Suggested Reading Assignments:
Writing and storytelling as a means of exploring trauma and recovery is not a new concept. Psychologist James Pennebaker piloted the research on expressive writing’s ability to assist in the recovery from trauma in the 1980s. Pennebaker notes that in “the mid-1980s investigators started to notice that [emotional] upheavals that were kept secret were more likely to result in health problems [such as PTSD] than those that could be spoken about more openly” (Pennebaker and Chung 3). Joan Didion explains in her essay, Why I Write: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means” (Let Me Tell You What I Mean 49). While this course does not deny writing’s ability to act as a therapeutic resource, it seeks to further expand on how rhetorical strategies can be lenses through which trauma is analyzed. It is, in fact, studies on the relationship between trauma and written disclosure that underscore the need to analyze trauma narratives in our contemporary moment. The pandemic offers a unique opportunity to examine the ideal conditions for exploring trauma through writing. Pennebaker acknowledges in his 1980 study that there are many unknowns worth considering when thinking about the practice of written disclosure as it relates to trauma. One of these unknowns is the optimal timeline for trauma disclosure. Pennebaker suggests that while there is no concrete evidence to support a precise understanding of when disclosure should occur to promote optimal therapeutic outcomes, he does encourage the delay of expressive writing “until at least 1-2 months after [a traumatic] upheaval or until…[someone] is thinking ‘too much’ about the event. Obsessing and ruminating about a trauma a few weeks after it occurred is probably not [enough]. Thinking about it at the same rate six months later might, in fact, signal that expressive writing might be beneficial” (Pennebaker and Chung 11).
At the beginning of The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, Didion notes a prolonged distance between the time the initial trauma occurred and when her writing began. She waited until “the afternoon of October 4, 2004” (Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking 6) to write after John’s death. She previously had attempted to write about events in January 2004 – a few days, maybe weeks after the event – before abruptly saving the document after only a few lines: “Life changes fast./Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. The question of self-pity,” (Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking 3). Didion waited “Nine months and five days” before she was ready to write about the loss of her husband. In her daughter’s case, she is less explicit about how long it took to begin documenting her experience. However, the reader assumes that the date might be “July 26, 2010” (Didion, Blue Nights 5), nearly five years after Quintana’s death. Didion directly addresses Pennebaker’s question surrounding optimal disclosure time frames. Her work reveals how writing about trauma is aided by an ability to stop and think deeply about what one wishes to say. In this respect, Didion reveals one way she writes about her experience that allowed her story to have a more profound connection with others.
Moreover, even Pennebaker acknowledges that many questions remain about how best to write about trauma and emotion. It is difficult to conceptualize how one can accurately capture the reality of emotion. Pennebaker explains:
In theory, one could argue that the ideal way to talk about an emotional event is to employ language in theform of moderate representation. The moderate representation view is that the most efficient way toprocess an event is to use as few words as possible that adequately capture the entire emotional experience.The event, then, would be summarized in a relatively tight way that would allow for later leveling andsharpening. Alternatively, the overrepresentation view would argue that representing the event in detailedlinguistic form would lessen the possibility for reappraisal or assimilation into broader knowledge structures and identity. (Pennebaker and Chung 17)
There is no consensus on whether one approach to writing about emotion is better. The only concrete conclusion that Pennebaker arrives at is that “it is critical for [an individual] to create and come to terms with a story to explain and understand behavioral or mental problems and their history….A story, then, is a type of knowledge. Further, a narrative that provides knowledge must label and organize the emotional effects of an experience as well as the experience itself” (Pennebaker and Chung 20).
Didion’s linguistic signature is found in her ability to express a feeling in the most straightforward manner possible. This can, at times, result in an odd, detached tone. This tone can be found in lines such as the following line from her 1969 essay “In the Islands”: “I am sitting in a high-ceilinged room in the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu watching the long translucent curtains billow in the trade wind and trying to put my life back together” (Didion, The White Album 133). She is curt while piecing her life together as she and her husband are on the brink of divorce, simply stating the reality of the current moment. Didion aligns with moderate language use to convey her emotional response and experience. Examining further the rhetorical successes of this moderate approach reveals how Didion can universalize her trauma experience for her readers without focusing on individualized therapeutic results.
Both Didion’s memoirs take a curt approach to introduce trauma to the reader – a stylistic choice that one might argue opens the narrative up to a universal understanding of individualized experience. Didion opens her first memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking with the following lines: “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner, and life as you know it ends. The question of self-pity” (3). She explains that these words were the first she wrote a few days after her husband, John, passed away suddenly. She hones in on the word ordinary, detailing how it was, in fact, the ordinary nature of events leading up to his death that prevented her “from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it” (Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking 4). Didion recognizes that this feeling of everything being ordinary and then suddenly not is a common train of thought for those who experience trauma – citing examples of widespread traumatic events such as Pearl Harbor and 9/11 as her evidence. Note here that Didion still has not mentioned the circumstances of her husband’s death, but instead opens her narrative with an anecdote that goes beyond herself and individualized experience to include others. Perhaps this was done as a means of seeking external connection. Or perhaps – and this is equally as plausible – Didion is seeking here to invite the reader into a mindset only understood when explained in the context of a larger audience. It is after this brief two-page anecdote that Didion finally describes the events of December 30th, 2004, beginning to tell her story only after injecting her readers with a profound sense of emotional investment and understanding. It is this feeling that carries us through each of her sentences and stories, a feeling that would arguably be lost without her carefully constructed introduction.
Didion’s second memoir, Blue Nights, follows a similar – yet less direct – introductory structure. She writes:
In certain latitudes there comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long and blue. This period of the blue nights does not occur in subtropical California, where I lived for much of the time I will be talking about here and where the end of daylight is fast and lost in the blaze of the dropping sun, but it does occur in New York, where I now live. You notice it first as April ends and May begins, a change in the season, not exactly a warming—in fact not at all a warming—yet suddenly summer seems near, a possibility, even a promise. You pass a window, you walk to Central Park, you find yourself swimming in the color blue: the actual light is blue, and over the course of an hour or so this blue deepens, becomes more intense even as it darkens and fades…The French called this time of day “l’heure bleue.” To the English it was “the gloaming.” The very word “gloaming” reverberates, echoes— the gloaming, the glimmer, the glitter, the glisten, the glamour—carrying in its consonants the images of houses shuttering, gardens darkening, grass-lined rivers slipping through the shadows. During the blue nights you think the end of day will never come. As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone. This book is called “Blue Nights” because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness. Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning, (Didion, Blue Nights 3-4)
While we will come to learn this book reflects on the death of her daughter, there is no mention of this death in Didion’s introductory paragraph. Instead, she focuses on abstraction through the blue nights. This abstract thought works – in a fashion similar to her introduction in The Year of Magical Thinking – to clearly illustrate for the reader a state of mind. Doing so provides a certain depth to the chapters and stories that follow, with each underscored by an understanding that the implications of trauma do not start and end with a singular event. Instead, the fading of brightness as a result of trauma and grief is something we must reckon with slowly and over time.
Didion takes special care to introduce her traumatic experiences to her reader in such a way that sets the tone for the rest of the narrative. Promoting emotional investment in her story from the get-go not only crafts a universal understanding of experience but encourages a profound connection between the reader and writer. In week 3, you will learn more about Didion as an individual, writer, and storyteller in an effort to explore the ways contextualizing an author assists in interpreting their style.
Didion, Joan. Blue Nights. Vintage International, 2012.
—. Let Me Tell You What I Mean. Vintage International, 2021.
—-. The White Album. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979.
—. The Year of Magical Thinking. Vintage International, 2007.
Pennebaker, J. W., & Chung, C. K. “Expressive writing: Connections to physical and
mental health.” The Oxford handbook of health psychology, 2011, pp. 1–31, https://c3po.media.mit.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/45/2016/01/PennebakerChung_FriedmanChapter.pdf.
Suggested Writing Assignments:
- Weekly Reading Reflection – Pick an excerpt from a reading from this week – 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 – 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.
- Oh, bother! No topics were found here.
- You must be logged in to create new topics.