On Didion and the “Selling Out” Mantra

June 4, 2012 § 5 Comments

A guest blog post from Alexis Paige:

“My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.

– Joan Didion in the preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem

On the first day of my creative writing class last fall, I asked my students to bring in a writing mantra. I like to trot out my shrill inner headmistress early on, so I told them they were to affix said mantra onto a notebook, “NOT A JOURNAL!” (see Didion’s own distinction).  I shared the above quote, raising my head after with a broad smile, but to my surprise the students looked stricken. I had expected that I would smile upon them beatifically and they would nod in spiritual communion with the sentences, and we would all just bask. But the spell was broken before it was cast, and I began the peculiar tap dance of a teacher trying, and failing, to connect. On a day when I should have inspired trust, I had done the opposite, even leveled a perceivable threat—I might sell them out one day. No one was safe; everyone was just material.

I argued that Didion’s quote didn’t give writers carte blanche for revenge or carelessness, yet the students didn’t buy it. “Selling somebody out” was something you did if you were a punk.  I considered reciting the words of Inigo Montoya to Vizzini in The Princess Bride: “I do not think it means what you think it means,” but the damage was done, and a dated pop culture reference would not undo it. I doubted my own objectivity then; the words had been with me for so long that I seemed lost in my own translation. I first read Slouching Towards Bethlehem sixteen years earlier, while at a campus bus stop in a yellow Paddington Bear hat; I read the book because M. Mark Moskowitz gave it to me (in what I misinterpreted as a romantic gesture), and because I was avoiding Dante.

Initially, I invoked the quote as permission to write bad spoken word poetry and feminist rants and to jettison the people-pleasing that plagued me.  And a few years later, as a reporter myself at a small Maine newspaper, the mantra helped me fake chutzpah to make phone calls and to march up to duffers at selectmen meetings.  I covered town meetings mostly, and lobster festivals, but even the small stories required confidence I did not possess.

Later still the words helped me rationalize writing as astute voyeurism, but since class last fall my mantra seems different to me. Recently, I had occasion to use an insult in a piece, and I did use it—not with particular conviction, or virtue, or even malice. I used it because my husband said it and I could not think of a better word, and as a result I sold someone out. Yes, the choice constituted a kind of loyalty to my husband, but it was loyalty to the story that prevailed. It seems that I have had it all backwards: the admonition is not for the reader; it is the writer who must remember to watch out.

Alexis Paige’s essays have appeared in Seven Days, Ragazine, and Prison Legal News, and she was twice named a top-ten finalist of Glamour Magazine’s annual essay contest. She received an M.A. in Poetry from San Francisco State University and begins an MFA in Creative Nonfiction this summer. She lives in Central Vermont with her loyal pack.

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