We tell ourselves stories in order to live - Joan Didion

Joan Didion famously wrote in her 1979 book of essays, The White Album: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live…We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” 


Recent history has ignited a widespread appreciation for imposing the narrative line upon disparate images. We live in a time defined by communal trauma and an obsession to understand more deeply traumatic realities. This obsession has led society to appreciate once again the power of stories – the power of the written word – to craft the collective understanding that suffering does not need to be navigated alone. 


In early 2020, trauma narrative sales experienced a dramatic increase. Popular trauma memoirs such as Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking – found themselves atop the bestsellers lists once again. Amid the trials of a global pandemic and what felt like endless cycles of grief that manifested in different forms, readers reached for texts that detailed stories of other forms of trauma. This can be understood precisely as Didion describes above: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” We read the tales of others, comforted by the feeling that trauma is not experienced in a vacuum – that others have lived through it and came out the other end with enough strength to tell the tale. For this reason, the trauma memoir serves as a learning document wherein rhetorical strategy begs to be explored to learn how and why we might write for ourselves and others. 


Welcome to “What Would Joan Do?” a site dedicated to reimagining the trauma memoir’s purpose within the writing classroom. This site houses an online writing course focusing on Didion’s memoirs – The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights – and how these texts might be analyzed within the contemporary writing classroom as informed by trauma studies and modern writing pedagogy. Also, on this site, you will find teaching resources – including a sample syllabus and teaching manifesto – that act as a framework for other instructors looking to teach writing courses centered on trauma and trauma narratives. 


Through her work, Didion offers us a road map to address the complicated reality we currently find ourselves within  one that connects us with others and ourselves through reading and writing the written word. Those who seek to begin on this road toward a newfound understanding of self, society, trauma, and recovery need only ask, “What would Joan do?”

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