Joan Didion on Telling Stories, the Economy of Words, Starting Out as a Writer, and Facing Rejection
“Short stories demand a certain awareness of one’s own intentions, a certain narrowing of the focus.”
By Maria Popova
In her otherwise prolific and acclaimed career as one of the greatest writers of the past century, Joan Didion only ever wrote three short stories. They are collected in Telling Stories (public library) — a tiny 1978 treasure, the 26th in a series of keepsakes issued by the Bancroft Library for its members, which I found thanks to the curatorial magic of the wonderful Honey & Wax. Prefacing the three short stories included in this slim volume, Didion recounts her reluctant foray into the genre as a junior at Berkeley. It took place in the fall of 1954, shortly before her twentieth birthday, when she was admitted into celebrated literary critic and writer Mark Schorer’s English 106A class — a “writers’ workshop” that required each student to produce five short stories over the course of the semester. She was instantly immersed into a cesspool of self-doubt and comparative adolescent insecurity:
I remember each other member of this class as older and wiser than I had hope of ever being (it had not yet struck me in any visceral way that being nineteen was not a long-term proposition), not only older and wiser but more experienced, more independent, more interesting, more possessed of an exotic past — marriages and the breaking up of marriages, money and the lack of it, sex and politics and the Adriatic seen at dawn; the stuff not only of grown-up life itself but, more poignantly to me at the time, the very stuff which might be substantiated into five short stories.
I had no past, and, every Monday-Wednesday-Friday at noon in Dwinelle Hall, it seemed increasingly clear to me that I had no future. I ransacked my closet for clothes in which I might appear invisible in class, and came up with only a dirty raincoat. I sat in this raincoat and I listened to other people’s stories read aloud and I despaired of ever knowing what they knew. I attended every meeting of this class and never spoke once.
In her ratty raincoat, Didion coasted through the class, mustering three of the five required short stories and earning, by the mercy of Schorer, “a man of infinite kindness to and acuity about his students,” a course grade of B. She wrote no more short stories for the next ten years, then she penned the ones collected in Telling Stories.
But there’s some essential fine print to Didion’s career trajectory, which might resonate with paralyzing familiarity for many aspiring writers today:
When I say I wrote no more stories for exactly ten years, I do not mean that I wrote nothing at all. In fact I wrote constantly. I wrote, once I left Berkeley, for a living. I went to New York and I wrote merchandising copy for Vogue and I wrote promotion copy for Vogue (the distinction between the two was definite but recondite, and to try to explain it would like giving the AFL-CIO definition of two apparently similar jobs on the line at the Ford assembly plant in Pico Rivera, California) and after a while I wrote editorial copy for Vogue. A sample of the latter: “Opposite, above: All through the house, colour, verve, improvised treasures in happy but anomalous coexistence. Here, a Frank Stella, an art nouveau stained-glass panel, a Roy Lichtenstein. Not shown: a table covered with frankly brilliant oilcloth, a Mexican find at fifteen cents a yard.”
But rather than deriding this type of word-mongering with the privilege of hindsight, Didion cherishes the learning ground it provided in mastering the art of conciseness and precision with the written word:
It is easy to make light of this kind of “writing,” and I mention it specifically because I do not make light of it all: it was at Vogue that I learned a kind of ease with words (as well as with people who hung Stellas in their kitchens and went to Mexico for buys in oilcloth), a way of regarding words not as mirrors of my own inadequacy but as tools, toys, weapons to be deployed strategically on a page. In a caption of, say, eight lines, each line to run no more or less than twenty-seven characters, not only every word but every letter counted.
This leaves one wondering whether easily derided modern forms of forcibly concise non-literary writing might engender similar benefits — perhaps there’s a reason why some of today’s greatest writers, from Joyce Carol Oates to Neil Gaiman, have embraced Twitter.
At Vogue one learned fast, or one did not stay, how to play games with words, 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. We were connoisseurs of synonyms. We were collectors of verbs. (I recall “to ravish” as a highly favored verb for a number of issues, and I also recall it, for a number of issues more, as the source of a highly favored noun: “ravishments,” as in tables cluttered with porcelain tulips, Faberge eggs, other ravishments.) We learned as reflex the grammatical tricks we had learned only as marginal corrections in school (“there are two oranges and an apple” read better than “there were an apple and two oranges,” passive verbs slowed down sentences, “it” needed a reference within the scan of the eye), learned to rely on the OED, learned to write and rewrite and rewrite again. “Run it through again, sweetie, it’s not quite there.” “Give me a shock verb two lines in.” “Prune it out, clean it up, make the point.” Less was more, smooth was better, and absolute precision essential to the monthly grand illusion. Going to work for Vogue was, in the late nineteen-fifties, not unlike training with the Rockettes.
It’s a poorly kept cultural secret that most aspiring writers who take, with the intention of doing so temporarily, such placeholder or springboard jobs never actually replace them with or spring into a full writing career. But Didion eventually managed to carve out time for writing something other than perfectly measured captions:
Gradually, I began, in the evenings and in between deadlines in lieu of lunch, to play with words not for Vogue but for myself. I began to make notes. I began to write down everything I saw and heard and remembered and imagined. I began to write, or so I thought, another story.
Didion thought it was a story about a man and a woman living in New York, but after several false starts, she peered into her notes and beaming back at her came a wholly different story:
What I actually had on my mind that year in New York — had on my mind as opposed to in my mind — was a longing for California, a homesickness, a nostalgia so obsessive that nothing else figured. In order to discover what was on my mind I needed room. I needed room for the rivers and for the rain and for the way the almonds came into blossom around Sacramento, room for irrigation ditches and room for the fear of kiln fires, room in which to play with everything I remembered and did not understand.
What Didion had initially intended as a story about a woman and a man in New York thus became her first novel, Run River, about the wife of a hop grower on the Sacramento River. Reflecting on why her originally devised short story never worked, Didion contemplates the heart of the genre and illustrates it with a gripping example:
Short stories demand a certain awareness of one’s own intentions, a certain narrowing of the focus. Let me give you an example. One morning in 1975 I found myself aboard the 8:45 a.m. Pan American from Los Angeles to Honolulu. There were, before take-off from Los Angeles, “mechanical difficulties,” and a half-hour delay. During this delay the stewardess served coffee and orange juice and two children played tag in the aisles and, somewhere behind me, a man began screaming at a woman who seemed to be his wife. I say that the woman seemed to be his wife only because the tone of his invective sounded practiced, although the only words I heard clearly were these: “You are driving me to murder.” After a moment I was aware of the door to the plane being opened a few rows behind me, and of the man rushing off. There were many Pan American employees rushing on and off then, and considerable confusion. I do not know whether the man reboarded the plane before take-off or whether the woman went on to Honolulu alone, but I thought about it all the way across the Pacific. I thought about it while I was drinking a sherry-on-the-rocks and I thought about it during lunch and I was still thinking about it when the first of the Hawaiian Islands appeared off the left wing tip. It was not until we had passed Diamond Head and were coming in low over the reef for landing at Honolulu, however, that I realized what I most disliked about the incident: I disliked it because it had the aspect of a short story, one of those “little epiphany” or “window to the world” stories, one of those stories in which the main character glimpses a crisis in a stranger’s life — a woman weeping in a tea room, quite often, or an accident seen from the window of a train, “tea rooms” and “trains” still being fixtures of short stories although not of real life — and is moved to see his or her own life in a new light. Again, my dislike was a case of needing room in which to play with what I did not understand. I was not going to Honolulu because I wanted to see life reduced to a short story. I was going to Honolulu because I wanted to see life expanded to a novel, and I still do. I wanted not a window on the world but the world itself. I wanted everything in the picture. I wanted room for flowers, and reef fish, and people who might or might not have been driving one another to murder but in any case were not impelled, by the demands of narrative convention, to say so out loud on the 8:45 a.m. Pan American from Los Angeles to Honolulu.
Despite her distaste for the genre, however, Didion did write the short stories included in Telling Stories, and all in the same year — 1964, as Didion turned thirty, months after Run River was published. She explains the reluctant impulse:
My first novel had just been published, and I was suffering a fear common among people who have just written a first novel: the fear of never writing another. (As a matter of fact this fear is also common among people who have just written a second novel, a third novel, and, for all I know, a forty-fourth novel, but at the time I considered it a unique affliction.) I sat in front of my typewriter and believed that another subject would never present itself. I believed that I would be forever dry. I believed that I would “forget how.” Accordingly, as a kind of desperate finger exercise, I tried writing stories.
Of the three stories — “Coming Home,” “The Welfare Island Ferry,” and “When Did Music Come this Way? Children Dear, Was It Yesterday?” — the first two found a home fairly quickly, in the Saturday Evening Post and Harper’s Bazaar, respectively. The third, however, was an exercise in weathering the storm of rejection. Didion, who was represented by the William Morris Agency at the time, traces the downward spiral of the story’s fate in a series of letters from her agent in New York beginning on October 9, 1964:
As you probably know, [Esquire fiction editor] Rust [Hills] wrote to a great many writers regarding stories for the children’s issue and the guarantee for everyone is a flat $200. On the price for the story itself, they will pay $1750, or a $250 increase over your last price. Please let me know whether this is agreeable and if so we’ll confirm the terms on your behalf…”
Seven weeks later, the horizons begin to dim:
I’m really disappointed not to have better news for you, but Rust Hills has returned “When Did Music Come this Way? Children Dear, Was It Yesterday?” … We’ll of course send the guarantee check off to you just as soon as we receive it. Since you indicated that you wanted to do some further work on the story, I am wondering whether you would like the manuscript returned to you at this point…”
Over the following months, Didion’s agent pitched a revised version of the story to several prestigious publications, but to no avail. Then, in a letter from August 25, 1965, the avalanche of rejections reaches tragicomic proportions, rendering Didion’s story one of the most evasively and euphemistically yet prolifically and consistently rejected works by famous writers. Her agent tabulates the rejections, which give a peculiar taste of each publication’s general editorial tone and culture, beginning with the Saturday Evening Post:
Many of us read it and a great many were excited and insistent in their admiration of it. Others, and they include Bill Emerson who has the final vote, also admired it but felt that it was wrong for the Post, not so much because of its subject matter, but also because of the oblique method of narration.
The New Yorker:
As a whole it just isn’t effective enough.
Ladies’ Home Journal:
Too negative for us.
I feel very bad about rejecting this story — not because I think it’s really a well worked-out story but because the writing is so awfully good. She has a very special way of involving the reader… but I’m turning this down, reluctantly, because I don’t think it’s a successful story in the end.
Just too brittle.
While “The Wellfare Island Ferry” is almost my favorite among the stories we have published… I feel that “When Did Music Come this Way?” is not quite as good.
Not quite right for us.
Unable to use this particular story.
The Atlantic Monthly:
I hope you’ll be sending us more of Joan Didion’s work, but this didn’t make it, so back to you.
Alas, not right for The Reporter.
Cosmopolitan, to whom the story was submitted twice due to changes in editorial staff:
But the best — for the sheer anomalous coexistence of professional compliments and personal editorial indignation — came from Good Housekeeping:
Marvelously written, very real, and so utterly depressing that I’m going to sit under a cloud of angst and gloom all afternoon… I’m sorry we are seldom inclined to give our readers this bad a time.
Surprisingly — or perhaps unsurprisingly, given their institutionally indoctrinated gender attitudes — Esquire was the only publication that didn’t respond at all to the revised story.
In the end, the agent began submitting the story in the trade reviews, until it was eventually accepted by the Denver Quarterly, which paid $5 per page, for a total of $50 for Didion’s 10-page story — $1,700 less than what Didion originally billed. “When Did Music Come this Way? Children Dear, Was It Yesterday?” was published in the Winter 1967 issue of the Denver Quarterly. Didion never wrote another short story.
But despite the unfortunate fate of that story — or perhaps precisely because of it — the trio included in Telling Stories are an absolute delight to read. Complement it with Didion on self-respect, keeping a notebook, and grief, then revisit famous writers’ collected wisdom on the craft.