Oscar Wilde once said, “The artist’s life is a long, lovely suicide.” Though Wilde could be dramatic, the idea that writing is agonizing is certainly not an overstatement. Writing is torment. Writing is laboring all day on a single page only to toss it in the trash. For every day of creative bliss, there are countless days when you want to quit.
To go to the blank page is to meet your demons. When we write, we must battle that barbarous inner voice who whispers “you’re not good enough” at every turn. Still, we write songs and sonnets because we possess a primal urge. Writing is a way of saying “I was here.”
All writers struggle with self-doubt, whether they’re toiling away in anonymity or are widely renowned. It’s hard to imagine someone as influential and iconic as Joan Didion questioning her own talent. But much like Virginia Woolf— who felt inconceivably inferior compared to her idol Marcel Proust (“Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out a sentence,” she wrote to a friend in 1922)— Didion believed she was hopelessly dull compared to her infinitely more interesting peers.In “Telling Stories,” one of many incisively-observed essays from Let Me Tell You What I Mean, Didion offers a glimpse into the writer’s fragile psyche. In the fall of 1954, Didion, who at the time was a junior at U.C. Berkeley, earned a coveted spot in writer and literary critic Mark Schorer’s English 106A. “An initiation into the grave world of real writers,” English 106A was a writer’s workshop that required students to write five short stories.
As an inexperienced nineteen-year-old, Didion swiftly sunk into the quicksand of insecurity. “Who am I to write?” she wondered, “Do I even have anything meaningful to say?”
Her classmates had met famous people and travelled to far-flung places. Her own life felt uneventful by comparison. She had never been in love or known real difficulty. She had never had an affair in Cuba or danced all night in Harlem or sipped wine in Tuscany. Her short life was circumscribed within the 100 square miles of her native Sacramento. Certainly, she believed, there was nothing in her unremarkable life that could be transmuted into a short story or novel:
“I remember each other member of this class as older and wiser than I had hope of ever being…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 transubstantiated into five short stories. I recall a Trotskyist, then in his forties. I recall a young woman who lived, with a barefoot man and a large white dog, in an attic lit only by candles. I recall classroom discussions which ranged over meetings with Paul and Jane Bowles, incidents involving Djuna Barnes, years spent in Paris, in Beverley Hills, the Yucatan, on the Lower East Side of New York and on Repulse Bay and even on morphine. I had spent seventeen of my nineteen years in Sacramento, and the other two in the Tri Delt house on Warring Street in Berkeley. I had never read Paul or Jane Bowles, let alone met them, and when, some fifteen years later at a friend’s house in Santa Monica Canyon, I did meet Paul Bowles, I was immediately rendered as dumb and awestruck as I had been when I was nineteen and taking English 106A.”
As a fellow English major at U.C. Berkeley, I can relate to Ms. Didion’s plight. I—too— had to navigate the notoriously labyrinthine halls of Dwinelle as a shy, self-conscious girl in my early twenties. As a transfer student from junior college who barely graduated high school and never dreamed of going to a prestigious four-year university, I had to constantly battle the debilitating sense that everyone in my class was somehow more qualified than me. In the stately lecture halls of the Wheeler building, I felt unforgivably less than my bookish classmates who wore oxfords and chinos and had impressive internships at magazines. Like Didion, I never spoke for fear my words would reveal my stupidity. As Didion writes,
“In short I had no past and, every Monday-Wednesday-Friday at noon in Dwinelle Hall, it seemed increasingly clear to me I had no future. I ransacked my closet for clothes in which I might appear invisible to the class, and came up with only a dirty raincoat. I sat in this raincoat and 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. I managed to write only three of the five required stories. I received— only, I think now, because Mr. Schorer, a man of infinite kindness to and acuity about his students, divined intuitively that my failing performance was a function of adolescent paralysis, of a yearning to be good and a fright that I never would be, of terror that any sentence I committed to paper would expose me as not good enough— a course grade of B.”
Paralyzed by fear, Didion didn’t write another story for ten years. For a decade, she lost the battle against her merciless inner censor. The irony, of course, is that— despite her insistence that she wasn’t interesting/intellectual/experienced enough— she would go on to become one of the most vital voices of her generation.