if they follow an identifiable step-by-step (first this, then that) that gives them the clarity and coherence—a social fluidity of sorts—they otherwise might lack.
Which is perhaps another way of saying that my public self isn’t necessarily my best, most interesting, or most real self. And that Joan Didion’s welcome at my dinner table anytime.