Most of us have clear ideas about how our dreams should unfold. If we want to be movie stars, for example, we imagine our breakthrough moment will be an Academy Award or a critically-acclaimed starring role. We dream our big break will manifest in a very specific way: a major director will notice us while we’re waiting tables; after a single audition, we’ll land our ideal part. We imagine we’ll be “discovered” in some romantic fashion like Lana Turner, casually sipping a coke at a malt shop. Our initiation into Tinseltown will be the legendary stuff of Hollywood lore.
But sometimes our “big break,” doesn’t seem big at all. This, we think, wasn’t how it was supposed to go! We were supposed to be “serious” actors— not amateurs in a 30 second McDonald’s commercial!
If we’re about to pass up an opportunity because it isn’t as glitzy or glamorous as our fantasies, because we think it’s a roundabout detour on what should be a straight and narrow path to our destiny, essayist and journalist Joan Didion would say one thing: don’t.
Didion understood that dreams don’t always come true the way we hoped. After graduating from U.C. Berkeley in 1956, she moved to New York City to become a writer. Her first gig was writing merchandising copy for Vogue. Though Vogue is certainly a prestigious publication, Didion didn’t exactly imagine her “dream job” would involve writing compact 1-line captions for patent leather pumps. Another writer might have dismissed this type of “writing” as frivolous. But Didion saw fashion writing as a way to perfect her craft and polish her prose. In her landmark 1978 essay “Telling Stories,” one of many characteristically clear-eyed pieces from Let Me Tell You What I Mean, Didion realizes that her time at Vogue played a formative role in shaping the writer she’d become:
“It is easy to make light of this kind of ‘writing,’ and I mention it specifically because I do not make light of it at all: it was at Vogue that I learned a kind of ease with words, a way of regarding words not as mirrors of my own inadequacy but as tools, toy 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. At Vogue one learned fast, or 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, and other ravishments.”) We learned as reflex the grammatical tricks we had learned only as marginal corrections in school (“there were 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 an eye), learned to scan 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 1950s, not unlike training with the Rockettes.”
It was at Vogue that Didion developed her distinctive style and terse, tough-minded prose. Lesson? We never know how the seeds of our dreams will blossom and grow. For more from this stellar sentence stylist, read Ms. Didion on writing as a process of discovery and the pains & perils of self-doubt.