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

By Jack Canfora

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 recent passing of the peerless writer Joan Didion got me to thinking about what it takes to be a great writer (not that I’m putting myself in the running). 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. But that’s 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 were necessary but not sufficient to make her the truly great writer she was. Or perhaps, any writer.

She was unquestionably a GREAT writer. So, then, what is that special quality that separates the 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.

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,” she happened upon a toddler on LSD? When 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, added, “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.” The thing is, she has a point. And the other thing is, that incident fueled 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, like Picasso, for example. I’m asking if there is a need for a killer instinct for artists, specifically writers, if they want to write anything within walking distance of “great.” I’m not calling a Didion a monster or anything like that. That’s what makes it so interesting: 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 of her impulses of compassion are quickly and decisively usurped by the palpable thrill of what she knows will make a pungent and indelible impression in her work.

Now, 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 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 writer and a GREAT writer is not only a willingness to have their mouths taste of blood, but a craving for 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 their family. And by that, I mean not only in terms of giving them time and presence, but a willingness to peel back and suck the marrow of the psychological pain of those closest to them. Or, as Didion 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 my friends, partners, and family. And therefore it’s impossible for me to be with anyone, in any context, without constantly, often 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, rendered harmless with rubber band shackles, until I see one I think will do, pluck it squirming in futile desperation from the tank, and toss them into the boiling pot until they’re ready to use.

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 to do with. At least I think they don’t. How can I claim to be objective about that?

I quote Didion again: “To believe in the “greater good” is to operate, necessarily, in a certain ethical suspension.” I’ve always interpreted that to mean the great artist, the great writer, has the facility – whether cultivated or endemic – to justify the emotional damage they’re willing to inflict – some strangers, others as intimate as far as intimacy permits – as the only currency they have – betrayal – as a minor offering before the altar of ART.

I’d like to think it’s not a prerequisite. Perhaps it isn’t. But I’m pretty sure it doesn’t exactly hurt.

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

  1. ‘Lobsters of Pain’ is gonna be the name of my new punk band. Do I owe you royalties? Yeah: royalties of pain!
    That’ll be painless; a relief, actually. Good points, JAck.

  2. You’re making the case for the writer as volunteer. Hemingway as the ambulance driver. If one can only write what one knows, then one needs to break out of the closed circle to know more. How much did Tom Clancey’s experience as an insurance agent or Stephen King’s experience as a school teacher contribute to what they could produce?

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