What Would Joan Do?: An 8-Week Online Writing Course

Course Description

Our post-pandemic reality is defined in part by an obsession with understanding and analyzing trauma. An increase in trauma memoir sales beginning in 2020 points to a collective desire to explore the nuances of trauma experience and recovery. Since the 1980s, psychological studies have attested to the value of written expression as a tool for trauma recovery. The current societal desire to engage with trauma narratives begs the question: what purpose can this writing serve beyond acting as a resource for individual recovery? Joan Didion, who published two of the most impactful trauma narratives to date, can act as a case study for us to understand the impact of trauma writing, specifically within the writing classroom. Through her lack of sentimentality, Joan Didion highlights how trauma-focused writing is more than simply a means for individualized therapy. Using Didion’s memoirs, this 8-week course asks students to explore the various relations between writing and trauma. Examining Didion’s style, storytelling, and self-presentation complicates the traditional notion of trauma narratives and their role in the writing classroom. 


Course goals:


By the end of this course, you will:


  • Discuss the successes of Didion’s writing in portraying and analyzing traumatic moments and grief;
  • Understand the relationship between writing and trauma as not exclusively therapeutic, realizing the ways it can be read as methodical and rhetorically strategic;
  • Evaluate the rhetorical strategies within Didion’s writing through the act of emulation and articulate your findings in written reflection;
  • Strengthen your abilities to write and read about trauma effectively, informed both by personal and communal understandings of contemporary trauma and trauma response;
  • Write publicly to enter into discourse communities centered on contemporary issues. 
Required Texts: This course requires the purchase of Didion’s two memoirs: The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. All other weekly readings (which include public articles and short stories written by Didion) are free and linked on the week-by-week outline on this document and at the top of each week’s webpage on the WWJD site. 

Assignments: The assignments outlined for this course are as follows. This course is broken up into 4, 2-week modules. Each week, students are encouraged to reflect in writing on the assigned readings. Additionally, one module-specific writing assignment is introduced every other week. All assignments are intended to be posted on the communal forum on the WWJD website. These assignments are deliberately designed to be short, in an effort to encourage students to write in a style similar to Didion (concise and to-the-point). Should students feel inspired to write a longer piece based on a given assignment, they might visit the “Additional Publication Opportunities” tab to consider sharing their writing with a larger audience. The benefits of writing for large public audiences are detailed further in the teaching manifesto.

Weekly Reading Reflection – 

Each week, you will have an assortment of reading, whether it be Didion-centered, writing-centered, or trauma-centered. Pick an excerpt from this reading – a paragraph, a page, a single line – and reflect. Why did you choose this expert? What does it add to your understanding of writing or thinking about writing? How does this excerpt complicate your understanding of Didion’s work? Of course, there is no need to answer all of these questions, but what is required is careful thought about how reading can inform the way that we understand writing and the writing process.

Introducing Trauma (Week 2) – 

Both of Didion’s memoirs open with an introduction to the trauma she has experienced. These introductions do not bring us to the beginning or the end of her trauma experience but rather asks the reader to join her in the abstract thinking that brought comfort to a distressing situation. In 2 to 3 paragraphs, write your introduction to an experience you would like to share. This experience need not be traumatic. Instead, I ask you to focus on how one – like Didion – can succinctly ask their readers to engage in abstract thought as a means of opening a story with depth. In an additional paragraph entitled “Author’s Note,” reflect on the effectiveness of this practice and, specifically, reflect on the effectiveness of these introductions as it relates to exploring the implications of traumatic experience. 

A Life in Short Stories (Week 4) –

Both of Didion’s memoirs are collections of different memories, pasted together in a seemingly non-sensical order to tell two stories – one of a life that was and one of her new reality. In 2 to 3 paragraphs, write across your own past and present storyline. Choose the information you wish to share, the stories you want to tell, and how they all fit together. In an additional paragraph entitled “Author’s Note,” reflect on how writing in this way impacted both your perception of your own story and how you were able to convey it to others. 

Writing Capable of Mental Invasion (Week 6) – 

During week 5, you learned about Didion’s understanding of writing as “an aggressive, even a hostile act.” Moreover, scholars like Zadie Smith point to Didion’s capability for “mental invasion” as a key to analyzing what makes this writing so powerful. Look to Didion’s work in The Year of Magical Thinking or Blue Nights. Identify a moment where Didion’s words invade and write 2 to 3 paragraphs in response to or in conversation with her. If you are responding to her, analyze why her words feel the way they do. What does this accomplish? If you are writing in conversation with her, how can your words perform a mental invasion?

Making Didion’s Magic Trick Your Own (Week 8) –

For your final writing assignment of this course, look to moments of nostalgia in Didion’s work. Write 2 paragraphs telling a story that emulates her style – try your best to bring to life the notion that one can simultaneously be a creature of the past and present. In an additional paragraph entitled “Author’s Note,” reflect on the techniques you used to emulate Didion’s style. What is the significance of writing this way when considering trauma and grief? 


Grading Policy: This online course is intended to be taken at a student’s leisure. However, instructors wishing to emulate this course style and contract might consider the following grading structure to create and encourage a trauma-informed classroom. Further details on trauma-informed instruction can be found in WWJD’s Teaching Manifesto. The following grading policy follows a modified contract grading model. Below you will find five “contracts:”

  • A contract outlining the general expectations for all members of the class, which is intended to be combined with a letter grade contract of your choosing;
  • Three contracts that outline the varying sets of expectations for students dependent on what grade they wish to receive in the course;
  • And an “instructor contract” that outlines how the instructor will handle the classroom environment, evaluate work, and offer feedback on assignments. 

It is up to the student to decide which set of expectations seems most feasible to complete for them. They need not disclose to the instructor which track they have opted to complete or justify their reasoning – this is a personal decision that is important for the students to make on their own as they take ownership of the work they do in this course. On the first day of class, go over and agree to the terms laid out by these contracts, and should the class feel any adjustments need to be made, final changes should be noted on the published syllabus at that time.

To pass this class, you must:
  • Complete the four major writing assignments for this course; 
  • Come to class prepared for discussion, having completed the assigned readings;
  • Be constructively kind when offering feedback to your peers;
  • Have an open mind and contribute to creating a safe, collaborative classroom environment and dynamic.  
If you wish to receive an A in this course, you also agree to the following:
  • Complete all weekly reading reflections;
  • Respond constructively to 3 of your peer’s bi-weekly writing assignments
If you wish to receive a B in this course, you also agree to the following:
  • Complete six weekly reading reflections; 
  • Respond constructively to 2 of your peer’s bi-weekly writing assignments
If you wish to receive a C in this course, you also agree to the following:
  • Complete four weekly reading reflections;
  • Respond constructively to 1 of your peer’s bi-weekly writing assignments
The instructor agrees to:
  • Have an open mind, contribute to, moderate, and assist in creating a safe, kind, and collaborative classroom environment and dynamic;
  • Give each student a grade dependent on the level of work completed and as outlined in the class contract;
  • Offer constructive feedback on all turned-in final written assignments, focusing on the ways a student could modify or edit their writing to make it more successful; 
  • Act as a resource should any questions, issues, or difficulties arise for members of the class

     Course Schedule


What to do before class

Class Lecture Driving Questions


Module 1: What is ‘trauma’?

Week 1 Focus – 

Why trauma? Why now?

·      Read Lexi Pandell’s How trauma became the word of the decade

·      Read Parul Sehgal’s The Case Against the Trauma Plot

·      Read Jessica Bennett’s If Everything s ‘Trauma,’ Is Anything?

·      What are our contemporary understandings of ‘trauma’?

·      How and why are these understandings different from previous ones?

·      Why is this shift notable?

·      How is society addressing and responding to this shift?

Week 2 Focus – 

How do we write about trauma? 

·      Read Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking chapters 1 and 2

·      Read Didion’s Blue Nights chapters 1 through 5

·      Read Annabel Gutterman’s Joan Didion Wrote about Grief like No One Else Could

·      Why do we write about trauma?

·      Why do trauma narratives have a place in the writing classroom? 

·      What are common misconceptions about trauma writing?

·      How does a writer introduce a traumatic experience to their readers? 


Module 2: Who is Joan?

Week 3 Focus –

Joan Didion: A History

·      Read Lili Anolik’s How Joan Didion the Writer Became Joan Didion the Legend

·      Read Sara Davidson’s Exclusive: The Role of Tragedy in Joan Didion’s Life

·      Read Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking chapters 3 through 6

·      Read Didion’s Blue Nights chapters 6 through 15

·      How does contextualizing an author help readers to interpret their style? 

·      Didion is remembered as far more than a writer solely focused on grief. Her style, however, never changes. Should trauma writing be written in the same way as everything else? 

Week 4 Focus – 

Joan Didion: Lifetimes Told in Short Stories

·      Read Zadie Smith’s Joan Didion and the Opposite of Magical Thinking

·      Read Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking chapters 7 through 11

·      Read Didion’s Blue Nights chapters 16 through 20

·      Can these memoirs be considered memoirs?

·      Didion’s Blue Nights is an extreme example of her curt and emotionally restrained writing. What is the effect of this style of writing? Is it appropriate for this subject matter?

·      The Year of Magical Thinking highlights irrational thought and he presence of an unreliable narrator. How can we conceptualize lifetimes and trauma in novel ways?


Module 3: How does Joan do it?

Week 5 Focus – 

Writing as an Aggressive Act

·      Read Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking chapters 12 through 18

·      Read Didion’s Blue Nights chapters 21 through 27

·      What does it mean for writing to be an imposition on another? 

·      Is trauma writing always an imposition on its readers?

·      How does Didion utilize language to universalize experience in The Year of Magical Thinking?

·      What is it about Didion’s style, tone, and self-presentation that makes her an aggressive writer? 

Week 6 Focus – 

What I’m thinking, What I’m looking at, What I see, and What it means


·      Read Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking 18 chapters through 22

·      Read Didion’s Blue Nights chapters 28 through 35

·      What is the impact of certain rhetorical moves Didion makes in Blue Nights? 

·      How do these rhetorical moves demonstrate a process of “figuring out”? (repetition, questioning, dissociation)


Module 4: How can you do it?

Week 7 Focus – 

Keeping on Nodding Terms with Who We used to Be 

·      Read Caitlin Flanagan’s Joan Didion’s Magic Trick

·      Read Sara Davidson’s What Joan Didion Taught Me About Writing

·      Read John Yohe’s Imitation/Emulation in the Writing Process

·     Read Meghan Daum’s The Elitist Allure of Joan Didion

·      How can Didion be used to explore trauma writing as more than an individualized means for therapy?

·      What is there to gain from trauma writing for readers and writers?

·      Where is there power to be found in emulation?

Week 8 Focus – 

Looking for resolution and finding none

·      Read Didion’s On Keeping a Notebook

·      Read Didion’s Why I Write

·      Should we look for resolution within trauma memoirs or narratives? Should we seek to write resolution in trauma narratives? 

·      How can writers tell stories of the past and look with a hopeful eye towards the future?

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