A few weeks before her husband, John Dunne, died unexpectedly, Joan Didion answered the Proust Questionnaire in Vanity Fair.
The Proust Questionnaire, as is explained in the link above, is the original template for every crappy Cosmopolitan quiz of questionable validity you’ve ever taken.
If you like taking quizzes to find out what mythical creature or type of salad dressing you are, you’re going to like the Proust Questionnaire.
I mean, it’s not going to tell you anything about yourself explicitly. But it’s going to ask you to think about yourself, and you’re going to learn something about yourself by doing it. It’s the same thing that happens when you write narrative nonfiction. Done well – done properly – narrative nonfiction (personal essay, memoir, columns, etc.) tell the world something about itself by illustrating a lesson through personal experience.
Writing about my husband’s arrest doesn’t just help me process it. It helps other people understand something about wives of pedophiles, children of pedophiles, maybe the issue of pedophilia itself, that it wouldn’t have known before. Narcissism, though it’s a basic human compulsion, has no place in polished narrative nonfiction. Through the process of crafting a literary piece of narrative nonfiction, personal experience is transformed from a flashlight to a street lamp. It is transformed from a subjective experience to a universal insight.
Even if you’d rather stick with Cosmo quizzes that reveal your hidden inner Spice Girl (I’m from the ’90’s…my apologies), you may enjoy reading celebrity answers to the questionnaire. Vanity Fair has been publishing them on their back page since 1993.
I’m a little obsessed with Saint Joan (Didion) right now, and through the course of researching her primary source material on the craft of narrative nonfiction I’ve come across numerous interviews. This one, though, taught me about much more than Didion herself.
I never knew that the Proust Questionnaire existed.
So now I have to answer it.
I’m going to answer the same questions that Joan answered. Maybe in the future I’ll compare my answers with other celebrites I like.
Official disclaimer: I do not think my answers are as interesting or as important as theirs, per se. I just also don’t think that they’re necessarily not, either. I don’t think anyone’s aren’t.
Double negatives are fun.
I encourage all of you to answer the questions for yourself. And, if you’re feeling froggy, share some of your answers here!
It’ll be like a meet and greet. Without all the icky physical social interactions typically involved in such an anxiety-provoking affair.
- What is your greatest fear?
Not knowing. I dislike not knowing something. If I hear of something and don’t know about it, I immediately go into research mode. To develop that thought, then, I routinely worry about dystopian futures. Faranheit 451 or The Handmaid’s Tale, for instance, deeply unsettle me. I really, really get antsy when I consider how bad off we’d all be without access to information, the ability to find things out. So I suppose my greatest fear is losing that access to whatever information I could ever possibly want. In this day and age, ignorance is not excusable. As long as libraries exist, every single person has access to knowledge. Ignorance is a choice, and I find ignorant people distasteful.
2. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Anxiety. While I’m working hard on the issue, learning how to arrest anxiety before I venture too far down its path, and learning how to evaluate subjective beliefs through the lens of objective reality – learning how to discern objective reality from my cognitively biased impression of it – anxiety remains my default setting, and the baseline emotional setting I inhabit most often. I envy greatly those people who do not struggle with it.
3. What is your favorite journey?
I used to love the daily commute to Clarion during my undergraduate program. It was around a 1 to a 1 1/2 hour drive, much of which was through the Allegheny National Forest before the sun came up. For one semester, a huge eagle flew along with me nearly every morning, from about the middle of Route 666 to the Blue Jay Bridge. When I turned left to head up the hill and into Forest County he carried on straight, following the Tionesta toward its confluence with Minister Creek and the village of Endeavor beyond.
4. On what occasion do you lie?
When it presents a likely possibility of escaping embarassment. To which I appear to be deathly allergic.
5. What do you dislike most about your appearance?
My weight. But I could weigh 90 pounds and still not feel thin enough, so. I try to just ignore it.
6. Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“Literally.” I’m guilty of egregious overuse of the world “literally.” And “amazeballs.” I’m also guilty of hashtagging thesis statements.
7. When and where were you happiest?
Mohawk Avenue, in the farmhouse where I grew up, or more accurately reading away the summer days in the corn crib out back or on the tree-growing rock at the top of the pasture. Also, on the back of a horse all throughout the woods of Scandia and beyond.
8. What talent would you most like to have?
The uncanny ability to give zero shits.
9. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I would like myself more. And that answer basically proves my point.
10. What is your most treasured possession?
My brain, even though it appears to be attempting to kill me on a daily, moment-to-moment basis.
11. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Needing to retreat into solitude to heal from the overstimulation of (a) parenting, (b) social interaction, or (c) both and not being able to.
12. Where would you like to live?
Anywhere temperate, with zero neighbors for one mile so so, and on the edge of water. Lake. Ocean. Stream. Creek. Pond. Whatever. I’m not picky.
13. What is your favorite occupation?
It is not lost on me one bit how very lucky I am to be able to say the one that I’m doing right now. Being able to exchange words for money is my ideal situation. The only way to make it better would be a contract to sell large quantities of words all at once to a large publisher of important manuscripts.
14. What is your most marked characteristic?
My sarcasm, probably. It can be a bit strong if you’ve not met me before. Even some people who know me well still need to check whether it’s activated or I’m just being a bitch.
15. Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
I mean. This changes from moment to moment, and it depends on the context in which you’re asking. Overall, in general, I’d say probably Scout Finch in “Go Set a Watchman,” but also in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
What about you?
Examining yourself is good for you. It will make you more authentic, and it will make you more aware of who you want people to see you as. Which, in turn, makes you more likely to present that person to people.
So what are your answers? Riddle me this.