Must Great Artists Act Like Bad People? Joan Didion Had Some Thoughts

crop woman using laptop on sofa at home

Ok, just to be clear, this isn’t a post debating the merits and debits of cancel culture. At all. So, let’s all take a cleansing breath to celebrate that. However, the passing of the peerless Joan Didion got me thinking about what it takes to be a great writer (not that I’m putting myself in the running at all). Didion, with her clean, often spare yet often poetic prose, her cool objectivity that allowed her readers to see with unprecedented clarity, wrote some of the greatest sentences I’ve ever read. That’s a big part of what makes a her deeply memorable writer, in fact a supremely gifted writer, to be sure. But I think, and further, I bet she’d agree, those qualities are necessary but not sufficient to make her the truly great writer she was.

She was unquestionably a GREAT writer. So, then, what is that special quality that separates the very, very good, even the gifted writers, from those who works will be read 50 and even 100 years from now.? Didion felt quite sure – and was happy to talk openly about it – that quality is ruthlessness. She was, with admirable frankness, unambiguous about expressing this idea. She referred to writing as an “act of aggression,” and added, “there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.”

Well, you may be saying, that’s not so bad, I mean, it’s not like she holds a gun to the reader’s head to read her thoughts. I sympathize with that notion. Most readers want authors to challenge or impose themselves with their writing.

But what about the time in the late 60s, while visiting a filthy hellish distortion of a hippie commune in San Francisco, sifting through the putrid aftermath of “Flower Power,” and she happened upon a toddler on LSD? ] She was later asked what her reaction to this sight was. She said she was appalled, that she wanted to call the police. But, after a long embarrassed pause, she added, with more quiet conviction “Let me tell you, it was gold.” Her face in this interview suddenly reveals a bright unapologetic gleam in her eyes. “You live for moments like that,” she flatly declared, “if you’re doing a piece. Good or bad.” You live, she makes plain, for moments like that. A human tragedy and a scene of jaw-dropping child abuse? No doubt. But what an image! But the fact is, she has a point. That moment framed not only one of her greatest essays, but one of the definitive essays of that era.

Let me be clear: I’m not talking about great artists who were jerks more or less all their lives, like Hemingway or Picasso. I’m asking if every writer needs an unabashed thirst for the jugular if they want to write anything within walking distance of “great.” I’m not calling a Joan Didion a monster or anything. That’s what makes this so interesting to me: she wasn’t. She was, by many measures, a very good person. She felt genuine pity and disgust for what that poor child was being subjected to. But any impulse of compassion was usurped by the palpable thrill of what she knew would make an indelible mark in her essay and in the minds of those who read it.

I’m a playwright, mostly, not an essayist. And I’ve only written one play in my life that was vaguely based on my direct experience. And it wasn’t really very good: I was probably too close. I’m also not pretending to in any way on the level of Joan Didion, of course. But the fact is, the cliche about every character in a writer’s works are reflections of the writer’s mind, which necessarily includes her/his feelings and opinions of others, has more merit than I’d like to cop to. I sometimes wonder if the difference ultimately between a wonderfully gifted writers and GREAT writers is more than a willingness to live with their mouths filled with the taste of blood, but craving it.

It’s entirely plausible to me that a truly great writer will – in fact, must -privilege their work over everything else in their lives – including their family. I mean not only in terms of giving them her time and presence, but a willingness, perhaps even an eagerness, to peel back away the psychological pain of those closest to them like a cored apple. Or, as Didion herself expressed with characteristic distance and clarity, “Writers are always selling somebody out.” I kinda see her point. I’m relentless with my characters, not to be cruel to them, but to reveal themselves with as much honesty as possible.

And any true act of honesty has at least a whiff of cruelty to it.

I also think it’s important as a writer to find a part of their characters they can empathize with, no matter what they do or how they behave. And the truth is, although my plays almost exclusively deal with characters and situations I’ve never directly experienced, I can only write about what I know about people, who by definition are comprised largely of my friends, partners, and family. It has long been impossible for me to be with anyone, in any context, without unthinkingly observing their behaviors, attitudes, language, and even – let’s face it, especially – their pain, which I unconsciously (mostly) store like live lobsters in a tank, until I see one I think will do, pluck it squirming, and toss it into the boiling pot until it’s ready foe consumption.

Are most of my characters directly related to the people in my life? Almost always not. But sometimes, there are clear moments (or clear to me) of overlap, and it’s never focused on what’s admirable and dignified about them. Because those things are, from a dramatic perspective, boring. I’ve stolen individual moments and words – too many to count – and although sometimes I’m not conscious of doing so, just as often I am. I try to justify this by thinking the individuals are unlikely to recognize themselves – in fact, it’s fascinating how often people see themselves in characters they having nothing to do with. At least I think they don’t. How can I claim to know?

I quote Didion again: “To believe in the “greater good” is to operate, necessarily, in a certain ethical suspension.” I’d like to think it’s not a prerequisite. Perhaps it isn’t.

But I’m pretty sure it doesn’t exactly hurt.

Published by Jack Canfora

I'm an award winning and losing playwright and screenwriter; I'm a dad of two great kids, an aggressive spoiler of dogs, and hopelessly addicted to baseball and The Beatles. I have no recollection of ever having worn a mullet, yet photos in the 80's say otherwise.

2 thoughts on “Must Great Artists Act Like Bad People? Joan Didion Had Some Thoughts

  1. Jack, Excellent post. I think about this kind of stuff a lot. A quote from Anne Lamott sums up how I feel about this in general: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

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