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Oh, To Be Inarticulate

                                    Camille Dungy


In a recent graduate seminar, my students and I spent an extended period pondering a difficult Joan Didion quote.  The quote was not difficult because it was hard to understand, but because it was and also was not hard to believe.  Didion claims, “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.”  The thing that got us was the idea that Didion considered herself “neurotically inarticulate.”  Our class deemed her one of the most articulate living writers in America. This is a woman who has put into language two unspeakable griefs: the sudden loss of a beloved husband and the death of a child.  Her books and essays have nailed my home state of California again and again and again so that, even when I don’t want to recognize it, I can’t help but recognize my own home through her words.  She has written about keeping a notebook, living with migraines, and moving far away from home with such clarity and accuracy that I frequently find myself using her language as I formulate my own thoughts about such experiences.  And yet, Didion thinks of herself as inarticulate.  That is hard to believe, though I have little trouble believing it.

I submit that Didion writes in such an immensely articulate manner precisely because she perceives herself to be inarticulate.

Didion’s quote ends with a statement about the access that her self-perceived image allows.  She suggests that because she is small and unobtrusive and inarticulate, people are willing to reveal their more secret selves in her presence.  This is part of the quote that is not hard to believe.  These states of being present themselves as less threatening, and in the face of diminished threat people let their guard down.  It is from these unguarded moments that art is generated.  From thence come the stories that we most need to hear.  Not the fabrications of our surface lives, but the muddle of our darkest selves.  It is there, in the face of the darkest reflections, that the reader will gasp, “Oh! My goodness, yes, yes. I see myself in this.  How did you know?”

Didion speaks as a reporter, but this advantage will serve any sort of writer just as well.  And she is speaking in the quote about her smallness and inarticulateness in terms of her relationship to other people, but what is true for others is usually also true for the self.  Just as Didion, or anyone who believes herself to cast a small shadow, is more likely to gain access to other people’s protected lives, the perception can work a similar magic on the writer’s ability to access her own protected life.

I, myself, can be one of those people who “tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests.”  Because I often see myself as inarticulate, I am able to just blunder through, not even considering I’ve got anything to say that will make anyone else pay attention, and in the blundering I make discoveries I can’t help but want to tell the world about and, before I know it, I write something it never occurred to me I would have written and which, had it occurred to me, I might not have written because the revelation will certainly make me more vulnerable in some way, but now it’s out there and nothing’s to be done about it so I might as well let it go, and the next thing I know there are those words, in print, and my mother and aunt and students are looking at me differently because I said that, but I hardly notice because I’m just a small blundering girl in the corner again, scribbling away at some nonsense no one will ever really care about.

What I am trying to say is that believing I have nothing important to say may just be the thing that allows me to be a writer.  The popularity of things I have written when knew I had to write something that someone was waiting for and would do something important with is vastly outweighed by the popularity of things that started with something I just scribbled because something was welling up that needed to be worked through and in the working through I learned how to speak a new language a little, though never as fluently as I would have liked.  In other words, when I perceive myself as an expert I turn out to be less successful than when I understand myself to be a beginner trying her hardest in the face of a difficult new language.

Consider this:  For many people Leonardo da Vinci would rank among the top five artists and thinkers of all time.  Consider those draft books with their explanatory notes that clarified visions of the future it took hundreds of years for our collective genius to achieve.  Consider the staying power of his artistic vision.  Consider the clarity of his voice.  Now consider this:  “I have offended God and mankind because my work didn’t reach the quality it should have.”

Leonardo da Vinci wrote that.  Leonardo da Vinci believed he had offended God and the people because his work wasn’t as good as he knew it could be.  That’s a doozy of a concept.  I keep that quote near my workspace because I need to be reminded that perfection isn’t the game we artists are playing.  A desire for perfection? Perhaps.  The reality that it can ever be achieved?  Nonsense.  If I embrace the fact that I am ever a beginner trying her hardest in the face of a difficult new language, I have a far better shot at making real art.

There is something important about embracing the fact that the products of the creative mind are imperfect, small even.  My class kept returning to the thing about the Didion quote they had the most trouble believing, which was the idea that Didion could perceive herself as inarticulate.  She has written all these books, to great acclaim.  She is clearly not an inarticulate woman.  I tried to tell them that who one is on the page and who one is as a person are not necessarily the same thing.  I think Didion is trying to say that when she talks to people she thinks she is inarticulate.  That is probably not true either, but she thinks it is and that is what is important.  What her self perception does is allow her access into people’s lives.  In the end it doesn’t really matter how others view her, only how she views herself in the eyes of others.  The world might see her as a giant, highly obtrusive, hyper-articulate dame, but if that is not what she believes, it won’t mess with her vision of the small person scribbling into her notebook bits of overheard conversation no one in their right mind would want to have revealed.  It is that small inarticulate soul who makes the writing happen. What is important is that Didion has fundamentally believed such a person exists in her body and that she believes that person has facilitated her becoming the writer she is.

I believe that one of the reasons I write is because I can go back and edit what I say, and what I say usually needs editing.  When I speak, I do not have the luxury of revision, and again and again I am the worse for that reality.  In writing, precisely because perfection is a goal that can never be achieved, I believe in the liberty to revise my statements inexhaustibly.  Writing is a haven for the self-perceived inarticulate lass.  What if I said it this way?  What if I said it that way?  Who will I offend if my work doesn’t reach the quality it should have?  If I write it this way will it reach the quality it ought to reach?  If I write it this way?  What if I write it like so?  Eventually, through all this revision, something I can live with will often emerge.  And if it doesn’t?  That’s what draft folders are for.  The self-perceived inarticulate person has the liberty in the universe of the written word to do the thing we wish we could do in our real lives.  “Oh, I should have said this when he said that,” I think to myself.  In the universe of the written word I can walk right back into that cocktail party and say things the way they ought to have been said.  Now who will I offend?  Good.

It is the saying and saying over and saying over again that teaches us how to control our universe through language.  We really have to make mistakes, which is part of what it means to perceive oneself as inarticulate.  When we understand ourselves to be inarticulate we perceive ourselves to be bound to make mistakes before the word.  To be inarticulate is to be without the ability to express yourself or to enunciate with clarity or to pronounce words, make your meaning clear, be distinctly understood.  To be inarticulate is to be a baby again, with a growing understanding of the world but no language mature enough to describe it to others.

There is a baby in my house right now, and she is, by this definition, inarticulate.  She will point to a circle and say “sear-oh” even if it is really just an “O.”  She will point to a ball of fur and say “gah gah gah,” and we will know what she means and humor her and say, “Yes, love, a cat.  That’s a zero, this is an O, and this is a cat. Cat.”  And she will toddle off and find something else to point to and she will say what she wants to say in the way she is able to say it and we will hear her or we won’t and we will reward her or we won’t and usually she doesn’t really seem to care either way because she is saying what it is she needs to say.  Though sometimes she points to something and says something and we have no idea what any of it portends, and she grows frustrated and we grow frustrated and she either gives up or persists until she makes her meaning clear.  Most of the time my daughter is likely not consciously thinking, “Gosh, I wish I could articulate myself more clearly,” though sometimes I think she is thinking just that.  In those times, when she works and works and works at revising what she is saying and how, we sometimes come to understand her.  She is doing the same thing her writer mother does, working to be as precise as possible in the face of a knowledge of her own failure to make herself clear.  Frustration in light of self-perceived inarticulateness drives a certain sort of spirit to grow more articulate.  Failure fosters success.

When I perceive myself as an expert I turn out to be less successful than when I understand myself to be a beginner trying her hardest in the face of a difficult new language.

When I hear myself saying, “I have nothing to write” or “I have no idea how to write this,” that is often when the writing is about to take a turn for the best.  This is not difficult to grasp because it is hard to understand, but because it is and also is not hard to believe.  As it should be and should not be hard to believe.  I must become inarticulate or I will never be a good writer. I must enter a space of profound inarticulateness or I will never have access to the unspoken truths of the world that make writing matter the most.  I have to believe that I am powerless in the face of all that must be said just as I have to believe I might one day be able to say what it is I need to be able to say.  The concept is hard to articulate, even as it is so profoundly easy to say.


With thanks to my nine gates:  Ariel, Hollie, Justin, Mariama, Matthew, Rod, Safiya, Shobha, and Sean.


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